Summer Reading

I recommend four though-provoking books about education and learning. The first two are relatively light reading that anyone with an interest in learning should enjoy. The second two are more aimed at people working in higher education.

The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance – Steve Kotler

This book deals with extreme performance in extreme sports and how a maverick group of informal learners has taken what is possible to level that was once thought impossible. The stories of the extreme sportsmen (skateboarders, skiers, snowboarders, kayakers, climbers and surfers) are entertaining in themselves, but there is science woven through the stories and in particular, a focus on the concept of flow – a mental state that not only motivates, but also facilitates performance beyond what a normal mental state could achieve.

What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers across America – Ted Dintersmith

The second book deals with the state of the US education system and the need for its reinvention. I first came to the US in 1998 at a time when the state of Florida was starting to implement frequent standardized testing across K-12. This troubled me as I had just arrived from Singapore where the government had realized their system of intensive testing was just creating “exam-smart” students, when what they needed to create – for the new industries they were trying to attract – was creative problem solvers. It is ironic that many of the consultants helping them move in a new direction were coming from the US.

It seems from this book that twenty years of “teach to the test” has created great damage, and there is a particularly depressing account in the book of an interaction with a Florida official. The author, Ted Dintersmith, is a successful venture capitalist who has produced an award-winning documentary about education: “Most Likely to Succeed”. The book recounts his fifty-state tour meeting with teachers, students, administrators, parents. As the title suggests, the book is ultimately optimistic and highlights a number of places where grass roots efforts are meeting with success.

Learning Online: What Research Tells Us About Whether, When and How – Barbara Means, Marianne Bakia, Robert Murphy

There is a lot of misinformation about online learning – what it is and its relative effectiveness compared with “traditional learning”. There are lots of serious reviews and studies out there and this book does a good job of distilling the information and clearing up the terminology. In particular, it has a message that I have to continually emphasize:

“a major message of the book is that student outcomes arise from the joint influence of implementation, context, and learner characteristics interacting with technology— not from technology alone.”

How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching – Marie K. Norman, Marsha C. Lovett, Michael W. Bridges, Michele di Pietro, and Susan A. Ambrose

Learning science generates much useful information that is mainly communicated to other learning scientists. This is book is a good attempt to distil the science into seven practical principles that instructors can use in the design and operation of their instruction. Each one is illustrated by a case study that includes a description of practice before and after the implementation of the principal. It is mainly aimed at higher education and this book, or one like it, should probably be given to every new instructor as required reading.