Ten titles for teaching in tenuous times

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I’m Deputy Dean at Escape Studios, a Higher Education institution, part of Pearson College London. Yes, that Pearson. Unlike the parent company, we pride ourselves on being boutique, but with high impact in the specialist worlds of Computer Animation, Games Art and Visual Effects (VFX) degree courses.

Before COVID we often talked about Academic Community at Escape, and shared ideas about teaching through formal peer observation schemes or informal watercooler type chitchat in corridors and cafes. Those connections and serendipitous encounters are hard to replace via the cold light of Zoom or Microsoft Teams pixels on the flat real estate of our screens.

At this time of remote learning teachers and lecturers miss out on each other’s advice and guidance. People may be aware that all our tutors are industry experts in their fields, but that’s only half of it. They also prove themselves to be experts at teaching – finding efficient and inventive ways to help students learn especially regarding the hybrid learning regime we now find ourselves in. Our tutors are not only interested in their subjects, but are also inquisitive and knowledgeable about what works in terms of teaching. Most of the time this expertise is earnt through experience. You can’t learn to be a great teacher from books alone, but after you’ve taught for a while, and in the absence of the normal social intercourse and peer observation within the same room, books can justify and reinforce what you do, and make it even better.

Pedagogy can seem like a dry subject, but in order to keep the conversations going about teaching and research I decided to give a list of my Top 10 favourite books about teaching. I’m no expert, more of an armchair general, but now seems a good time to keep connected to the ever evolving debates, theories and practices surrounding the art and craft of teaching.

Here’s a list of books that I’ve learnt from, in no particular order. Consider this to be my COVID Holiday reading choice:

Learning Theories Simplified by Bob Bates

Don’t know your ZPD from your ABC? Or your Bruner from your Kolb? This book is a great way to find out as it’s a compendium and summary of some of the greatest educational thinkers, arranged thematically. Got me through my FHEA. It’s there so you can get a quick grasp on major theories and their progenitors without reading a lot of research papers or perusing borgesian library shelves. Bates also guides you regarding how the theory might fit into your own classroom environment. Each thinker only takes up a couple of pages, so this is a great launchpad to choose from a huge cavalcade of ideas and then, thanks to a carefully curated mini-bibliography for each, decide how deep down the rabbithole you want to go…

Use it to: Get informed about the range of different educational ideas out there. Don’t use it to: try and impress the kids

Art and Design Pedagogy in Higher Education: Knowledge, Values and Ambiguity in the Creative curriculum by Susan Orr and Alison Shreeve.

I used to go on about ambiguity as an important part of teaching art, but this book gives a rock solid critical and evidence-based underpinning to all the pedagogies we use within creative subjects. Sometimes teaching theory seems to ignore the importance of art and design, and we forget we possess ‘signature pedagogies’ just as inventive and open for discussion and debate as anyone else. Notably, it also introduces the notion of the ‘sticky curriculum’, which in this COVID era of washing your hands all the time seems a guilty pleasure.

Use it to: remind yourselves art, design and creativity are important and just as open to critical scrutiny and insight as other branches of academe. Don’t use it to: impress any politician that STEM isn’t the be-all and end-all. There’s not enough cartoons for that.

Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam

OK, I know this sounds really dry, but assessment after all is crucial to what we do as teachers, and you really need to be mindful of doing it right. Luckily there’s loads of evidence of best practice to help you out. Despite seemingly losing letters from his second name at birth, Dylan Wiliam has written one of the classic texts about assessment and explains the huge impact formative assessment can have for the learner. He follows the research to give us a solid bedrock of evidence recounted in a readable style. This isn’t the dry tome you might expect but a cauldron of strategies and possibilities from a man who must have spent most of his life reading and assimilating research on the subject, so we don’t have to.

Use it to: accelerate your students’ progress in the classroom. Don’t use it to: design a multiple choice quiz for your students utilising ‘learning styles’

Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world by Cal Newport

It’s not a book on teaching per se, but have you met any students recently? They are always distracted. Teaching is useless if you can’t hold their attention. So now, we need to start teaching this stuff about focus and attention too, to get through the curriculum. Of course, we’ve made great leaps in changing teaching practice to account for this but learning to focus without distraction is still a skill we can all do with developing better. Sure, there are lots of other books like this, but the simple four rules distilled from Newport’s popular blog Study Hacks are easily digested by students. The more you can engage in Deep Work, the more time you’ll have for life.

Use it to: focus on finishing this article Don’t use it to: ooh, look, a sparrow

The Agile Learner by James Anderson

Anderson is an Australian pedagogical magpie. He synthesises the work of the infernal triad of Carol Dweck’s Mindset, Art Costa and Bena Kallick’s Habits of Mind and Anders Ericsson’s work on Deliberate Practice and blends them all together into a recipe for student growth. You can consider it a useful gateway to all these other authors, but Anderson also shows he understands the psychology of the student or pupil in the classroom too. Not as well known as his heroes, but Anderson is very accessible. Look out for his book on the Learning Landscape too, especially if you are not used to books about teaching.

Use it to: Get a handle on some really accessible theorists and their ideas Don’t use it to: learn agile or scrum methodologies

How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, Marie K. Norman

For some reason most of these authors bring their middle initials along for the ride, but this book doesn’t need such shows of erudition, it’s the real deal. Everyone who teaches for a while knows that learners don’t always act in their own best interests, and students often display irrational tendencies that mean they sabotage their chances of success. This book uses the emerging ‘science of learning’ to provide answers to knotty questions like ‘What factors motivate students to learn?’, ‘How do students become self-directed learners’, and ‘What kind of practices and feedback enhance learning?’ These battle-hardened teacher/authors explore the evidence and draw from a breadth of disciplines to give practical ways forwards for teachers.

Use it to: learn that sometimes students don’t behave rationally, and we can develop solutions for this. Don’t use it to: say ‘I told you so, you’re all doing it wrong!’ to your students

Learning Futures: education, technology and social change by Keri Facer

In these days of lockdown and just keeping things ticking over, it’s easy to forget we used to dream about changing society through education. This is a very human book- and at 2011 it’s the oldest book on the list, but we need more like it. Although based on threads of debates from Facer’s Futurelab tenure 2007-8, it has stood the test of time in terms of the questions it asks.

We’ve been saying we need to radically change how schools work for decades- and right now the COVID debates about social distancing and online teaching of children bring this into sharp relief. It seems 20 years in to the new century we are still asking “what sort of education do we need to enable all children and communities to flourish throughout the twenty-first century?”

Use it to: reconnect with the idea we can change EVERYTHING if we change education for the better. Don’t use it to: find out how to teach to the test

The Reflective Journal by Barbara Bassot

I personally think we underestimate the power of Reflective Journals to be transformative in student development. If you are new to the idea, this pocket-sized book divided into clear themes is all you’ll need as either student or teacher. It suggests ways to learn from feedback via critical friends, how to process emotions and feelings, and a whole array of perspectives. It also supplies insights into Kolb’s (it’s that man again) Experiential Cycle, Argyris and Schön’s Double Loop Learning and Senge’s Personal Mastery.

Use it to: increase your student’s metacognition abilities and personal growth. Don’t use it to: wedge doors or windows open, it’s tiny.

How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and what they mean in practice by Paul A. Kirschner and Carl Hendrick

If like me you find it hard to access important research in education because of paywalls and lack of access to online libraries whilst being expected to ‘do teaching research’ then this book is a godsend. It explores some of the rock stars in the fields of educational and cognitive psychology. Kirschner and Hendrick introduce and carefully outline 28 key works and what their implications might be, and how to use them in your teaching. They even suggest where you can go next to find out more about each one. Even the layout, with fantastic pictures from educationalist and graphic artist Oliver Caviglioli seems designed to appeal psychologically.

Use it to: engage with and understand contemporary educational research. Don’t use it to: look for the number of the Kolb fan club.

Teaching Complex Ideas: how to translate your expertise into great instruction by Arnold Wentzel

First, a confession- I haven’t read it all the way through yet, but it’s in here because Wentzel, a Professor in Innovation Methodology Management and Research Writing (and who wouldn’t want that title on their Linkedin profile?) has a great way of making points visually through diagrams which for us arty types are particularly useful. This book is full of insights to enable teachers to communicate their expertise better. As we know taking complex topics and structuring your teaching to accommodate the learner is challenging, but this book is a manual for creating great teaching.

Use it to: teach complex ideas. Don’t use it to: coast and try to bore your students to death.

I could go on, and I feel particularly guilty to miss out Diane Laurillard’s masterpiece “Rethinking University Teaching”, but for some reason 11 books seems odd, so I’m sticking to ten. Now, I’d hate anyone thinking these books should be compulsory reading for anyone, nor do I think teachers who steer clear of this stuff are somehow deficient, but for me these books repay the attention. They are like Haynes Car Manuals for teaching. Maybe as summer continues, and lockdown recedes, we’ll all be able to put a lot more of this research into action.

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