Think Like An Education Secretary: Gove and Morgan's 2014 Reading List

Another Christmas Eve, another Education Secretary’s Reading List. Over the first months of the year I kept my usual notes of what Gove might be reading. And then he left us! Nightmare.
Nevertheless, do not fear, the reading list has been revised to account for Ms Morgan, our latest edu-leader. She hasn’t mentioned books all that much in her time in office. She’s been too busy talking about science and maths, but I’ve done my best to glean possible reads from her quiet determination not to say too much about anything.
So, here goes. My guesses for Gove and Morgan’s 2014 Top Reads:

1. Toby Young – How to Lose Friends & Alienate People

Back in 2010, Young was all over Gove like a snake on eggs. But this year, the tables appear to have turned and it seems Gove has been reading Young. The biggest tell was when, in a Newsnight interview, Gove said that outstanding teachers overwhelmingly supported his policies, but suggested that the bad ones didn’t. Within a week, he was removed from post. We can’t be certain the events are linked, but it offended many teachers, and going into a general election having upset about half a million people is not typically a good strategy for winning it.


2. Yong Zhao – Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China has the best (and worst) education system in the world

Watch Parliament with any regularity and you’ll come to believe that schools only teach three subjects: English, Maths and science. This past year, even English dropped from view. You’d also be forgiven for thinking there’s only one country in the world teaching its children anything, and that’s China. Hence, then-schools minister Liz Truss spent the first half of this year banging on about maths and china, sending people to look at maths in china, worrying about maths and china, and praising the implementation of Singapore Maths in schools. (Yes, I know Singapore isn’t China, but shhh…don’t ruin the political narrative about the mystical East). Shuffled off to Environment, Food and Rural affairs it was comforting to see Truss on the stage moaning about Chinese food imports, and arranging another trip.

3. Michael Dobbs – The House of Cards

The fiction book on which the UK and US dramas of the same name are based, tells the sordid tale of a government Chief Whip ruthlessly taking down people’s careers whilst in pursuit of power. If it doesn’t describe Michael Gove, (I’m keeping quiet on this point), it might at least explain why he was suddenly removed and replaced by a person unknown to the public with a brief to calm everyone down.

4. Joseph Siracusa – Diplomacy: A Very Short Introduction

No one ever congratulates a captain for going around a storm, but Morgan has clearly been told to be a steady hand and unless she’s hidden a penchant for rule-breaking thus far, it doesn’t look like she’s about to break rank any time soon. Her ship will be sticking to calm waters. Blair-esque in manner, she has shown a talent for speaking knowledgeably, for listening just enough, and for sticking to her guns and getting what she wants. No doubt these skills were honed during her time in legal practice, but I’ve a sneaky suspicion she’s been genning up on the finer points of political diplomacy also.

5. Carol Dweck – Mindset

Dweck’s idea is simple: children can self-limit their potential if they don’t believe their talents can grow. It’s not a particularly new to most in education. Yet, for some reason, in 2014, Mindset is the new AfL. And Nicky Morgan looks set to continue that trend with her relentless chat about resilience and character development. Look out for INSET training, handbooks and resources pack on offer throughout 2015. But grab them quickly. I predict the backlash will begin before we get to 2016.

6. Graham Allcot – How to be a productivity ninja

One of Morgan’s first moves was to ask teachers for their ideas on reducing workload. Suggestions poured in and by the end of November the Department for Education had 44,000* responses to plough through. These have now been speedily analysed and recommendations are due before the end of January. That turnaround time is even more impressive when one remembers that this year the DfE spent thousands on a tribunal to stop the release of information about free schools on the grounds that having civil servants plough through the paperwork it would produce was “too burdensome”. One can only presume they’ve since picked up some tips from Allco’s book, and that we can expect those free school apps imminently, right?
7. Nick Davies – Hack Attack: How the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch 
Gove worked for the Times. He had meetings with Murdoch while in office. I’m willing to bet he read it after scouring the index for his name. (It’s there p.362-3).
Right, that brings us to a close for another year. It has been emotional, folks, and I suspect it is only going to get worse. Election year is upon us. Hold on to your seats.
And in the meantime, have a great Christmas.
*It’s actually ~20,000 once you take out all the people who didn’t answer anything, but THE NARRATIVE, people, Stop Ruining The Narrative.

Women! Share your numbers! (aka 'The surprising reason why I give women fewer work opportunities')

Two common complaints:

  1. From ‘the public’ – “Women aren’t asked as often as men to sit on panels, speak at events, write expert columns, etc…”
  2. From commissioning editors – “Women are harder to find”

Question is: why are they harder to find?
A weird answer recently hit me in the face.
One morning, I was increasingly exasperated at being unable to find a Conservative activist teacher to write an expert column. I amassed a hit list of five names. I put the women first, for balance, as that week we already had several male writers.
But I couldn’t find a mobile number or email for any of them. Meanwhile the two men had mobile numbers listed on their web pages.
As this was happening, the latest edition of Schools Week (the newspaper I work for) arrived. I flipped through, then recoiled in horror. On the editorial team page someone had printed our mobile numbers. There was mine, right under a pic of my face.
“Mum will not be best pleased” was my first thought. (And began rehearsing how I’d calm her security worries).
Then I thought: This is stupid. Here I am complaining that women don’t put their mobile numbers in public at the same time as I now panic about mine being out there.
Besides what was I worried about? That a random person might call me up and say mean things? That people might figure out how to contact me?
Well, yes. Exactly.
And here appears to lie a genuine if very subtle difference between men and women. In subsequent weeks of discussing this incident I’ve yet to find a woman happy for her mobile number to be strewn around the world. Plenty of men, however, said they’ve never once thought NOT to share it.
Women all said their fears were predicated on something bad happening, and that because they would have given their number out to strangers they would somehow be part-responsible for the ambiguous Bad Thing.
Some men were also uneasy about numbers being public, but largely it was because they wanted a work-life separation. Safety was rarely mentioned. “I was told not to as a kid” and “Bad Thing would be my fault” were never mentioned.
I’ve written before about how much I hate a big deal being made out of gender differences but this one smacked me in the face.
Seems to me, women simply don’t put their contact details out in the world at the same rate as men. Hence they don’t get contacted with opportunities at the same rate either.
Simple, ridiculous and easy to solve, right?
Only, would you recommend I end this blog with my phone number? I thought about it. But it still felt like I was just asking for trouble.

The Jonah Complex: Why We Are Afraid Of Being Brilliant

The ‘lack of wanting to be clever’ problem is something anyone working in classrooms will encounter.
One of the things I learned to ask disaffected students was: what would you have to sacrifice if you suddenly did really well, academically speaking?
This is how the conversation usually went:

  • Me: I’m guessing you don’t really want to get an A because it wouldn’t suit something about yourself, right?
  • Kid: What? No.
  • Me: Really? Only none of the friends I see you with are in the top set, and you seem to like chatting more than working, so… why would you work? If you work won’t you lose your friends and your ability to chat?
  • Kid: Are you trying to, like, reverse-mind me or sumfin?
  • Me; No! [I genuinely wasn’t] I’m just wondering what things you would have to give up to do well at school and if I can see why it might not be worth it.

After the goading I would step back and let the student figure it out for themselves a bit. Sometimes I would lead the way in discussing what’s scary about being even just “a bit more clever” than they currently are.
I was brought to this technique by a little-known theory of Abraham Maslow’s called “The Jonah Complex”. It is first mentioned in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, and explains why humans who want to be brilliant also find the idea terrifying:
Jonah Complex
(The excerpt is taken from The Farther Reaches of Human Nature – a brilliant book which I cannot recommend enough).
Maslow continues by pointing out that if we do the best possible, we (a) are stuck out on our own, because being at the top entails being lonely, and (b) are only able to move down afterwards. How terrifying! How utterly awful! To spend one’s life at the top is to be afraid that at any moment you can tumble. This would be too much for most people to cope with, let alone our hormonally-charged teenage students. Hence, many of them spend their life fighting to stay away from being brilliant, fearing that if they should reach their potential it will only make them lonely and stressed.
As an example of how common this fear is, Maslow would ask his university students: “Who is going to write the next great psychology textbook?” No-one would ever admit to it.
But then he would say something which I think is one of the most important phrases in all of life:

If not you, then who?

I’ve used this phrase a lot with kids. “I’ll never get into Oxford”, they would say. “Well someone has to,” I would respond, “why not you?”. [Same goes for being prime minister, taking a person they fancy to the prom, getting a top mark on coursework….I mean, someone has to. Why not them?].  Of course, we don’t always get what we want. Not everyone can do these things. But Maslow would also tell his students that if they purposely plan to be terrible (or not be prime minister, etc) then they won’t somehow escape misery. That’s not how playing it safe works. Like Jonah, they will run away only to find themselves scooped up and asked to face other challenges. But by taking the path of least resistance they’ll now be less prepared for the challenge and without a shot at achieving their dream. He ends by pointing out that while we cannot avoid unhappiness, we can learn to be less scared of brilliance.
That sounds a bit sappy, I know. But The Jonah Complex is a real thing in our classrooms and I’m not above a bit of cheesy sloganeering if it helps students overcome achievement-fear. So, to that end, I have produced the following meme. Feel free to download and stick on your classroom wall. Stick it on all four of them if you can.
And always remember to ask that kid who is about to give up in despair: “If not you, then who?”

Think Like An Education Secretary: Gove's 2013 Reading List

Michael Gove has been hiding lately. Could it be that he has run out of steam and is looking for another job? Or perhaps he is out back reading a few more books? This time last year he was busy telling the Spectator all about his desire that working-class children read 70+ books a year. In last week’s Education Select Committee, MPs were hard-pressed to get him to answer anything let alone reel out his new favourite classics.
All of which is me teeing up to say that writing this year’s Govian 2013 Reading List has been harder than last. But, never fear! I have mined the archives and I think I know what he’s been carrying around in his bag. Or, at least, pretending to.
Here are my guesses for Gove’s 2013 Top Reads:
1. Daisy Christodoulou – Seven Myths About Education
Mentioned about a million times by Gove in his speeches this year, Christodoulou’s remarkable kindle-only book soared to the top of the education charts as knowledge-buffs fawned over themselves and claimed her as the new Messiah. An in-depth and very well-written piece, Christodoulou’s book put paid to fluffy notions such as the idea that kids can “just Google it” and drew on the lessons of American educationalist, ED Hirsch, to argue for a more precise curriculum in England. As with any new saviour, not everyone was happy. In a post engaging with the content, Debra Kidd – one of the year’s new and most outspoken bloggers – outlined some of her disagreements. However, the book was well-received by some pretty big names, including Dough Lemov and Steven Pinker, and Gove has remained resolutely on the side of Team Daisy. One can expect to see t-shirts appearing next year.
2. Amanda Ripley – The Smartest Kids In The World…And How They Got That Way
Gove used to be big into foreigners. When first taking office, every other sentence involved Sweden, America or Finland. Quickly, the vocabulary shifted to Singapore and Hong Kong (once people pointed out that Finland & America don’t really do exams or accountability). Those earlier countries have now been dumped as this year’s PISA results saw them tumble in the league. The new thing now is bellowing about Estonia, and Poland, AND PLACES THAT LIKES MATH. To keep abreast of this I wonder if Gove has been dipping into Ripley’s latest where, in part-travel writing, part-edu writing, style she takes the reader round these top nations and asks “how did their kids get that smart?” Spoiler: It doesn’t involve academies.

3. Ben Goldacre – Bad Pharma
Ah, The Blob. In March, Gove wrote a bizarre newspaper article calling everyone in educational research “blobby”. Marxist and feminists were particularly derided, and in their place Gove asked that RCTers rise up. (RCTers being those who evangelise about”randomised control trials” –  a way of testing educational ideas similar to the way they are tested in medicine, by randomly metering activities out to kids and measuring who learns most). Gove was led to the idea by Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Pharma”. We know this because Gove said so, and he then asked Goldacre to write a paper explaining how RCTs might work in education (despite Goldacre’s total naivety about schools, and teaching). Reaction was fierce. Some loved the idea. (To be fair, it was a well-written report). Others were more sceptical. But either way it gave Gove great headlines and enabled him to use the phrase “enemies of promise” at least 53 more times. Happy days for him.
4. Doug Lemov – Teach Like A Champion
If our Secretary of State hasn’t read this yet, he ought to. Lemov spent years observing the best teachers and documenting their micro-techniques. Simple things: the phrasing of instructions, the use of hand gestures, how best to give out worksheets. Compared to discussions of academy conversion and teacher pension reform these may seem unimportant, but they’re actually vital to learning. Also, though few have cottoned on to this, Lemov’s book really matters for Gove’s policy of shifting teacher training from universities and into the classroom. To do that, you need to have techniques available that teachers can use for behaviour, for questioning, etc without having to go through a bunch of theory first. Enter Lemov. If you believe that by following his manual you can become a good teacher (my own thoughts on this have changed) then Gove’s policy makes more sense. Do people believe it? Hmmm…
5. Roger Hargreaves – My Complete Collection of Mr Men
Gove loves Mr Men. Honest he does.
And a few books that Gove probably didn’t read this year (buts lots of others raved about)
John Hattie – Visible Learning For Teachers
Hattie’s first book on learning was one of the most quoted in recent years. Having synthesised thousands of pieces of research about teaching techniques, Hattie reduced “what works in learning” to a few digits. Homework? 0.43 – not that useful. Team teaching? 0.06 – don’t bother. Giving quality feedback? 1.13 – DO THIS! But what the original book didn’t say was how to do these things. Cue “Visible Learning for Teachers” which outlines the most effective forms of planning, teaching and assessing. Will Gove care? Probably not, after all, it’s about actual teaching (not his forte), but should the rest of us read it? Absolutely.
Mick Waters – Thinking Allowed
I’m going to admit straight up that I didn’t read this book. (Gasp! Horror! THROW THINGS AT HER!). But everyone keeps telling me I should. Waters is the former head of the Qualifications & Curriculum Authority and led the 2007 Curriculum Reforms. These are the same reforms which Daisy aggressively attacks in her 7 myths book. I’m agnostic. To me, it’s likely the 2007 curriculum wasn’t perfect, but it also wasn’t a disaster. [Really, I taught from it, it was meh]. The reason I avoided this book initially is that I didn’t want it to be the sort of book that spends all its time defending past policy decisions. Whatever else they are, they’re gone. However, I hear that I am wrong.  Not only did the book sell ridiculously well but apparently it is about the future, and lots of new policy ideas. In particular Waters recommends a National Council of Schooling to run the curriculum independent of political parties. (An idea I have some sympathy with). So, it’s a book I should probably read, and arguably so should you.
Ron Berger – An Ethic of Excellence
Finally, in Gove’s last Education Select Committee appearance of the year he repeatedly used the word “excellence”. His team is excellent. The questions asked were excellent. He wanted excellence on toast. But what, exactly, does excellent mean? That’s the question this book gets into, and when it is mentioned by two of your favourite bloggers you know it must be good. Also, it has a cool title. Harry Fletcher-Wood used it to plan ways that his students might improve their writing. Tom Sherringto,n (headguruteacher),  showed how Berger’s idea of students repeating work makes it so much better. Gove has spent several years now tinkering at his policies. He thinks they are excellent. But have they really been crafted as thoughtfully as he reckons? It is worth reading Berger to find out.

The Very Few Thoughts I Have About "Being A Woman Blogger"

XKCD How It Works: Remixed
XKCD How It Works: Remixed
(NB: I don’t think this is how it works, AT ALL)

99% of the time, I forget I am a woman. At least, I think about it no more than I think about my being short, or Northern, or a Leeds Rhino fan. Other people might think about it. And because I’m not completely naive: I’m certain all kinds of subconscious cues affect my behaviour in gender-driven ways. But my main reaction to people mentioning I am female is usually surprise (because I had forgotten), swiftly followed by boredom.

The worst is when people ask me why women don’t blog and tweet about education as prolifically as men*. I don’t know why. Clearly, whatever it is about my gender that allegedly inhibits me from hitting the blogpost ‘publish’ button simply didn’t kick in for me.

When I point this out, people invite conjecture about their pet “no-woman-blogger” theories. Perhaps I think women do more childcare? Or have less time? Or fear self-promotion? Or reject the “aggressive atmosphere” of Twitter? Sometimes they give me a great big list of these theories. Doesn’t matter though, because I still don’t know.

Here, however, is what I do know, and what I would like any wanna-be-female-blogger worried about entering the fray to know: In four years of tweeting and blogging I’ve rarely found the medium to be aggressive, and I can’t think of a single occasion when the issues I encountered were solely down to being female.

Have I provoked the ire of angry commenters? Sure. Have I been picked on unfairly? Yes (it started here but became a debacle). But both were rare occasions and easily defused. Plus more, so much more of the debate I have experienced has been positive, and illuminating, and about ideas and learning, and not at all about me personally. Only once in four years have I blocked someone on twitter due to abuse (& that was a person saying racist things about my students).**

That said, I’m not stupid. I realise my pleasant online existence thus far is part down to fortune. I haven’t done a job that means people hate me a priori (e.g. advising a political party), I don’t hold unorthodox educational or religious views, as a white person I don’t get racist abuse, and because I have no children people don’t call into question my parenting skills. So, I understand, I have blogger advantages that others do not and I don’t know what I would do in those situations, so I can’t really discuss them.

But, given what I DO know, what are my “messages” for would-be “women bloggers”?

Nothing really. I point all new bloggers to the same advice on edu-blogging – it’s here, by @oldandrewuk – and is excellent. But seeing as I keep getting told that women are not blogging because they are afraid of the “aggression” here’s my suggestions for dealing with that particular chestnut (and these tips go for the fellas just as much as the ladies):

1. Model the behaviour you want from people – If you don’t want to receive aggression on Twitter, don’t be aggressive. When someone annoys you, take a second to think “how do I wish this person was behaving?” and then YOU behave that way. Back in February, when I awoke to find the @toryeducation account had written ludicrous tweets about m, I reminded myself that I  want twitter conversations to be curious, interested, helpful and thoughtful. So that was how I responded. In fact, that’s how I try to respond to everyone on Twitter even when I think they’re being a pain in the neck. Like any human, I slip from time to time but I do try hard not to. People comment that this must take a lot of patience. It doesn’t. It just derives from my belief that, with twitter, you will largely get back what you put in. So if in doubt, go for curiosity and helpfulness, even if some other outburst might be more immediately satisfying.

2.. Be pleased with criticism, and use it for good. If people are responding to your blog, it means they read it and have engaged. Well done! In this vast internet world you have written something that made people take to their keyboards. But don’t let the pride ruin you. The next step is vital: listen to their criticisms. In their criticisms are all the clues you need about why your opinion is being rejected and why your solution, or perfect world, doesn’t yet exist. If people attack you personally, rather than arguing your ideas – point it out. “I understand you don’t like the fact that I’m from Widnes, but how does that affect my point about Ofsted/abortion/mars-bars-being-the-best-chocolate?” Alternatively, when the critcism is about your ideas – by goodness, leap on it! – enjoy it, think about it, play it out. And most of all be willing to revise your position if presented with compelling new information. Your aim should always be better understanding and less about being perfectly correct at every turn.

3. Unless you are being paid for blogging, remember that this is not a job,and you do not owe anyone anything – Some people who want to blog get weighed down thinking there are “rules” to obey. They believe that to “be a blogger” you must commit a certain amount of time. Or write with a certain quality. Or have something new to see. All of this is nonsense. If you can write, and you have opinions, you can blog. The fabulous thing about the internet is that it isn’t full and you can stuff your page full of terrible content if you wish. No-one can stop you. And, back to the feminism point, if anyone even mentions that your stuff is boring or not being read because you’re female, then remember…..

4. Don’t accept bullshit arguments about how “being a woman” stops you doing stuff or makes you suck at it  – Maybe being female is uniquely disadvantaging in the blogsphere. Maybe people read my stuff 50% less than if my name were Peter. But unless your gender is changing soon (which mine isn’t) then your only solution is to think “I’m a woman and I’m going to do it anyway”. After all, the internet is a big place and so I will end by saying this again: No-one can stop you from being a blogger other than youAnd if you do get things down on paper you never know who will appreciate that you did.

* Andrew Old wrote a useful piece arguing that there are actually lots of women education bloggers if you go looking for them. So if you want to debate that point, go read his blog. (Also, see comment below).

**I am aware that by writing this I might unleash some people who want to be blocked by me just because I haven’t dealt with abuse so far. Also, because I’ve talked about my being a woman I will have broken some purdah which I have thus far maintained and hence a torrent of insults will suddenly rain upon me making me wish I had never written this post. It’s a SIGH-some thought, and the iro
ny will kill me, but I’ll deal with it if I have to. Curiosity, remember?

Why The Grey Matters

By Kaysha

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in New York meeting people involved in education. The result of what I found is described in my latest LKMCo post here: What If Everything You Thought About Education Was Wrong?
In the piece I describe how watching a prescriptive form of teacher training, plus conversations with charter school and tech advocates got me thinking about my own views. One of the things I kept trying to do when meeting each person was finding information that disconfirmed my usual beliefs.  Humans are adept at psychological tricks that keep proving how right we are, and it is much easier to assimilate ideas into our pre-existing views than it is to disrupt them. However, I had the good fortune at the beginning of my trip to read a book by Samuel J. Freedman called “Letters to a Young Journalist” in which he describes the importance of grey matter – and not just the brain cell variety.
Freedman points out that issues involving humans are often complicated. For example, when covering a story about the rights of immigrants to have their children be taught in a way that keeps their home language alive, Freedman could see their point. On the other hand, he also understood teachers who argued that for every minute a child is not learning in English they were likely to be falling behind in the testing stakes (US tests are always in English) affecting their future education and employment choices. Justice was on the side of the parents, equity on the side of the teachers.
This doesn’t mean we can get away with a “let’s just say everyone is right” approach. As a recent blog by AndrewOld pointed out: at some point in education we have to make actual decisions – will we worry about kids being smarter or being happier? Will we teach generic skills or will we focus on factual knowledge? Even if we say “let’s do both” the finite amount of time that schools have for teaching mean we must prioritise. E.g. If making you memorise spellings for an hour every morning will make you smarter but miserable, do we do it or not?
But what New York did suggest is that it’s worth listening to as many alternative reasons as you can, and listen in a way that attempts to disconfirm your belief. So: even if I think that pushing children to revise for as many hours as possible is hideous, it is still worth genuinely listening to those who do it – to find out why they think like that, to find out the consequences of the situation, to find the evidence that corroborates what they say. After all, it’s unlikely that all the evidence goes against them. Few people are that easily fooled.

Rationalising The Blogging

“Have nothing in your house that you do not believe to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” 
William Morris

Blogging can be fun but exhausting. With upcoming work schedule changes it’s time for me to rationalise. So the plan is less random blogs on this site and instead I will share….

Things I’ll Write Regularly

Monthly Guardian Education column – Third Tuesday of the month, taking a pragmatic look at education policies

LKMCo Education Committee Round-Ups – On issues related to schools/teaching/learning

LKMCo ThinkPieces – New data, policy recommendations, and analysis of reports

#BlogSync – This monthly blogging collective asks teachers to write on an assigned topic, alternating policy themes with pedagogy. Sharing ideas about the classroom is why I started my first ever public blog and this sort of blog venture is what helps us learn more from each other. No doubt (shame!) would have been a lot better with input from others.

Freedom of Information Stories –   Transparency matters – especially in an increasingly fragmented education system that relies on ‘market forces’. Hence, I will continue blogging about FOI updates as they unfold – whether mine, or by others, on Free Schools, or wider issues.

Things I’ll Write Occasionally

When  burning ideas fit elsewhere, or when people commission writing, then you might see me write for (but not solely): The TES, EdaptLabour Teachers. I’ve also got a few ideas for guest blogging on other sites. Finally, my PhD studies are still ongoing so when something is pertinent to those, I will share on here.

New Thing!

Great Edu Secs is now online in embryonic form. This site will chronicle my aim of reading the autobiographies of every Education Secretaries since the 1940s, with blogs/tweets sharing progress. Why? Because it’s no good teachers complaining that politicians don’t understand our profession if we don’t try to understand theirs. Quid pro quo, and all that jazz.

The books are ordered, a stack already haunts my living room, and work began in full force on 9th July. It will continue until….well….the stack is done.


Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?

Just read the marvellous 2011 essay from Mark Edmundson “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?” about the purpose of education, especially a degree. There are many wonderful parts, in particular this on why we should read a variety of writers:

The reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated, or more articulate, or to be someone who, at a cocktail party, is never embarrassed (or who can embarrass others). The best reason to read them is to see if they may know you better than you know yourself. You may find your own suppressed and rejected thoughts flowing back to you with an “alienated majesty.” Reading the great writers, you may have the experience that Longinus associated with the sublime: you feel that you have actually created the text yourself. For somehow your predecessors are more than yourself.

Note that Freud is in that list. Books that lift your heart might not always be the fiction ones. They might not always be the most “classic”, what matters is that they lift you up. It’s so easy to become bogged down in the idea that reading should be for other people – to impress or blend with them – but reading is really about much more than that.
Edmundson also reflects how to be a great learner:

You’ll be the one who pesters his teachers. You’ll ask your history teacher about whether there is a design to our history, whether we’re progressing or declining, or whether, in the words of a fine recent play, The History Boys, history’s “just one f***ing thing after another.” You’ll be the one who challenges your biology teacher about the intellectual conflict between evolution and creationist thinking. You’ll not only question the statistics teacher about what numbers can explain but what they can’t.

And he explains why his father got mad when teenaged-Edmundson said he would likely study law for his degree because  lawyers “make pretty good money, right?”:

My father detonated. (That was not uncommon. My father detonated a lot.) He told me that I was going to go to college only once, and that while I was there I had better study what I wanted. He said that when rich kids went to school, they majored in subjects that interested them, and that my younger brother Philip and I were as good as any rich kids. (We were rich kids minus the money.) Wasn’t I interested in literature? I confessed that I was. Then I had better study literature, unless I had inside information to the effect that reincarnation wasn’t just hype, and I’d be able to attend college thirty or forty times.

There is so much more wisdom in this piece, but I’ll leave it for you to explore and figure out which are the bits that speak back to you the things you’ve always thought but have never been able to say.

Amazing New Books: May

Once a month I get a series of “new book” lists from Publishers. I usually write out a little list of what I want and then I store them up until I have some free time (and/or until the library can get them for me – new books are expensive). Here’s my list for May.
Psychocinematics – Arthur P Shimumura – I’ve written two dissertations in my studies. One was about films, the other about psychology. If Shimumura had gotten this book done a decade earlier I might have written just one dissertation instead. Psychocinematics considers the brain-work involved in film watching and film making. It sounds amazing. A blog about it here makes me want to devour this book immediately. Unfortunately, it’s very expensive.
Improbable Scholars – David Kirp – Union City is one of the poorest areas in New Jersey yet it has been on a ‘turnaround journey’ in the last few years. This book describes new schools, schools that changed their ways, stories of educational administration improvement. But I’m also wary, quite a few bloggers – particularly SchoolFinance101 – have argued NJ is more contrervsial and things haven’t really got better.  BUT – I like considering evidence equally from all sides, and this looks a good way to do that. Also it’s described as a “playbook – not a prayer book – for education reform”. With marketing like that, how can it fail to be great?
Inside the Black Box of Classroom Reform – Larry Cuban – For an English audience this is an unfortunate title. Teachers in England know of “the Black Box” as referring to Williams & Black’s booklet about Assessment for Learning.  Cuban uses the phrase to explain why there have been many many many educatonal reforms yet classrooms have stayed fairly similar (as has inequality, poor standards, etc). Politicians tinker but teachers carry on doing what they do anyway. Cuban explores why, and suggests ways to change. Am intrigued. Want.
The British Constitution (A Very Short Introduction) – I’ve never got over my first Oxford essay. I was given three days to write 2000 words on something about Blair and  the British constitution. It took me two and a half days to figure out we didn’t have a constitution  Or did we? This book would have been a life saver. (Also, yes, the essay was unspeakably awful. I’d have been better served by writing “I don’t know” in capital letters and handing that in).

What Sosis Can Teach About School Ethos

I am currently re-reading Jonathan Haidt’s A Righteous Mind. The book considers why people on opposing sides of the political spectrum fail to see one another’s point, and also why they tend to interpret evidence favourably toward their own views.
An example given on p.293, however, caught my eye with regard to its importance for schools. My particular research interest is new schools – how they are planned, created, sustained, until they become old ones. I was therefore intrigued by this paragraph outlining a thought experiment by Richard Sosis who studied the success, or failure, of nineteenth century communes:

“Let’s assume that every commune was started by a group of twenty-five adults who knew, liked, and trusted one another. In other words, let’s assume that every commune started with a high and equal quantity of social capital on day one. What factors enabled some communes to maintain their social capital and generate high levels of prosocial behavior for decades while others degenerated into discord and distrust within the first year?
“Let’s assume that  each commune started off with a clear list of values and virtues that it printed on posters and displayed throughout the commune. A commune that valued self-expression over conformity and that prized the virtue of tolerance over the virtue of loyalty might be more attractive to outsiders, and this could indeed be an advantage to recruiting new members, but it would have lower moral capital than a commune that valued conformity and loyalty. The stricter commune would be better able to suppress or regulate selfishness, and would therefore be more likely to endure.”

Haidt points out that the Left often dislike the idea that moral capital matters – but it does. Keeping out free riders is important for sustaining a commune, in the same vein keeping a certain behaviour check on staff and students is important for sustaining a school. BUT as Haidt also points out:

While moral capital helps a community function efficiently, the community can use that efficiency to inflict harm on other communities. High moral capital can be obtained within a cult or fascist nation, as long as most people truly accept the prevailing moral matrix.

Hence, schools that keep strong moral order have a good chance of survival. But does that make them morally or psychologically healthy schools? Not necessarily.