Education Bookcast

Education Bookcast is a podcast in which we talk about one education-related book or article per episode.
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Nov 30, 2020

People often talk about how to work better, but it is rare to hear discussion of how to rest better. Take the famous so-called "10,000 hour rule". This is adapted (with some distortion) from the work of K. Anders Ericsson, the late great psychologist of expertise. The nature and volume of practice among top performers in various fields, as described in his work, is widely cited. But the same research contains details of how high performers rest differently. And yet nobody seems to have taken notice.

In Rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang argues that work and rest are not adversaries, but partners. Looking closely at the lives of many great writers, mathematicians, scientists, politicians, and businesspeople, he reveals that although their lives revolved around their work, their days did not. They would have ample leisure every day; they would rarely do more than four hours' work per day; and they often seem to take more naps than other people.

Scientific research on this topic seems thin on the ground. Pang shares what little he found, including a study of physicists in the 1950s showing that those who worked around 15-20 hours per week published more research articles than those who worked 40 or more hours a week. Another startling finding is that scientific Nobel laureates are 20 times as likely to have a hobby of dancing or acting than the scientific population at large, and 9 times more likely to be involved in the visual arts.

Overall, this is a book to make you rethink the commonly assumed view of rest as passive recovery that takes away time from work, rather than an active process that changes the nature and quality of work itself.

Enjoy the episode.

Nov 23, 2020

Having looked into research on first language vocabulary development over two recent episodes, now it's time to get into literacy more generally. What happens in people's minds when they read? And how do they learn to read?

This book breaks down the cognitive elements of the process of reading. Starting from written signs, it describes how these are turned into sounds (via two different mechanisms), and then how those sounds relate to word meanings; these meanings then combine with context and our knowledge of the world to create a picture of what is happening in a given text. On the way, we learn about word segmentation, phonological awareness, orthographic mapping, motivation and attitude, and a range of other important concepts in learning to read.

Daniel Willingham is a cognitive scientist who I've already covered on this podcast for his book Why Don't Students Like School? He spends a lot of time on outreach to explain to teachers (and anybody else) what learning is and how it works. His books are approachable, but also maintain rigour, and stay close to the evidence base of cognitive science. I'm glad to be covering another book of his on the podcast.

Enjoy the episode.

Nov 16, 2020

James Tooley is a specialist in private education. One day, on a work trip to India, he was frustrated that his position seemed to only allow him to help the rich, and not those who were most in need. So he decided to take a walk around the local slum. What did he find?

Private schools. A *lot* of private schools! All affordable, run for and by those living in the slums. As he investigated further, he found that such low-cost private schools abound in the slums and villages of India. Later he went on to Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya, and found exactly the same thing. He even found some in China.

How can it be that there are private schools for the poor? Why aren't they attending the free government schools? Are these places actually any good? What is the government's response?

Governments and NGOs responded with either dismissal or contempt, saying that the schools were insignificant in number and enrollment, or that they were exploiting poor families and providing low-quality education. What James Tooley found was quite different. It was the government schools that were failing, and the people were exercising their free choice to send their children to the private schools, which were significantly better.

The Beautiful Tree documents Tooley's personal adventure through the world of private schools for the poor; his struggles with government bureaucrats, both well-meaning and corrupt; and his encounters with parents, children, and teachers doing what they can for themselves and each other. He explains his research about the economics and pedagogy of these schools, and explores the little-known history of private schooling in India, and how it has affected instruction in places as far away an the UK and South America.

This is the first book about economics of education on the podcast, and as such it is difficult for me to add much commentary or be very critical. But Tooley provides ample evidence (as well as sharing many personal experiences) about the structure of the education sector in developing countries, and writes in a balanced way that makes him seem trustworthy. In future, I intend to get more into economics of education, as I now see it as one of the key elements in coming to understand the nature of education as a whole.

Enjoy the episode.

Nov 9, 2020

This is the second episode in a series on vocabulary and literacy. The first was episode 91 (Vocabulary Development).

Closing the Vocabulary Gap is a slightly longer book on vocabulary than Vocabulary Development was, and peeks into the domain of literacy more generally. In this episode, we will focus on the following questions:

  • What is the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension? (Does learning vocabulary increase your reading comprehension? Or is there no direct connection - maybe smarter people just do better at both?)
  • How many words do people know? And why is this question important?
  • How do people learn words from context?
  • How should you teach vocabulary?

The next part of the series will be focused on learning to read, which builds on knowledge from this book.

Enjoy the episode.

Nov 2, 2020

Mindfulness is a concept originating in Buddhism, but has in recent years spread like wildfire in the UK and elsewhere. Aside from its adoption by enthusiastic members of the general public, it has come into UK schools and even the National Health Service. Yoga and other forms of meditation have also placed themselves firmly in the mainstream. As I myself became interested in these practices, I spent some time looking into the academic research on them. Luckily I found this book - Drs Farias and Wikholm had done my work for me.

Subtitled "Can Meditation Change You?", The Buddha Pill is an investigation into the science behind yoga, mindfulness meditation, and transcendental meditation. Both psychologists of religion and spirituality, the authors have their own extensive and positive experience with meditation.

The first time I read the book, as I was halfway through, I found myself doing a double take. How could people who were so invested in the idea of meditation also spend so much time discussing its limitations and outright negative aspects? The book almost felt like an attack on these practices, although a measured and fair one

Upon second reading, while preparing this episode, I realised that the shock I had experienced was in fact due to my unrealistic (but not uncommon) expectations - that meditation does nothing but good, brings nothing but calm, and is more effective at improving your quality of life than any other activity that you might engage in. Drs Farias and Wikholm merely show their readership the extent to which these practices have been "hyped up" by the underlying assumption of the perfection of exotic Eastern ideas, and a misunderstanding of their philosophical basis and context.

Overall, the message of the book is a "yes, but". Yes, meditation can be beneficial, but it can also be harmful - it can lead to mental disturbances, including, in extreme cases, psychosis, mania, and suicidal ideation. Yes, meditation can be therapeutic, but more "standard" methods tend to work just as well - things like CBT or exercise. And yes, meditation can make you happier, but that's not what it was originally designed or intended for - the original purpose was to destroy your sense of self, to reveal the illusions that permeate your psyche and your life, to better understand yourself through a radical undermining of your ego.

Enjoy the episode.

Oct 29, 2020

In 2018 and 2019 I worked for an education technology start-up in London called Mrs Wordsmith. The company produces materials for developing literacy and augmenting vocabulary among first-language learners of English. While I was there, I had the chance to dig into a lot of research about vocabulary and literacy.

I gradually came over to the view that, in a sense, all learning is the development of literacy. (Or, adding some caveats, all non-mathematical academic learning is the development of literacy.) When we learn a new field, we become "literate" within that field, because previously we would not have understood its literature due to a lack of domain-relevant vocabulary and content knowledge. Just try reading academic papers outside of your domain of expertise.

Vocabulary Development is the first in a series of podcast episodes about literacy. Steven Stahl is one of the big names in this field, and in this short pamphlet he puts across the most important information about vocabulary for teachers.

The book is very short, but I manage to turn it into a very long episode. This is mostly because I have much to comment. I will be working through books on literacy and vocabulary on the podcast, gradually adding layers of information, until we will finally be ready to tackle the most detailed books on the subject.

Enjoy the episode.

Jun 22, 2020

Discovery learning is an approach that I was trying out at around the time I was in the 20's of episode numbers of this podcast. I tried out the idea of Maths Circles, running a few of my own and attending a course about them in Notre Dame University in the United States. I also tried running a Self-Organised Learning Environment or SOLE, modelled on the work of Sugata Mitra, famous for his "hole-in-the-wall" experiments in India.

Since then, I have discovered the reasons why these sorts of approaches don't work, and I've been discussing this recently on the podcast. I also discussed the Sugata Mitra's apparent dishonesty in the episode on Hope in the Wall.

In this episode, we look at the history of the idea of discovery learning. First suggested in the 1960's by Jerome Bruner, it has since gone through several rounds of re-branding and repeated research.

The article in question is called Should There Be a Three Strikes Rule Against Discovery Learning? The Case for Guided Methods of Instruction by Richard Mayer. Specifically, it shows that pure discovery learning methods (where students are mostly left to their own devices) have abundant evidence that they are not as good as guided discovery methods (where the teacher provides feedback and hints during problem solving), though it seems that there is also some evidence that guided discovery methods are better than expository approaches (i.e. explaining everything in detail beforehand).

The defining features of the human mind that seem to be the cause of this are two: the limitations of working memory capacity on the one hand; and the human desire to avoid thinking where possible on the other. Discovery learning appears to overload working memory, whereas expository approaches might result in the students not actually thinking. In a way, it is two sides of the admonition "they need to engage with the material." Discovery learning focuses on engagement at the expense of the material, and expository methods focus on the material often at the expense of engagement, but it appears that guided discovery can avoid both of these traps with greater reliability, at least in some cases.

Enjoy the episode.

Jun 8, 2020

Jared Diamond is a geographer and author of many bestselling books about civilisation, including Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse. In The World Until Yesterday, he combines his scholarship and his personal experiences in the New Guinea highlands to discuss how non-state societies of hunter gatherers and subsistence farmers and herders differ from modern industrialised state societies. In so doing, he sheds a light on the differences between our modern world and the way that humans have lived for the majority of our existence on this planet.

Although the whole book is fascinating, there is only one chapter that is really relevant to the themes of this podcast: the one entitled Bringing Up Children. In it, we can get a much broader perspective on the ways that different societies approach childhood and education than we ever could by comparing industrialised state societies with one another (say, comparing the People's Republic of China to the United Kingdom).

The chapter deals with the following themes: childbirth; infanticide; weaning; birth interval; breastfeeding; infant-adult physical contact; fathers and "allo-parents"; responses to crying infants; physical punishment; child autonomy; multi-age playgroups; and child play and education.

There are two reasons that I wanted to talk about this topic. The first is that I want to understand the range of human societies, cultures, and attitudes as well as possible, to make sure that my own understandings and viewpoints can take a broad perspective and discover and challenge any assumptions I might have rather than myopically studying the same society all the time. I believe that this makes me less likely to be an "accidental extremist" - somebody who holds an extreme viewpoint but doesn't realise it because everybody around me assumes the same as a matter of course, since we belong to the same culture. One potential example of this is the assumption of the need for school itself, as most humans that have ever lived have not spent a single day in school, nor have they ever felt the need to.

The second reason is actually to do with other people's arguments around what is "natural". For example, the unschooling movement, an offshoot of homeschooling where no instruction takes place, is largely based on the idea that copying the way that children have been brought up for hundreds of thousands of years is a better way to do things than to submit to modern assumptions about the necessity of schooling. By understanding something about the societies that inspire this line of thinking, we can both come to appreciate their perspective, and be in a reasonable position to engage with their ideas.

Enjoy the episode.

May 25, 2020

Earlier in the life of this podcast I was experimenting with discovery learning. I was even something of a fan. I tried out "Maths Circles", a form of discovery- and inquiry-based teaching, with students aged 16-18 and 10-11, and even went on a course in the USA to try to learn more about it. My exploits are recorded in previous episodes. I could hardly call them a great success.

Subsequently, I tried to find research on Maths Circles. The Internet didn't bring anything up. Eventually I put that obsession away and focused on other books and research in education and cognitive science.

After much rummaging about the literature reading whatever I thought was interesting, I found this article, or perhaps it found me, and it was difficult for me to face it at first. I was already so strongly bound to my way of thinking that it was too much cognitive dissonance to read this. I had serious confirmation bias. It took me a while before I was brave enough to actually read it and shatter my illusions.

It turns out that this kind of teaching has been shown many times over to be ineffective. My failures with my experiments weren't just because I was doing it wrong, it was because the whole approach is flawed. Evidence has been mounting about this for over half a century, I just didn't know about it.

This was certainly an eye-opener for me. I hope that it inoculates you against something that could waste your time - or convince you to stop doing what you're doing, if you are currently using these inefficient and ineffective methods.

Enjoy the episode.

May 11, 2020

I'm just about to do another episode where I talk about a scientific article on this very topic, criticising the approach. I thought it only fair to see it from the side of the proponents as well.

Unfortunately, this book is something of a disappointment. There are many minor annoyances early on such as inconsistent use of terminology and a lack of back-up to some claims. But there are much greater issues than that.

For one thing, the authors seem to have difficulty defining the concept, and certainly find it hard to do so succinctly. This is not a good sign.

The thing that really strikes me, though, is how the central idea of the book is not very useful at all. It proposes a way in which we can view any lesson or educational experience from various perspectives, by considering aspects of the experience (such as which senses are being used, and how the learner responds emotionally). The trouble is, this only leads to a combinatorical explosion - there are so many possibilities, but which possibilities are good? So many perspectives, but which ones are useful? A real expert focuses on providing the right way of thinking about a situation, not on all the different ways you can view a situation.

Ultimately I find that there is little that is useful here. I still wanted to talk about the book a bit in order to be clear about what my expectations are, and why this book doesn't meet them.

Enjoy the episode.

Apr 27, 2020

The inspiration for this episode is a rather technical tome entitled Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms by David MacKay. It's basically an infromation theory / machine learning textbook. I initially got it because it's known to be a rewarding work for the most nerdy people in the machine learning (a.k.a. "artificial intelligence") world, who want to get down to fundamentals and understand how concepts from the apparently seperate fields of information theory and inference interrelate.

I haven't finished the book, and as of this writing I'm not actually actively reading it. I still wanted to talk about something from it on the podcast though. In the early chapters of the book, MacKay mentions how learning is, in a way, a kind of information compression. This fascinating idea has been circling in my head for months, and so I wanted to comment on it a bit on this podcast.

Enjoy the episode.

Apr 13, 2020

Daniel Willingham is a cognitive scientist who specialises in the study of how people read. In this book, he brings forward nine principles of cognitive science that both have a substantial evidence base and are relevant to teachers. Although he wanted there to be ten, nine is all that he could find that would match those criteria.

He names the chapters after questions that they answer rather than the principles that they expound, as this would pique the readers' interest more and make them more likely to remember the principles (he is a cognitive scientist after all). The questions (and answers, paraphrased) are as follows:

  1. Why don't students like school? (because people are not designed to think, but to not think in most situations)
  2. How can I teach students the skills they need when standardised tests require only facts? (factual knowledge must precede skill)
  3. Why do students remember everything on TV and forget everything I say? (the importance of repetition, emotion, and stories)
  4. Why is it so hard for students to understand abstract ideas? (because we understand things in terms of what we already know, and what we already know is mostly concrete)
  5. Is drilling worth it? (practice is essential)
  6. What's the secret to getting students to think like real mathematicians, scientists, and historians? (don't - experts are fundamentally different from novices)
  7. How should I adjust my teaching for different types of learners? (learning styles are a myth)
  8. How can I help slow learners? (hard work can improve intelligence and beliefs about intelligence matter, but some difference is genetic)
  9. What about my mind? (teaching is a skill like any other)

When I first read the book, there were a number of truths that shattered my pre-existing notions, which was scary but beneficial for me. I hope it helps you as much as it helped me.

Enjoy the episode.

Mar 30, 2020

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a former options trader who noticed that the financial markets were unstable ahead of the crash in 2008, and made a lot of money from shorting the market (betting that it would crash). Since then, he has written a quadrilogy of books on risk and decision-making under uncertainty which he calls the incerto. The books in the series are Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, Antifragile, and the one I cover in this episode, Skin in the Game. At least two of his books - The Black Swan and Antifragile - have now made it as concepts and vocabulary of popular parlance. 

Taleb is a very well-read and insightful author. He follows a philosophy of education in the extremes - a combination of long library visits and street fights, to paraphrase his own description. More accurately, he spent much of his teenage years reading stacks of books at home while bombs went off outside, as he was a civilian during the Lebanese Civil War. His writing has generated a following, and his erudition inspired me years ago to try to read as much as I could - something that ultimately influenced my decision to start this podcast.

Taleb's writing is fiery, to say the least, as he pulls no punches to those who he finds morally abhorrent, which seems to be a large section of the population. His favourite targets are economists and journalists, and in a way that is what Skin in the Game is all about - the moral peril of people who don't take risks.

The reason for covering this book on the podcast is quite self-reflective. If education commentators aren't teachers themselves, if they don't have to test their ideas by actually carrying them out and seeing them succeed or fail, if it doesn't hurt them when they are wrong, then what's to stop them blindly commentating with full confidence, even if they don't know what they're talking about? What's to stop them bullshitting their way to fame and fortune? What's to stop them polluting the idea space with worthless junk to make themselves sound good?

This is exactly the sort of trap that I feel that some commentators may have fallen into - and one that I am in danger of falling into myself. As I enter the first year in almost a decade when I am not teaching in any capacity, might I lose contact with reality? Might I not end up selling snake oil? The danger is real.

So, this episode is largely a moral discussion, as well as a personal reflection. I think we should be aware of the effect that risk profiles have on the incentives of people within a particular domain - in this case, education.

Enjoy the episode.

Mar 16, 2020

SuperMemo is a flashcard and spaced repetition software that has been around since 1991. Its founder, Dr Piotr Wozniak, maintains a blog with many interesting discussions of learning and memory. One that stood out to me was the 20 rules for formulating knowledge, available via this link:

I read the article with an eye to finding fundamental or deep principles of learning, rather than improving the quality of my flashcards. The following rules were the ones that seemed to fit the bill:

  1. Do not learn if you do not understand. (Rule 1)
  2. Learn before you memorise. (Rule 2)
  3. Build upon the basics. (Rule 3)
  4. The minimum information principle. (Rule 4)
  5. Avoid sets and enumerations. (Rules 9 and 10)
  6. Combat inteference. (Rule 11)

I discuss these rules in context of my own experiences and of the theory that I have covered on the podcast.

Enjoy the episode.

Feb 29, 2020

Continuing with our information processing model theme (i.e. seeing the mind as made up of long-term memory and limited working memory), we now have a book on teaching practices that is based on this very model. The title of this book comes from the idea that as teachers, our aim is to make long-lasting, high-quality additions to students' long-term memories.

After an introduction to this model of the mind, Peps McCrea goes on to elucidate 9 principles of memorable teaching:

  1. Manage information (information is always in competition for students' attention)
  2. Streamline communications (consider the way you communicate ideas to maximise clarity and conciseness)
  3. Orient attention
  4. Regulate load (overloaded students can't learn; underloaded students get bored)
  5. Expedite elaboration (ways of making new ideas stick)
  6. Refine structures (going from a vague sense of an idea to a deep understanding)
  7. Stabilise changes (making knowledge last)
  8. Align pedagogies (don't teach badly?)
  9. Embed metacognition

Something that I am quite impressed by, and I mention several times in the episode, is how succinct and clear the author's writing is. It really looks like he has been using the principles in the book to expound the principles in the book (which is a bit of a mind-bending mouthful to say or think). In other words, he takes his own advice.

This is a great book. I recommend it.

Enjoy the episode.

Feb 17, 2020

There one major, well-documented factor that effects what the best kind of instruction is for different people: expertise.

This episode's article is The expertise reversal effect by John Sweller et al. (2003). The effect is so called because certain changes in instructional materials and practices that have repeatedly been found to enhance learning in novices, have actually been found to reduce learning in more advanced students. Hence there is a "reversal" in effectiveness.

The effect can easily be understood by considering the information processing model of the human mind (i.e. the idea of the thinking mind being made up of long-term memory and a limited working memory). Thus, this episode makes up part of a series on the podcast about this model of the mind and its implications.

Enjoy the episode.

Feb 10, 2020

Learning styles are one of the most widely believed psychological ideas known by scientists to be invalid. Over 90% of university students in the USA believe in them, and most adults will gladly share whether they consider themselves to be visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic learners (VAK theory is the leading learning styles theory).

In this episode, we look at six publications showing the problems with learning styles theories. The problems fall into three layers:

  1. The questionnaires for many learning styles theories (i.e. the way in which the learning style of a given person is determined) have problems of validity, meaning that they don't measure anything, or they don't measure what they claim to measure. For example, if everyone answers that they would rather learn a dance by dancing it rather than by watching it or listening to an explanation, then that probably says more about what a good way to teach dancing is, rather than what learning style the individuals have.
  2. The questionnaires also suffer from problems of reliability. This means that when the same person is re-measured, they get a different result, which means that the measurement isn't trustworthy, and therefore means that nothing is being measured.
  3. Those few theories that are shown to be both valid and reliable then have to be tested for whether they actually make a difference to student learning. Is it better to teach visual learners visually, auditory learners auditively, etc.? It turns out that there is no evidence for this in the research in high-quality studies, and in fact there is much evidence to the contrary (that your supposed learning style makes no difference to the way you learn).

Thankfully, the lack of validity of the idea of learning styles simplifies the task of teachers and other educational professionals greatly. You don't have to think about learning styles!

Enjoy the episode.



The articles covered in this episode are the following:

Dembo & Howard (2007). Advice about the use of learning styles: a major myth in education.

Pashler et al. (2017). Learning styles - concepts and evidence.

Willingham et al. (2015). The scientific status of learning styles theories.

Cuevas (2015). Is learning-styles based instruction effective? A comprehensive analysis of recent research in learning styles.

Kirschner (2016). Stop propagating the learning styles myth.

Reiner & Willingham (2010). The Myth of Learning Styles.

Jan 27, 2020

This is a book with a terrible title and wonderful ideas. Isn't there a saying about not judging the quality of a publication's contents by the attractiveness of its external design?

Many famous athletes credit Steve Peters with being essential to their success, including footballer Steven Gerard and rower Sir Chris Hoy. This book summarises his ideas in a way that makes them accessible to everyone.

Our minds are modular. Sometimes we are "at war with ourselves" or we "don't know why we did something". There are different parts inside us that sometimes cooperate and sometimes clash.

Professor Steve Peters goes into a detailed description of the three elements of the psychological mind: the Chimp, the Human, and the Computer. He then goes on to explain their interactions, the ways in which their misbehaviours can cause problems in our everyday lives, and how to deal with it. Understanding these three elements will, for the first time in your life, give you a fully working model of how your mind works (and how the minds of others work), as well as a way of thinking about what to do when things go wrong.

One thing that strikes me about this model is how compatible it is with the information processing model of the mind and cognitive load theory, which are based on splitting the mind into two parts: working memory and long-term memory. It seems as though working memory is approximately the same thing as the Human, long-term memory is the Computer, and the Chimp is the emotional centre, which is not included in the information processing model. (The information processing model seeks to simplify thinking down to just its non-emotional elements.)

Understanding the mind in this way is invaluable to people trying to understand learning. I hope you find this book as insightful as I have.

Enjoy the episode.

Jan 13, 2020

This may be the most important episode on the podcast so far.

When I started out on this journey of coming to understand education, I had a lot of questions. As I started to interrogate my questions further, probing the more fundamental holes in my understanding that lay behind them, I realised that I was missing answers to the most basic questions you could think of: What is education? And what is learning?

I now feel that I have an answer to at least one of these questions. It's a very simple answer. So simple, in fact, that when I first encountered it I felt a mixture of bemusement at its simplicity, and annoyance or even rage at its apparent reductiveness. The definition is as follows:

Learning is additions to long-term memory.

It felt as though all the other aspects of learning that I had been thinking about - skill development, change in self-perception, the change in who a person is and who they say they are, and the experience itself - had been completely washed over and ignored. This made me mad at the "heartless scientists" (my feelings at the time) who were proposing such a definition.

Eventually I realised that this definition is reductive in a "good way". So much in discussions of education ends up bloated with wordiness - finally, this is something succinct. And rather than being reductive in the sense of denying the aspects I mentioned above, it actually incorporates them. It turns out that long-term memory is so much more important than I, or almost anyone else, had previously realised.

In this episode I discuss this idea and some of its implications. In the episodes that follow, I will go into this idea in great depth. There is a lot to say about it, and as I said, it may be the most important idea in education overall.

Enjoy the episode.

Dec 25, 2019

In this episode, I have the great privilege to invite Dr James Comer, the creator of the Comer School Development Program (SDP), onto the show. Dr Comer is the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Centre, and has been since 1976, as well as associate dean at the Yale School of Medicine. His School Development Program has been used in more than 600 schools, and he has been awarded 47 honorary degrees.

I was a bit nervous during the interview, and it shows. I had great respect for Dr Comer even before I spoke to him, as you can see from a brief overview of his bio. I don't get nervous recording episodes on my own anymore, but rarely do I have a chance to interview such a distinguished guest who I truly admire.

During the interview my respect for Dr Comer only grew. Unlike so many people who I have heard speak in the education space, he stuck only to that which he knew about (which is not to say that he doesn't have great knowledge, only that he was willing to admit where he didn't know about something), and he answered questions in a way that demonstrated a connection to reality and a subtlety of understanding that went beyond partisanship. His answers just all seemed so reasonable. I realised that I was talking to somebody very wise.

I learned a lot from speaking to Dr Comer. I hope you do from listening to our conversation.

Enjoy the episode.

Dec 23, 2019

In this part of the two-part episode about Linda Darling-Hammond's book With the Whole Child in Mind, we will look at one of the two case studies mentioned in the book, that of Norman S. Weir Elementary School in New Jersey.

The Comer SDP was implemented there starting in 1997 with the appointment of Ruth Baskerville as the school principal. At this time, the school was described as "characterised by student disaffection with the learning process, frequent fights, and low staff morale in a building that was in disrepair". By the end of the 2003-04 school year, the outlook was very different: 100% of Weir 4th-graders achieved full or advanced proficiency on both maths and language arts exams. (Unfortunately I couldn't find data for 1997, but as a comparison, the equivalent averages for the district and the state were 52.4% and 77.6% respectively.)

As for the school environment, in a school questionnaire, faculty and staff reported the school climate as "relaxed", "very good", and "terrific." Others described the collegiality among staff as "excellent," with "fantastic" relationships where "every student and parent is valued."

This close-up description of a success story gives some sense of what it would be like to be in a school operating the Comer process, and helps to add some concreteness to the otherwise abstract and general description from the previous part of my discussion of this book.

Enjoy the episode.

Dec 18, 2019

Last episode, we saw a meta-analysis of comprehensive school reform (CSR) programmes. The best-performing programmes are Success for All, Direct Instruction, and the Comer School Development Program.

The episode in this book concerns the Comer School Development Program (SDP), covering its philosophy and implementation. The focus of the SDP is on two main themes: improving relationships within the school; and thinking of all the ways in which child development can be fostered at school, known as the six developmental pathways (physical, language, ethical, social, psychological, and cognitive).

The SDP is based on nine elements, split into three groups. There is the "who", which are the teams that are formed to guide the school and make sure all stakeholders are represented; the "what", which describes the operations that make change and solve problems in the school; and the "how", which are principles that govern the school culture and climate as a whole.

The "who" are the School Planning and Management Team (SPMT), the Student Staff Support Team (SSST), and the Parent Team (PT). The "what" are the Comprehensive School Plan, professional development, and assessment & modification. The "how" is consensus, collaboration, and no-fault problem solving. The above nine principles are complex enough for me not to want to describe them in detail in this blurb, but numerous enough for me to want to put them here for reference for those who have already listened to the audio.

I would like to thank Linda Darling-Hammond for contacting me to ask me to cover her book (and alerting me to the existence of the Comer SDP in the process), and for providing me with a free copy of her book for me to read.

Enjoy the episode.

Dec 11, 2019

Comprehensive school reform (CSR) is a name for any set of policies that are simultaneously enacted in (usually a single) school for the purposes of school improvement. There are many different branded types of CSR program, including Core Knowledge, Direct Instruction, Montessori, Roots & Wings, School Development Program, and Success for All.

This article is entitled Comprehensive School Reform and Achievement: A Meta-Analysis by Borman et al. It goes through all of the different types of comprehensive school reform programs that have been studied and identifies which ones are the most effective. Spoiler alert! It's the Comer School Development Program, Direct Instruction, and Success for All. For more details, take a listen.

Enjoy the episode.

Nov 4, 2019

In the past three episodes, we have looked at three great teachers: basketball coach John Wooden, mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante, and primary school teacher Marva Collins. Each has their own domain of expertise (basketball, mathematics, and literature) and age of students (university, high school, and primary school). Are there any ways in which we can generalise about them?

A list of features that tend to make teachers likely to be nominated as "favourite" teachers are given in You Haven't Taught Until They've Learned (the book about John Wooden), and they are mostly true of the above three that we've looked at in detail. Here is the list:

  1. They make learning engaging;
  2. They have a passion for the material;
  3. They have deep subject knowledge;
  4. They are extremely organised;
  5. They are intense;
  6. They know students need to be recognised for even small progress;
  7. They treat everyone with respect;
  8. They are fair;
  9. They believe that all students are natural learners;
  10. They make it implicitly known that they like being with their students;
  11. They place priority on individualised teaching.

There are also some notable absences from this list, such as giving students autonomy, focusing on learning styles, teaching generalisable skills rather than content knowledge, and having a student-centred approach.

I also made my own list of features that they have in common, as follows:

  • They use drills;
  • They focus on fundamentals;
  • They are highly didactic (rather than using e.g. group work or problem-based learning);
  • They hold power/authority, and lead the class;
  • They show warmth/love to their students;
  • They take responsibility for the students' learning;
  • They are very dedicated;
  • Unfortunately, they are poorly paid;
  • They have long-term effects on their students.

Enjoy the episode.

Oct 25, 2019

In this final part of the series on legendary teacher Marva Collins, we look at her educational philosophy, i.e. things that she believed and that impacted her decisions and actions in and around the classroom, but that are hard to perceive directly and that are best understood by listening to what she said rather than looking at what she did. The key points concern the idea of relevance, the impact of progressive education, creativity, and the effect and prevalence of labelling children.

I hope you've drawn as much inspiration and as many lessons from Marva Collins as I have. She was truly an exceptional teacher who forged her own path, shattered limiting expectations, and changed lives.

Enjoy the episode.

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