A Pedagogical Mind: 4 Books that make me believe in the power of education

I’ve been thinking about books and ideas that have molded and formed my pedagogical brain. For post one in this series, see here.

When I say I ‘believe’ in education, I mean that I believe that education is a powerful mechanism for change and transformation in the lives of individuals, communities and even nations. It is not miraculous or magical; teachers are not wizards. But at its root, I believe that education, in the hands of a good teacher and a good school system, is emancipatory, empowering and hopeful.

It is this belief that makes me want to be a teacher. Reading these books deepened my appreciation of this built in itch to be in a classroom. We all know what we do as teachers won’t work for absolutely every student we teach; we all know our system has it struggles and issues. On the whole though, as Adam Boxer has said this past week, it’s ‘fine’. As long as teachers keep their passion, belief and desire to make a difference at the heart of what they do each day, power is still present in education. So here goes….and I begin with a memoir

Educated – Tara Westover

I never planned to read this but as soon as I had started, I couldn’t put it down. A memoir about the life of an extraordinary auto-dictat, Educated unravels the enormously complex family life of Tara and how she overcame damaging, sectarian Mormonism to become an award-winning academic. Tara didn’t go to elementary, middle or high school and got into Brigham Young University and later went to Oxford University. Her narrative was deeply compelling; what struck me most was the enduring principle that bad ideas have the potential to tarnish and bruise a mind and in the same way, how good ideas, hope and belief can alter thinking to enable people to overcome unbelievable odds. Tara’s story is a testament to the work that education can do in the lives of young people; her inner strength and courage to pursue learning moved me to tears at points. Walking to school the day after finishing Educated, I would lament some of the lacklustre attitudes my students would have towards their education. If only they knew, I would say to myself, that there are children all over the world right now who are risking their families’ love, even their lives to get an education. I made a point of articulating how blessed we are.

This book made me believe in the power a good education can have because of what it did to Tara’s heart. She longed to learn; she was desperate for her mind to be fed. After reading I saw how fundamental it was that I design and develop curriculum that is deeply compelling, always inspiring curiosity and longing for something that goes all the way down, to the soul of students, far beyond the enclaves of their minds. These moments in the classroom are difficult to put into words but they are often found in reading great books, describing the incredible world in passionate detail, listening to the stories of others from different cultures or fixing a maths problem after a long lesson of trying. You know it when you are there. When you read a story like this you see how these moments are worth pursuing as a teacher because you never know who will be sat in your classroom and what they might achieve one day.

I Am Malala – Malala Yousafzai

Another equally compelling narrative but this time far more auto-biographical in style, Malala’s story has all the marks of Tara’s: bad ideas having terrible consequences, courage and inner strength to overcome unbelievable odds and a belief that education could make the difference.

There were many things that struck me about this book and I’ve written about them at length here. However, what it taught me about education was the confirmation that regardless of where in the world we are, we are all human beings, made in God’s image, infinitely precious and gifted for a purpose. For that reason, we need education for all people for all time. This is no different to what I learned from reading Educated. What was distinctive about Malala’s story though was the difference a father can make.

Unlike Tara’s father, who decried any mention of his daughter receiving an education of any kind, Malala’s father risked his life to set up a school for the girls of his community in Pakistan. Malala, time and again, writes of her father’s impact on her life and his belief in her, in the power of education and in the willingness to love his children in highly sacrificial ways. As father’s of this generation, we musn’t forget our place in our children’s education.

More than this, as a primary teacher and leader, I see how powerful it is when fathers take a deep interest in their children’s education. They thrive. Yet, this is not just my anecdotal experience, we know it to have evidence that supports it from work done by The Literacy Trust, The Book Trust and other organisations. When Dad’s are there, engaged, reading with their children, helping them with homework, the impact is remarkable. Malala’s story is a stark reminder to us, as men, if we are able, to be involved in education as and where we can.

An Ethic of Excellence – Ron Berger

What difference does belief make in people’s lives? The British Swimming Team at Tokyo 2020 was the most successful it has been in over 100 years. Watching Adam Peaty recently talk to the BBC, after winning his second gold medal of the games, he shared his perspectives on what has made the difference in the camp: ‘We believe we can win. When we believe we can win we can do anything,” he said.

Not wanting to necessarily compare Ron Berger to Adam Peaty, I think that is at the heart of what Ron Berger’s book has taught me: when we help our students see a vision for excellence and believe in what they are capable of, it is remarkable what can be achieved.

You might have seen the short video ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ and if you haven’t I strongly recommend you stop reading this and watch it on YouTube now.

This clip encapsulated the essence of Ron Berger’s message throughout his semi auto-biographical writing: expect great things of your students, show them what great things look like, teach them how to get there each and every day.

I was totally inspired by his writing and after reading several cognitive science books that year, this was a welcome break from writing based on science and psychology to work based on experience, emphasising the craft of teaching. I’ve included this book here with the other two because it showcases to me how powerful education can be for helping students fulfil their potential. Sadly, Tara and Malala found this during hardship and struggle; most of our students, even those who are disadvantaged won’t have to go through what these two remarkable women went through. What Ron Berger consolidated in my mind as an educator is that I should never forget how important our work is: we have enormous amounts of power to influence the lives of young people and we should never take this for granted, do this half-heartedly or diminish the significance of our calling.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers – edited by Katherine Birbalsingh

“We hope to persuade our readers to begin to question the orthodoxies in our education system,” Katherine writes in here introduction to this book. And that she certainly did. Up to this point, I could see the difference that teachers can make in their classrooms. But reading about Michaela and since then becoming fascinated by their approach and methodology, I can’t help but see that individual teachers believing in the power of education is simply not enough. It might seem paradoxical at the end of this post to claim that our system is broken after beginning by saying it is ‘fine’. Although I think this, it is hard to deny the quality, the rigour, the standards and the ideas that emerge from Michaela that are having an impact on our education system in this country.

I have often wondered where their impact has come from and whether it might be replicated. Is it because they employ the brightest and best? Is it because they have, in my opinion, one of the most remarkable educationalists around today as their headteacher? Is it because they are not constrained by the state system? It might be a mixture of these, I don’t know for sure.

What I am abundantly sure of, beyond reasonable doubt, is that at Michaela, they are not afraid. They are not afraid of doing what they feel is right, at the right time and for the right reasons for their students. And they do this in every classroom, every day, every year*.

*I ought to say at this point I have never been to Michaela Community School. But reading both their books, following many of their teachers on twitter and reading articles about the school is enough to convince me of the impact they are making. I can be sure of the fact that in my day to day teaching and leadership practice, this alone has inspired be and for that reason, molded my pedagogical mind.

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