Thinking outside the box on education: 4 great books with a fresh new perspective

Some of the books with the most original, thought-provoking ideas about education these days aren’t even on education. They’re on subjects such as sociology, psychology, technology, and self-help, among others, but they challenge what’s going on in schools today. Here are some books that don’t fall into the category of education, but which have a lot to say about the way we learn.

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (Crown, 2012). This book is ammunition against a school system that increasingly views classroom education as an endless stream of group projects. While it’s important for kids to learn teamwork, all too often we forget the importance of solitude, concentration, and deep thought in the learning process. I know that when I was in school, I did my best work alone. As Ms. Cain writes:

What’s so magical about solitude? In many fields, Ericsson told me, it’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which he has identified as the key to exceptional achievement. When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only useful – they’re counterproductive. They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them. Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class – you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.” [page 81]

Another book about deliberate practice is Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, by Geoff Colvin (Portfolio Trade, 2010).

2. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), by Mark Bauerlein. (New York: Penguin/Tarcher, 2008). The title says it all. Technology may be causing untold damage to the brains of young people. I’ve written two articles about avoiding the pitfalls of technology in education (see my piece in USA Today and the follow-up post on my blog). In this passage, Mr. Bauerlein paints a disturbing picture of this country’s rising generation of scholars:

Most young Americans possess little of the knowledge that makes for an informed citizen, and too few of them master the skills needed to negotiate an information-heavy, communication-based society and economy. Furthermore, they avoid the resources and media that might enlighten them and boost their talents. An anti-intellectual outlook prevails in their leisure lives, squashing the lessons of school, and instead of producing a knowledgeable and querulous young mind, the youth culture of American society yields an adolescent consumer enmeshed in juvenile matters and secluded from adult realities. [page 16]

There’s a book on a similar topic, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), which I hope to read soon.

3. Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008). In addition to talking about the 10,000 hour rule (the theory that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice for someone to become an expert in something), Mr. Gladwell also discusses why Asian students often outperform their American peers, especially in science and math:

We should be able to predict which countries are best at math simply by looking at which national cultures place the highest emphasis on effort and hard work. So, which places are at the top of both lists? The answer shouldn’t surprise you: Singapore, South Korea, China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, and Japan. What those five have in common, of course, is that they are all cultures shaped by the tradition of wet-rice agriculture and meaningful work. They are the kinds of places where, for hundreds of years, penniless peasants, slaving away at the rice paddies three thousand hours a year, said things to one another like “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.” [pages 247-49]

4. The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss (Crown Archetype, 2009). This one may be a bit of a surprise. Am I suggesting that you can get great grades by working four hours a week? Not at all. Nor am I encouraging you to outsource your schoolwork to India. But Mr. Ferriss does present some useful advice on how to work more efficiently and effectively, whether you’re a student or an entrepreneur. Here’s an example:

Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion. It is the magic of the imminent deadline. If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials. If I give you a week to complete the same task, it’s six days of making a mountain out of a molehill. . . . The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus. . . . . There are two synergistic approaches for increasing productivity that are inversions of each other:

  1. Limit tasks to the important to shorten work time (80/20).
  2. Shorten work time to limit tasks to the important (Parkinson’s Law). [page 75]

What are some of your book recommendations?


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