Head of School Bookshelf: The Innovators Edition

On October 17, 2014, we are launching the Andover Institute at Phillips Academy.  The Institute will be a hub for innovation at PA, where our students, faculty, and others come together to explore new ideas in teaching and learning at the secondary school level.  The idea is to have a “Bell Labs” here at Andover that will help improve learning on our campus and beyond.  Congratulations to Caroline Nolan, Trish Russell, Eric Roland, and all those who have worked very hard to prepare this new initiative.

Inspired by this upcoming launch, I devote this fall’s Head of School Bookshelf to recent books on innovation and its application to how we learn.  As with previous versions of this list, it’s not meant to be exhaustive, but instead a series of pointers to books I’ve read recently and especially enjoyed.  (On campus, for faculty at PA, I make a stack of copies of each book available outside my office; also, we partner with our friends at the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library to make multiple copies available to everyone in the community.  As ever, I encourage trips to your local independent bookstore to buy copies, too!)

We revere innovation.  And today, there’s great promise for innovations in teaching and learning.  But do we really know how it comes about?  These five authors take a crack at explaining how innovation works, from various angles.  Three of the books are about innovation, fairly broadly conceived (Isaacson, Gertner, and Shenk).  The other two are focused on learning and how the brain works (Carey and Brown et al.).

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2014).  There is no one writing today who understands the human side of the technology revolution better than Walter Isaacson (author of the epic, blockbuster Steve Jobs biography and president of the Aspen Institute, among many other accomplishments).  His sweeping history of the digital revolution is packed with insights about how we got to the digital present and who deserves the credit along the way.  For purposes of this list, Isaacson also reveals many lessons about how these innovations took place at such a break-neck speed, which continues unabated today.  To his credit, Isaacson also goes out of his way to unearth untold stories about the female pioneers of the too-often-male-dominated field of information and communications technologies (something I have not done well in assembling this list, I admit).

Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (Penguin, 2012).  Gertner’s book tells a story parallel to Isaacson’s, but its emphasis falls in an earlier era of innovation and on a limited set of actors within a single firm.  Bell Labs is often held out as the best example of industrial research and development in the United States during the 20th century; Gertner helps to make that case plain.  There are many interesting contrasts to Isaacson’s new book: consider how they each treat William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor and winner of the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Joshua Wolf Shenk, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).  The story of innovation, at least in the case of the digital revolution, has in the past often been reduced to the image of solo inventor in his or her garage, paradigmatically in Silicon Valley.  Shenk takes aim at this truism and highlights the power to be found in creative pairs working together toward breakthrough innovation.  Think Marie and Pierre Curie; Lennon and McCartney; Jobs and Wozniak and you get the idea.  (Not surprisingly, Walter Isaacson wrote one of the blurbs: “We sometimes think of creativity as coming from brilliant loners. In fact, it more often happens when bright people pair up and complement each other.  Shenk’s fascinating book shows how to spark the power of this phenomenon.” I agree.)

Benedict Carey, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why it Happens (Random House, 2014).  There is a great outpouring of research about education and how the brain works these days.  Carey, who has covered the topic for many years as a journalist, brings us some of the best of that research.  He is particularly struck by surprising findings about how to make learning more effective.  The New York Times Magazine ran an excerpt recently, under the provocative title: “Why Flunking Exams is Actually a Good Thing.”  Carey refers here to the notion that taking an exam at the outset of a course that students are unprepared for can lead to better learning outcomes over the course of a term.  The book brings forward a series of similar findings in compelling ways.

Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Harvard University/Belknap Press, 2014).  In a similar vein, these three authors introduce a whole pile of interesting findings about how the brain works and how learners and teachers can put this science to work day-to-day.  I’ve long been a fan of the work of one of the authors — Roddy Roediger — who has been investigating the powers of frequent testing for the purpose of formative, rather than summative, assessment.  (Basic idea: it’s a good idea to quiz students frequently, to prompt recall and retention, rather than to rely upon heavyweight, high stakes tests at the end of the term or the year.)  This book build out findings of this sort in a highly readable style.  I think parents, students, and teachers all might find this book fun and worthwhile.

Though not formally on the list for this fall, a few other things — an eclectic bunch — from my summer reading that I loved and highly recommend:

Benoit Mandelbrot, The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick (Pantheon, 2012).  I loved this first-person account of an extraordinary life in science.  Mandelbrot’s many breakthrough concepts tended to fall between fields — mathematics, physics, biology, art.  His experience in academia, in and out of university settings and corporate R&D labs, points to the risks inherent in a purely discipline-based view of organizing intellectual inquiry.  Mandelbrot’s mode of innovation is somewhat in contrast to the team-based approach highlighted in the books above.  The New York Times published this review a few years ago, which provides the gist of the book, if you are tempted.  Kudos to Doron Weber at the Sloan Foundation who funded the book’s production.

Robert Darnton, Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature (Norton, 2014).  Robert Darnton is one of the foremost historians working today.  He makes stories from the past come alive in extraordinary ways.  In his most recent books, he explores the history of the censor and how he and she has gone about his or her work.  Darnton employs the methodology of a comparative historian (easier said than done, as he points out in his introduction), going deep on three case studies of censorship regimes.  Darnton’s primary cases are Bourbon France; British India; and Communist East Germany.  He frames the entire work in bookends about the current censorship regimes of the Internet era.  (In full disclosure: I co-taught a seminar with Professor Darnton on this topic at Harvard University a few years ago.  I was far more a student than a teacher for that term, which was both a privilege and a wonderful treat.)

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press, 2014).  I devoted several weeks of reading time this summer to Piketty’s huge book, and I’m glad I did.  Throughout the spring, it was hard to avoid the many reviews of Capital and the firestorm of debate it provoked.  I figured I should read it so that I could have an informed view on the debate.  I found myself agreeing much more than disagreeing with Piketty’s careful, serious look at the perils of the growing gap in income and capital assets in wealthy societies.  I am not yet convinced about his primary proposed fix — a global tax on wealth — but, even a few months after finishing the book, I am still trying to work out if I disagree because it’s impractical or because it would in fact be a bad idea for society at large.  We ignore the trends to which Piketty directs our attention at our peril.  (One clear lesson from his impressive volume of research: world wars matter, a lot.)  There’s a terrific Wikipedia entry already about the book.

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Little, Brown, 2013).  Also long, also quite wonderful.  It’s a beautiful story (one of two works of fiction on my list) of a familiar modern tragedy, a lost work of art, and the lives of a few young people growing up mostly on their own.  Worthy of all the attention and awards.  Once every ten years, Ms. Tartt seems to come out with a new book, and I’m always glad to see it.

Ian McEwan, The Children Act (Doubleday, 2014).  As in the case of Donna Tartt, I find myself reading everything McEwan writes as soon as it comes out, which I suppose I should admit before going further.  The Children Act, also a work of fiction, proved to be timely: it explores the journey that adolescents must travel with respect to their faith, something that we are discussing at great length at Phillips Academy.  The book touches on many other themes (the role and limits of the law; aging; sex and relationships), but the exploration of faith and its connection to life and death stood out for me.

Zephyr Teachout, Corruption in America (Harvard University Press, 2014).  Zephyr Teachout — a law professor and activist I much admire — just ran a spirited and important campaign for Governor of New York.  Though she came up short in the primary, she attracted enormous attention and raised central issues of institutional corruption in her run against incumbent Andrew Cuomo.  Her book echoes, and builds out, the themes she developed with such skill and resonance during the campaign.  One tiny excerpt: “I am trying to bring corruption back. Not as a societal ill.  As you have read, we have enough of that already.  But as an idea, something we fight and worry about.”  That’s how she starts Chapter 16, “The Anticorruption Principle,” p. 276.  One of the blurbs is from Lawrence Lessig, whose Republic, Lost is a crucial text in much the same spirit: “Teachout’s beautifully written and powerful book exposes a simple but profound error at the core of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision.  The originalists on the Court forgot their history.  This is that history — and eventually it will provide the basis for reversing the Court’s critical error.”  I’m thinking hard about how to introduce this concept and text into my History 300 course this year, US History for Andover students.

I hope one or more of these books might appeal.  (As an aside: as I reflect on this list, I note the several great books published recently by Harvard University Press — bravo!)

P.S.: Pointers to a couple of previous lists in the Head of School Bookshelf: Adolescence, Technology and Sexuality and a set geared toward Secondary School Teachers interested in Learning and Technology.

Bookshelf: Ideas for Secondary School Teachers, with a Bent Toward the Digital

In each of the last two academic years, I’ve made short lists of books I’ve liked, related mostly (but not exclusively) to secondary education and the digital world, to share with the faculty of Phillips Academy.  We buy a stack of each of the books, placed on the shelf outside my office, and share them as “community reads.”  This list — admittedly eclectic — covers those past two installments, plus a few additional books that have been in circulation on our campus for various reasons.

Fall, 2013 List:

Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People (Delacorte, 2013)

Why I liked it: I am huge fan of Prof. Banaji’s and her research into our inherent biases.  The book is a public-facing version of the research she’s published for years.  Especially in intentionally diverse communities, such as schools and universities, it’s my firm view that we all have to be aware of our biases, which can come as a big surprise sometimes, as Banaji and her co-author make clear.

Andrew Delbanco, College: What is Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton, 2012)

Why I liked it: I am also a fan of Prof. Delbanco’s and his work on American history and literature (dating back to when he taught American studies at Harvard, and through his exciting work at Columbia).  Here, he turns to the broad, public issue of what college ought to be.  His frame of reference is, in many respects, “the traditional four-year college experience” that looms in the imagination — probably in our students’ imagination, too.  Familiar themes of the history and importance of the Pell grant come together with perhaps less familiar themes of the continuing Puritan influence on our communities of learners.

Theodore Sizer, The New American High School (Jossey-Bass, 2013)

Why I liked it: Theodore Sizer is a giant in 20th century educational theory and practice — and also served as Phillips Academy’s distinguished 12th head of school.  Nancy Faust Sizer, who wrote the introduction, sent me an early copy, and I hugely enjoyed reading it.  Ted Sizer wrote this book and nearly published it before his death; Nancy and their editor brought it to fruition just recently.  For those who have read the Horace trilogy, The Students Are Watching Us, The Red Pencil, and other Sizer works, much in this new synthesis will sound familiar and enriching; for those who have not, especially those new to Sizer’s ideas in general, it is a great introduction to his life’s work, which continues to have reverberations through our Academy today.  (I have in mind a present-day Andover update to the short chapter, the ninth, on Technology.)

Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (Harper, 2007)

Why I liked it: This book came out several years ago, and I’ve been meaning to read it since then; I finally managed it this summer.  It’s an amazing synthesis of hundreds of studies of how the brain works, especially with respect to reading, by a Tufts prof, Maryanne Wolf, who specializes in early childhood education.  I learned an enormous amount from Wolf’s book, in terms of history, practice, and neuroscientific findings.  The emphasis falls on younger kids than ours, but the implications for our student body are clear — especially for those students who start out with less in terms of parents reading to them, encouraging them to read, and so forth at an early age.

Paul Yoon, Snow Hunters (Simon & Shuster, 2013)

Why I liked it: How could I not?  Paul Yoon, this year’s writer-in-residence at Phillips Academy, has written a brand-new, engaging, beautifully crafted novel.  I wished it had gone on much longer!  (For those who want to keep reading beyond the end of Snow Hunters, Paul’s first book, Once the Shore, is a collection of eight exquisite stories.)  His recent positive NYTimes Book Review piece, along with much else in the way of positive critical review, have been well-earned.

Leonard Sax, Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls (Basic Books, 2011)

Why I liked it: “Liked” in a way is the wrong word — this is a hard book, on a hard topic — but Dr. Sax has written an effective, constructive, important look at a large segment of our population in a boarding school, and it’s relevant to our entire population here.  I especially recommend it for those working in a girls’ dorm or coaching a girls’ team, though I think everyone in a residential learning community would benefit from reading it.

Catherine Steiner-Adair: The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age (Harper, 2013)

Why I liked it: Catherine Steiner-Adair is a former colleague of ours at Phillips Academy, as school psychologist (which she references on p. 253!).  Her new book is a helpful contribution to the literature about parenting and kids growing up in a digital era, with emphasis on social and family relationships.  (Steiner-Adair is already booked as a speaker for “Wellness Week” later in our academic year at Phillips Academy.)

Ethan Zuckerman: Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection (Norton, 2013)

Why I liked it: This book is a wonderful look at the implications of the digital age, from a global perspective.  Ethan Zuckerman is a former colleague of mine at the Berkman Center, now on the faculty at MIT, and is one of the finest minds in my field (and one of the finest people you’ll ever meet).  He’s worked on this book for years, and his devotion has paid off, in the form of both many new insights and lots of great narratives about life as a “digital cosmopolitan.”  (I admit, it’s not as obvious fit on this list for secondary school teachers, but I couldn’t help myself — and I really do think any teacher will get a lot from it in terms of what we should be aspiring to do in teaching about global citizenship, ethics, and morality in the biggest sense of the terms.)  See @ethanz just about everywhere, including Twitter.

Spring, 2013 List:

Cathy Davidson, Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century (Penguin, 2012)

Why I liked it: Lots of great material about how learning happens, from a brain science and generally interdisciplinary point of view.  Among many other things, she puts Katie Salen’s work — which we examined last year at PA and continue to follow — in context, p. 87 ff.  Cathy’s work is controversial and provocative — in a very good way.  If you ever have a chance to hear her present, take it!

Steven Johnson, Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age (Riverhead, 2012)

Why I liked it: The furthest afield from education per se of the books on this list, but it’s a great theoretical look at the importance of networks and network design.  Consider his argument about the capacity for reinvention, p. 119, ff.  Steven is a clever, concise writer — and everything he’s published is worth thinking about, in my experience.  The book is beautifully written and concise; secondary school teachers will likely get an interesting perspective on the future from it.

Salman Khan, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined (Twelve, 2012)

Why I liked it:  If you think you know Sal Khan and Khan Academy based on what you’ve seen on his web site, think again.  This is a very impressive, thoughtful book, about education broadly conceived.  His ideas and recommendations encompass his core work of “putting great short videos and exercises on the web for millions of people to use” (which is, itself, very cool) and extend far beyond it.  Sal and his team are pretty amazing — we at PA are actively collaborating with them on, which has been incredibly interesting — and I think very well of his new book.

Tony Wagner, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World (Scribner, 2012)

Why I liked it: I’m generally a big fan of Tony’s work, so I was not surprised to like this new book.  Along with his book on the Global Achievement Gap, this book leans forward and into lots of important trends and opportunities in education.  I liked Chapter 5: Innovating Learning in particular.  Though it may be more focused on higher ed than on the secondary school environment, he applies lessons from terrific learning institutions, like the MIT Media Lab (pp. 181-4), to teaching and learning more broadly.

A few more, to close out this list:

Here are a last few that many of us read on the Phillips Academy campus, on related themes and in various contexts:

David Burstein, Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World (Beacon, 2013)

Why I liked it: This book is an updated look at many of the issues that Urs Gasser and I took up in Born Digital, by a young and insightful author.)

Clay Christensen et al., Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (McGraw-Hill, 2008)

Why I liked it: Whether you agree with the conclusions or not, this book is a must-read for anyone thinking about education and business models — which should be all of us interested in the future of teaching, learning, the profession, and the related institutions.)

Beth Coleman, Hello Avatar: The Rise of the Networked Generation (MIT Press, 2011)

Why I liked it: I loved this creative, expansive book about personhood and identity in a digital age, by a prof and researcher I much admire, on MIT Press’s cool list of books in this field.

Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House, 2006) 

Why I liked it: Prof. Dweck’s work continues to inspire about how to encourage young people as learners, especially those who are smart and need to focus on a “growth mindset” rather than to rest of the laurels of their natural gifts and socio-economic advantages.

Shamus Khan, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School (Princeton, 2012)

Why I liked it: The issues that this book takes up are hard, especially in schools with long and proud histories.  Again in the “whether or not you agree” category — and this book evokes strong feelings — this first-person account, and associated reflections, by Prof. Khan of his experience at St. Paul’s School has caught the attention of both students and faculty in various courses and contexts.  It has been a big conversation-starter about community, race, class, and other big themes in residential secondary schools.

Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Norton, 2011)

Why I liked it: At PA, a group of faculty assigned this book as the “community read” last summer, to tee up our first faculty meeting on stereotype threat.  The book worked extremely well as a scene-setter for a conversation that continues to lead to policy-changes and discussions about how we teach and learn.

S. Craig Watkins, The Young & The Digital: What the Migration to Social-Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for our Future (Beacon, 2009)

Why I liked it: Prof. Watkins brings great insight to the challenges and opportunities of growing up in a digital era; his work is much worth following in general, and this book is highly enjoyable in particular.

Mimi Ito Comes to Andover

This morning, Prof. Mizuko (Mimi) Ito is at Phillips Academy, Andover, to lead us, as a faculty, in a community conversation to start off the year.  Mimi is setting forth the core data and arguments behind Connected Learning, which is our professional development theme at Andover for the year.  She has us all on an Etherpad page hosted by Mozilla (a “mopad”) as a back-channel, which is leading to lots of discussion about whether we can pay attention to her lecture as well as our own chat session (not to mention Twitter stream and live-blogs, like this one that I’m writing contemporaneously).

The Connected Learning model is built around encouraging kids to tie together their learning in three areas: their Interests (diverse, self-directed), their Peer Culture (the social, peer-driven), their Achievements (academic and otherwise), in ways that are both online and offline.  Mimi also talked some about the desired outcomes for Connected Learning, the 21st century skills and deeper learning.  She stressed that it is very early days in terms of how digital media and education are evolving, and that assessment and evaluation are major areas for future focus and collaboration.  For more on the theory of Connected Learning, see a seminal blog post from Mimi (which includes a seven-minute embedded video) and many other posts from the DMLCentral community.

Mimi stresses, and I completely agree, that a technology-centered approach to education isn’t ever going to work.  There are many experiences that we can draw on to show that this is true: TV and education is just one example.  Our approach needs to be grounded in clear and compelling pedagogical goals, figuring out where technology can help and where it cannot.  Our use of technology can help us to transform teaching and learning in fabulous ways, but the technology will not do all that on its own.

Ways to follow along: our hashtag today is #connectedandover.  Mimi Ito can be followed @mizuko.  And Andover’s Twitter handle is @PhillipsAcademy.  And for other schools: I highly recommend a professional development day focused on Connected Learning — it’s both provocative and a lot of fun.

Meanwhile, Andover students are trickling in all around us, with many more to arrive in the days to come.  Some are back for sports, others for community service, others who are international students coming from around the world.  It’s our goal to connect the learning happening in these many domains, in the service of our students’ overall education and growth.