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.

5 thoughts on “Head of School Bookshelf: The Innovators Edition

  1. Thanks for the suggestions, John. There are a number of books on this list that look really interesting. Of course it will take me a full year to get to them all. I envy your speed-reading skills!

  2. I will look up a number of the books from your list. I read The Goldfinch this past summer. I agree that it is too long, but she paints such a vivid picture with her words. Did anyone chuckle when Andover was mentioned by Theo’s father?

  3. I loved The Goldfinch. Another wonderful novel I read recently that features adolescents is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Have heard about the Isaacson book, particularly interesting to me as I used to work in the world of computer software and heard Grace Hopper speak.

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