Part 3 – Books that Made me Think About my Teaching

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A book that begins by asking a deceptively simple question- How does the mind work? Defining mysteries that have ironically evolved into problems by the very faculty of consciousness, sentience and thought he seeks to investigate, Steven Pinker identifies theories from many disciplines synthesised into two main headlines-Computation and Evolution;

1) Human beings are information processors and our brain mechanisms are defined via computational models and algorithmic patterns. Decode and identify the what of such rules, and we can partly better understand how the mind works.

2) Investigate the why of such rules by focusing on key facets of cognition and evolutionary antecedents and we have a unity of purpose and synthesis that refutes Locke’s construct of the mind as tabula rasa.

Pinker manages, for me at least, to make the ‘geeky’ world of artificial intelligence and computational theory accessible and entertaining. This part of the book I found the most enjoyable, and this is popular science that is not ‘pop’ ‘crackle’ and ‘nonsense’. Pinker is a renowned Professor of Psychology yet by asking such questions as “why do we Laugh?” and “why do fools fall in love”, he manages to capture the thoughts of many and the answers of few. Understanding how the mind works may be a question too far, a philosophical thought experiment beyond the capabilities of that which it investigates, but this book is a purposeful, engaging and witty attempt to construct a response. If you enjoyed the Language Instinct, buy this.

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Why Children Don’t like School. Well, some children do like school but the title of this book rather captures the sentiments of popular thought very well. Take a ‘temperature dip’ into what is trending on edu-twitter, and there is no doubt that a better understanding of cognition via a cognitive level of analysis rides high on a wave of popularity. So do both Willingham and this book merit the level of attention that they enjoy? In short, a definite yes. Look through one lens on learning and of course it can be a reductive view, but the view here is clear, informative and links theory, research and practice in an engaging and humorous way.

Asking a series of questions as chapter titles, Willingham weaves a narrative of the mind, brain, memory and learning that is perhaps counter intuitive to ‘education folklore’ at times; these include the less obvious claims that though humans are naturally curious, they are not designed for thinking, that factual knowledge must precede skilled thinking, and don’t expect novices to learn the way experts do.

Accepting that the laboratory features of cognitive experiments may be limited in terms of how the approximate exactly to real life situations (ecological validity) , Willingham nonetheless identifies nine principles that are so crucial to understanding how our minds operate, that “they are as true for the classroom as they are for the laboratory”.

He narrates through humour, research, photos, graphs and attention grabbing, summary boxes. Crucially, he details at the end of each chapter what the classroom implications of these may actually mean for teachers. I also enjoyed the opportunity to read further through the ‘less technical/more technical’ bibliography contained at the end of each chapter, and I have actually followed up a few references from this.

This book may well invite an interesting array of teacher responses; do the messages represent an affront to what I do effectively on a daily basis without having even heard of such a construct as working memory? Can a cognitive scientist possibly help capture the complexity of learning and subsequent methods of improving learning via a cognitive science lens only? Well, for me, this book almost definitely adds to my understanding of how pupils may learn in my class, and how I may embrace this as a teacher.

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How teaching as a profession has embraced a research and evidence based narrative is open to interpretation and to no small measure of bias. What’s perhaps less clear is how teachers have embraced a role as curriculum developers. Does teaching the curriculum enable you to theorise, construct, synthesise, and evaluate what a curriculum should actually look like? How can a top down and bottom up approach complement the development of a curriculum that does not canonise knowledge yet espouses the development of key skills, capacities and dispositions? Using Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence as a case study, this book explores how flexibility and autonomy equates to maintaining national standards. It also draws on contributions from writers that offer international perspectives about curriculum developments.

Written as 12 chapters, this book asks key questions around the possible downgrading of knowledge towards a curriculum with an emphasis on building generic skills and within a constructivist philosophy of learning. Does this neatly tessellate with a purpose of education based primarily on economic considerations and the development of so called non-cognitive skills? And how does this new curriculum approach reconcile with a Youngian approach to developing ‘powerful knowledge’? A focus on subject and discreet knowledge on one level, yet integrated and connected at a higher, conceptual level?

With contributions from an impressive array of professorial talent, including Moira Hulme (University of Glasgow), Kathryn Ecclestone (University of Sheffield) and Ian Menter(University of Oxford), this book is edited by Professor Mark Priestley (University of Stirling) and Professor Gert Biesta, a Professor of Educational Theory & Policy who needs no introduction. Each chapter is superbly well referenced and the language of the book is both engaging and easy to access.

As someone who teaches this new curriculum, I found this book fascinating. Yes, the immediacy of context and familiarity of key terms probably helped, but this book illustrates principles of curriculum development that can hang on the architectural hooks of any curriculum from around the world. And a key message of ubiquity arises; teachers, through appropriate support can be change agents and can make a meaningful contribution to curriculum development- but not merely as individuals and not only because they teach the curriculum. This is perhaps then where the research narrative entwines- space is needed beyond time, access to quality PD is needed beyond schools (HE?) and collaborative dialogue within a protected risk taking culture is a necessity. Otherwise, dataveillance and a ‘CCTV lens’ on attainment figures only distorts a picture of what professionalism can look like.

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