Great Titles for Teachers is a collection of book reviews written by us about titles that we have read in the course of our work. They are all recommended as being worthwhile reads that can help you transform your work and continue your learning, but some are better than others. In the reviews, we give an overview of the title’s content, our opinion of it, and what might be of interest to Montessori teachers. We hope you find our recommendations useful if not entertaining, and that they stimulate your thought about and practice of teaching and school operations. The book image and title are linked to Amazon if you’re interested in purchasing a title. By using the links on the page, we will receive a small percentage of the book sale, but it will not affect your overall price.
by Stanislas Dehaene
Delving into the neuroscience of learning, cognitive psychology professor Stanislas Dehaene synthesizes the recent research and thinking on learning to develop a four part model that explicates the mental mechanisms involved in mastering new content. He opens his book with brief section that defines the various learning problems that challenge researchers trying to develop artificial intelligence systems that are able to learn as well as humans. This sets the stage for the heart of the book, which looks at our current understanding of the neuroscience of learning. He reviews the research to show that babies are actually born with quite a bit of neural architecture and processing hardware, developed over the course of evolution, that shapes their amazing ability to learn. The last and most interesting section of the book for teachers is his four part model that breaks down the neuroscience of the learning process into four components: Attending, Engagement, Feedback, and Consolidation. Each of these learning mechanisms is explored in its own chapter, and many of the concepts presented will be familiar to teachers, though the terminology may be different. These include sensitive periods, the debunking of learning styles, growth mindset and the importance of learning from errors, the need for practice, the zone of proximal development, the importance of sleep, and more. While these concepts may not be entirely new, one of the most useful aspects of this book is how it brings them all together and relates them to the underlying systems of the brain and mind to create an overview of How We Learn. The final chapter of this book is summary of what was covered and how it differs from some of our long standing ideas about learning. It includes a bullet list of the implications for teaching and school of his four component model. While the first section of the book about learning problems and artificial intelligence is a bit slow-going and complex, later sections will be of increasing interest to educators as they explicate the brain’s learning mechanisms and how best to work in accordance with them to improve learning outcomes. One of the highlights of the book was Dehaene’s brief nod to the Montessori method in this quote, “And this is indeed what most schools inspired by Montessori do today…they propose a whole series of rational and hierarchical activities, whose purpose is first carefully demonstrated by teachers before being carried out independently by children. Active engagement, pleasure, and autonomy, under the guidance of an explicit teaching method with stimulating pedagogical materials, these are the ingredients for a winning recipe whose effectiveness has been repeatedly demonstrated.”
by Daniel T. Willingham
The main title of this book suggested to me that the author, a Psychology professor at the University of Virginia, would discuss the elements of primary and secondary school that seem to squelch students’ natural curiosity about the world and leave them bored and frustrated when it seems they should be brimming with the passion to learn. While my impression was incorrect and the title a bit misleading, the book does deliver on the subtitle and in a way that is more valuable than other books in the genre. I have read a variety of titles on this topic and most discuss the same or similar cognitive science principles, but only provide simple notions of the educational changes needed. Willingham, on the other hand, has taken nine fundamental ideas from cognitive science that have repeatedly been shown to be true, and then discusses their implications. Best of all, each chapter has a section at the end that focuses on very practical ways teachers can implement these principles in their instruction to achieve better learning outcomes. For example, one chapter focuses on the idea that memory is the residue of thought, or in other words, you remember content that your mind had to process. In the end section of this chapter, he suggests teachers reflect on what mental processing of the material their assignments encourage as that is what students are going to remember from the lesson. Lessons do not always encourage the mental processing you suppose so what you want students to remember should be reflected in what you want them to think about. While some sections are slow going, overall this title’s focus on the practical implications of cognitive science findings for the classroom is welcomed and highly recommend. It goes along way toward helping teachers craft their instruction in a way that is conducive to how the mind operates. It doesn’t hurt either that is his wife is a Montessori educator.
by Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek
While nominally aimed at students to improve their learning, this succinct book is a powerful summary of learning science collected from multiple disciplines. Touching on subjects from sleep to exercise to mindset to memory and more, the authors provide an up-to-date review of various topics, their impact on learning, and suggest tips for implementing the methods for more effective learning. Each chapter handles a different learning-related topic, contains a chapter summary, questions for reflection (a powerful learning tool), and references to the research discussed. Teachers will find this book a great way to familiarize themselves with a wide array of highly-relevant learning science in a condensed form that could help them revamp their lessons for better outcomes and encourage students to develop good learning habits. This resource should be an introductory textbook for learning science for anyone interested in making learning more effective.
by Jo Boaler
While the title of this book might make you think it is a new age, self-help tome, in actuality the author is a Professor of Education at Stanford University whose research revolves around teaching mathematics, a subject notoriously known to intimidate children and adults alike. Strictly grounded in evidence-based research, this work sets out six key elements for changing anyone’s approach to learning so that they can realize their full potential and pursue any goal they may aspire to. While she uses some examples from mathematics since that is her specialty, the book is aimed at learning in general. Boaler bases her strategies in developing a growth mindset and champions the amazing powers of struggling and making mistakes to bring about profound, deep learning. The books main message is the inspirational declaration that what most constrains us is our own beliefs about our abilities and our acceptance of struggle and failure as evidence of our limited capacities. The fact that the book’s strategies are research-based and demonstrate the truth of her claims makes it all the more inspiring. In edition to summaries of research findings, Boaler also shares anecdotal stories of the principles in action and their power to transform people’s learning. While reading this book, I was reminded of Dr. Maria Montessori’s belief in the amazing potential of every child and what they could accomplish. This book provides the evidence for that belief and shares the elements needed to manifest that potential. Best of all, the books is highly readable and will leave you inspired to develop your own limitless mind and lead a life free of barriers. One of the best books I have read this year and highly recommended for anyone involved in teaching or learning (i.e. EVERYONE).
Why We Sleep
by Matt Walker
At first a book about sleep might not seem related to education, but actually they are closely intertwined. Aside from the now common entreaties to get children to sleep more in this age of 24/7 communication and infotainment, there is a lot of recent research demonstrating the powerful effects of sleep on memory and learning. Matt Walker, a psychology professor who has made sleep the focus of his research, has organized the vast field of sleep research into a book that explains the latest theories about sleep’s functions, its importance to physical and mental health, the wide-ranging consequences of foregoing a solid nights sleep, and tips for improving your nightly dose. Despite his academic background, the book is highly readable and interesting, and given the fact that we all sleep, it has universal appeal. His British sense of humor adds an element of levity as well. Teachers will come away from this book with an increased appreciation of the importance of their own, their student’s, and frankly everyone’s sleep, as well as the sense that sleep may be one of the most powerful learning hacks available.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
by David Epstein
Current thinking in education places a heavy emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects with a desire to start children at ever younger ages as a way of strengthening their learning in fields that have become highly specialized. There are many popular notions and anecdotal stories encouraging early focus and rigorous training as a means to mastery in sports, music, academics, and more. Think Tiger Woods and golf or Tiger Moms’ manuals. David Epstein wanted to find out if all this commonly accepted wisdom was accurate and he summarizes his investigation and findings in this book. He makes a strong and compelling case for diversifying interests, and learning a “range” of subjects, sports, instruments, or the like. He provides interviews, research, and a variety of case studies that all point to the fact that advancements in the sciences or top performing talent in sports and other fields, is often the result of drawing on a wide array of knowledge and skills. The resulting creative approaches to problems that come from diversifacation of practice or study have resulted in a great many breakthroughs in various fields. He concludes that the ability to apply knowledge broadly (called transference in education) comes from broad training. When I started this book, it was out of personal interest, and I did not think it would be relevant to education. It quickly became apparent that it touched on many aspects of our current approach to learning and turned them on their head. Teachers will find the ideas and evidence a fresh approach to some topics that regularly go unquestioned in education.
Big History: Examines Our Past, Explains Our Present, Imagines Our Future
created by the Big History Institute, Macquarie University
The Five Great Lessons are a somewhat unique part of the Montessori curriculum meant to spark students imaginations, sense of wonder, and curiosity. In effect, it helps them answer many questions about their origins and background through an appreciation of subjects like astronomy, cosmology, biology, history, chemistry, and more. Imagine my excitement when I discovered a book that takes a very similar approach to teaching history. Big History lays out the entire history of the Coming of the Universe and the Earth, Coming of Life, and the Coming of Human Beings in beautifully illustrated content, each of these three great lessons getting its own section(s) in the book. The Story of Writing and the Story of Numbers are not as explicitly covered, but are still present. While it is geared toward middle and high school students, I found plenty in the book that would be of interest to younger students. Having such an amazing text as a resource in any classroom is a must. In addition, there is a companion web site that has lessons and other resources for teachers to make delivering the Big History content easier. I strongly encourage all teachers to have a look at the book and the web site as they seem tailor made for Montessori classrooms.
The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child
by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
Helping children learn to manage their behavior is a challenge for both parents and teachers as well as the children themselves. It is often exacerbated by the fact that many of us still struggle with this ourselves at least sometimes if not frequently. However, mastering these skills is recognized as being an important part of success in life so it is imperative that we do so. That is why Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson’s latest book, The Yes Brain, is such a treasure. It provides a simple but effective framework for delivering this all important training to kids with asides on how to help ourselves in our own practice of behavior management. These two experienced psychologists have translated much of that latest research on psychology and neuroscience into easily understood concepts and strategies that will help you help your children and/or students learn to be better manage the challenges of life with greater resilience, courage, and curiosity. For example, they frame behavior not as something to be controlled by you as an adult, but as a form of communication from the child about their experiences and their needs. Working from this standpoint, adults can help children recognize their own feelings and its resultant behavior, connect with them, and help them to find more effective ways to cope with a given situation. Their scaffolded approach to aiding children in their mastery of self-regulation will be appealing to Montessorians as it fits well within the ideas of fostering independence and educating the whole child. The best part is that the book is easily readable, reasonably short and has a lot of strategies and summaries for quick reference when using their techniques. I highly recommend this title for anyone that works with children (or people in general).
Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells us About Raising Successful Children
by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek
There is a lot of criticism of current education and its emphasis on content memorization and high-stakes testing, but I have not found much in the way of a comprehensive assessment of the issues and a practical, constructive solution, at least until now. Basing their work on what science tells us aids optimal learning, the authors have done an excellent job of concisely assessing how our current methods of teaching fall short of delivering the skills children will need in the future, identifying and making the case for the skills that are important, which they refer to as the 6 Cs, and then reviewing each one in depth. The reviews take a scaffolded approach to each of the six “hard and soft” skills, demonstrating their various levels through examples, how children progress through them developmentally, and the kinds of activities that promote mastery at each level. It is refreshing to read a book about education that presents theoretical concepts and then makes them concrete with practical suggestions for what to do. I highly recommend this title for parents and educators alike. My one frustration is that they did not mention the Montessori method, which I believe fulfills many of their prescribed activities.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
by Yuval Noah Harari
One of the most important parts of the Montessori curriculum is the 5 great stories or lessons, which provide an impressionistic overview of the origins of life, the universe and everything that sparks the imagination of students with an ever deepening understanding of modern knowledge. One of the strands of these lessons is the history of humankind, which relates the story of their evolution and progress through prehistory and history. Professor Harari’s recent book Sapiens does a high-level, popular overview of this history that is highly readable, captivating, and profoundly insightful in its approach to the principles that have shaped our development. Focusing on the last 70,000 years of humankind’s story, he does a great job relating the current state of our knowledge about the topic and is quick to point out where it is limited and where there are controversies. Harari has a knack for making complex ideas easy to understand and identifying underlying trends in our history that have shaped our current place in it. I highly recommend this book for all Montessori teachers (actually all teachers) as a means of updating and improving their knowledge of the story of humankind in a novel length book that is very approachable, interesting to read, and that aligns nicely with Montessori curriculum.
The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload
by Daniel J. Levitan
In a world that increasingly bombards us with evermore information, keeping everything organized is challenging. This book presents itself as a self-help guide that will assist you in better managing this onslaught by understanding how our brains work and taking advantage of this knowledge. While it accomplishes this purpose and contains many useful tips and tricks for staying organized, the real value comes in the explanations of psychology and neuroscience that underpin everyday activities. For example, discovering that forgetting where you put something is more about divided attention than a memory deficit can help you be more focused when you set down your keys. There are some sections that may not be applicable to teachers, such as managing health information and business information, but these sections still contain good strategies for managing information. Of particular interest to teachers is the section “What to teach our children,” though there are other sections of the book that contain information relevant to students as well. One of the best things about this book is the authors ability to translate the psychology into humorous anecdotes that are highly relatable, which makes the book compelling and easy to read. While not directly related pedagogy, the book delivers a ground understanding of cognitive psychology that will help teachers better understand their students’ thinking and how it might go awry.
Mind, Brain, and Education Science: A Comprehensive Guide to the New Brain-Based Teaching
by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa
In my work as a Montessori teacher, administrator, teacher trainer, and consultant, I have strived to promote and share evidence-based teaching and learning strategies. I was delighted to discover that there is an emerging multi-disciplinary approach that encompasses my efforts by knitting together neuroscience, psychology, and pedagogy. It is referred to as Mind, Brain, and Education (or MBE) Science. A multi-disciplinary field can be daunting due to the breadth of information from its disparate constituent fields leaving one wondering where to start. Fortunately, author Tokuhama-Espinosa has created a wonderful introductory text that outlines the nascent subject, explores its challenges, provides brief, relevant histories of its component subjects, and summarizes the current, applicable findings that teachers can build on in their classrooms and schools. In addition, it is chock full of resources, including recommended texts and papers from psychology, neuroscience, and teaching, a glossary of terms from each that apply to the new discipline, and a listing of organizations in the field. While it is laid out like a textbook, none of its sections is very long, and the reading is straight-forward, interesting and highly-relevant. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a teacher buy it unless the topic is their passion, but I do strongly encourage people to get it from the library or buy it for a school as a reference and a resource for further study.
People have searched for all manner of things that would resolve mental health issues or give them or their students a cognitive performance boost. If ever there was such a panacea, exercise is it. Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and author John Ratey draws on his background and scientific research to explain the connection between the brain, mind and body and discuss the many ways exercise can enhance performance and overall well-being. Of particular note was a study done in the Naperville, IL school district that had children out exercising before school. The result? They finished 1st in the world in science and 6th in math on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Test. Myriad other benefits are explored as well as guidelines for the amounts and types of exercise and movement to engage in. If you are looking for some inspiration to get yourself and your students moving, look no further than this book. I know first hand because it worked for me.
What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America
by Ted Dintersmith
Having been through a fairly typical American education during the 70s and 80s, I graduated with a feeling of frustration and lost opportunity and a wish that school could be more. I love to learn, but the bureaucratic, box-checking, grade-focused experience I had did little to inspire me. Ted Dintersmith recognizes this issue, and his book catalogs visits to various schools across the 50 United States to identify the problems with our current education model, but more importantly to uncover points of radical innovation by teachers, schools and districts that he sees as transforming education into the inspirational, compelling, and motivational force that it can and should be. While the stories of his visits are full of great anecdotes and interesting ideas, I found myself wishing he had spent a little more time analyzing what he encountered and providing more details about these programs, what made them work, and drawing more in-depth conclusions and generalized principles that could be used to transform more traditional schools. All in all, it was an enjoyable and insightful read, but I think he could have provided more actionable material.
Everyone suffers from lapses of memory from time to time, and we have all wondered if there is a way to improve memory. Joshua Foer asked himself this question and wrote a book as the answer. Part memoir, part investigative journalism, the book recounts Foer’s research into memory and his subsequent participation in the United States Memory Championship. It is an engrossing tale that touches on the history of memory efforts, the science behind it, various methods people have employed, and philosophical speculations on the nature of memory and what it is to be human. As thoroughly entertaining as it is informative, this is a great book for anyone curious about what’s possible with their memory, or that of their students.
How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why it Happens
by Benedict Carey
Everyone has been a student and been frustrated at how difficult it is to absorb, retain, and recall material, or in other words, learn. Benedict Carey is no exception, and it was his frustration at the seeming lack of knowledge about how the brain learns that lead him to author this book. Aimed a student audience, each of the ten chapters lays out an element of the learning process, reviews the research about it, and then summarizes how to best use it. Written in a casual, humorous tone, the book is highly readable and engaging, even when relating the research studies upon which the content is based. If you want to learn some science-based strategies to make your studying more effective or help you students develop some best practices for their learning, Carey’s “How We Learn” is a good place to start.
Learning how to learn is regularly touted as one of the must have 21st Century skills, and one that every educator should be instilling in their students to prepare them for the future. Author Ulrich Boser, a Senior Fellow studying education policy at the think tank Center for American Progress, has written a book that offers a 6-step plan for creating master learners. His approach distills a lot of current research on learning into an easily readable book that discusses the research, provides examples of the findings, and combines them into one of the 6 steps. In actuality, each step consists of a number of learning techniques and tips that Boser has subsumed under a general approach. For instance, the idea of deliberate practice, stretching our abilities by practicing skills just beyond our current level, is categorized into the step DEVELOP, about improving skills, along with other things like receiving feedback. His approach does a good job of covering a lot of the current thinking on learning, and his distillation of all the material into 6 concepts is helpful. For a condensed review of current thought on learning, this is a good starting point that will go along way toward helping teachers and students understand how to master the art of learning how to learn.
Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined
by Scott Barry Kaufman
Defining the nature of intelligence and being able to measure it in any meaningful way has been an elusive endeavor that has confounded psychologists for decades if not centuries. The various attempts made have had problematic results for the whole of pedagogy as well as many individuals. Author Scott Kaufman is one such person. Early school difficulties and testing regimens defined him as a “special needs” student and relegated him to classrooms filled with other “learning disabled” students. His diagnosis and struggles, however, were transformed into a personal passion that sent him in pursuit of what constitutes intelligence, what being intelligent means, and the kind of teaching that can elicit it. Kaufman deftly weaves together his personal story of overcoming his learning challenges with the history of intelligence testing and research, revealing the problematic nature of this endeavor. His compelling narrative succinctly reviews years of research, and from his discussion he frames a new model of intelligence that reflects a much more holistic and fluid trait. Along the way, he also examines different education methods that can improve learning outcomes for all kinds of children. Having triumphed over his “diagnosis” to receive a PhD from Yale in Psychology and become an intelligence expert, his story makes him the poster child for what is possible when you abandon a fixed mindset for a growth mindset, and throw in some grit.
The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.
by Daniel Coyle
Common wisdom would seem to tell us that becoming an expert, virtuoso, or high-caliber performer in any discipline requires innate talent. In other words, the fixed mindset prevails, and you either have it (talent) or you don’t. Author Daniel Coyle wondered how this prevailing notion explained “hotbeds” of talent, geographic places that produce more than their share of superstars. If innate talent was really the key to high performance, then these places shouldn’t exist. Yet, they do. His research into this conundrum is the subject of this book, which unveils the neuroscience of high performance and the ways great coaches and teachers help nurture it. His main finding is that “deliberate practice” makes the difference. Teachers are likely familiar with Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), that sweet spot of learning that is just enough beyond a student’s ability to be a stretch, but not so far as to be overly frustrating. Deliberate practice is working in this zone to take advantage of neuroplasticity to make the learning concrete and automatic. Practicing something repeatedly fires neurons together, which in turn wires them together, and with continued practice, these circuits get myelinated or insulated so that they fire “automatically.” Always practicing something that is “hard” (i.e. in the ZPD) means you are developing the circuits to make it automatic, which in turn means you are on a path of continuous improvement. In other words, with the right kind of practice, you will eventually become an expert. The book goes into more detail about the research and science behind this process and examines various talent hotbeds around the globe to reveal it at work. He also looks at the importance of the psychosocial elements involved in developing expertise, such as long term commitment to a discipline and the styles of coaching that play a role in producing world class performers. For teachers with an interest in creating expertise in their students, this book is highly recommended.
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
by Daniel Pink
When I first started teaching young children, I repeated, “Good job,” many times a day. While my Montessori certification course weaned me of this vacuous saying, I didn’t know the reason why it could actually de-motivate children! Fast forward to several years ago when I had the pleasure of hearing Daniel Pink as a keynote speaker at an American Montessori Society conference. Firstly, I was blown away at his ability to engage the audience and was more intrigued by the research he shared regarding motivation. His findings are relevant not just in the business world which spoke to me as a school administrator, but how we can apply this profound body of research on motivation to learning environments. His seminal book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us outlines in depth the research on how extrinsic rewards for anything more than rudimentary tasks can actually minimize or reduce performance! His focus on three factors that increase intrinsic motivation in humans is truly a game-changer for educators and I highly recommend you check out Pink’s Drive today!
The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them
by Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica M. Tsang, Kristen P. Blair
Sifting through innumerable studies to find proven teaching strategies is a daunting task that very few people have the patience and fortitude to accomplish. This title has done the heavy lifting for you. Daniel Schwartz and his colleagues have produced a wonderfully organized and highly usable guide to twenty-six of the top teaching strategies that they gleaned from the research data. The book is divided into twenty-six sections, each representing a letter of the alphabet such as “F is for Feedback.” Each section is about twelve pages on average, and covers a teaching strategy or learning concept that instructors of all persuasions can use to maximize the effectiveness of their pedagogy. Within each section are subsections that explain the concept, the research behind it, practical examples of how it is implemented, potential pitfalls to be aware of, and a one to two page summary of the entire section at the end for quick reference. At the back of the book is a reference guide for which strategy to employ in a particular situation, almost like an instructional troubleshooting guide. This book is highly recommended for all types of teachers and is well worth the investment.
Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius
by Angeline Stoll Lillard
Twelve years ago, my career as a Montessori educator received a jolt of new knowledge when I read Dr. Angeline Stoll Lillard’s first edition of Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. Not only was I able to finally articulate why Montessori methodology is effective to parents touring my school, this seminal work ignited my understanding of how to better train new teachers. This newest, third edition, is worthy in it’s steadfast commitment to scientific discovery and the inclusion of crucial new research about learning such as executive functioning, epigenetics, sensory integration, and newfound work regarding fantasy play. I believe Lillard’s work is essential reading for all practitioners of Montessori, skeptics of this progressive education, and parents wanting evidence of how Montessori environments are optimal for children.
I can say unequivocally that this book was the catalyst to changing how I view the social emotional climate of every classroom culture and whether the curriculum fairly represents and honors the identity of every member of the community and beyond. Author Louise Derman-Sparks and the A.B.C. Task Force identified a clear path for educators to cultivate an anti-bias approach resulting in student confidence in their identity, increased sense of belonging and significance in their community, and the tools to proactively stand up for social justice. The version I own is the first edition from 1989 yet the message for it’s need remains today. I’m interested in reading the the next title released in 2012, Anti Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves 2012 by this revolutionary author.
By Angela Duckworth
Angela Duckworth’s book Grit is an insightful and interesting read for educators. She relates her many years of research on perseverance in a quasi-memoir style that makes a compelling story while relating the results of her’s and other’s research into the topic. While she recognizes the there is still plenty of research to be done on the topic, she also relates many practical strategies for how to not only bring more “grit” into your own life, but also how to foster this quality in others.
Her book ranges over a variety of settings, from Westpoint Military Academy to school room to corporate board room to relationships, and relays many interesting anecdotal stories from people in all these settings. These are interspersed amongst her review of the research data on the topic, both hers and others. I found it well worth the time and can recommend it to all who are interested in helping themselves and others learn the art of perseverance in the face of adversity. A favorite quote from the book is:
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right!” -Henry Ford