Review: The Meaning of Things by A.C. Grayling

The Meaning of Things by A.C. Grayling

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 18.51.27We are living in such uncertain and complicated times, and I think most of us regularly run into challenges comprehending the forces that shape our experiences. In this book, Philosopher A.C. Grayling takes an accessible but thought provoking look at some of the themes in modern life, bringing to them perspectives and ideas from philosophy that can help us to understand and accept.

Virtues and attributes such as fear, moralising and compromise are dealt with. So too are forces such as Capitalism and Nationalism. It’s not just high faulting ideas though, he also deals with personal issues such as health, family and privacy.

Philosophy is often necessarily a weighty subject to approach, with books that require studying rather than merely reading. This one is different, and is a book you can dip in and out of to get insights on areas you are thinking about.

Get the book here.

Review: Secrets of Power Negotiating – Roger Dawson

Secrets of Power Negotiating – Roger Dawson

This is a bit outside of my normal recommendations, being as it is a pretty populist business book. However, I did a fair bit of looking for a good resource on negotiating. This came out as the most highly recommended, and I can see why.

Dawson takes an engaging and easy to read ride through his philosophy of negotiating and the very specific moves and tactics he uses in different situations. Negotiating sounds like a bit of a cutthroat, everyone-for-themselves area, but this book presents it as the art of helping both parties both get what they want, and feel like they got what they want. This sounds like the same thing, it isn’t necessarily, but I’ll leave it for Roger to explain in the book.

In many places the writing wears its US roots on its sleeve, as well as it’s 15 year age, and it does need some translation to your context in places. However, I found it a very useful guide to both the approach and the specific and actionable strategies, whatever area you need to negotiate in.

Get the book here.

Review: Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey – Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey – Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

There are few fields that bring together the potential of technology and creativity than DJing. The advent of recorded music led to huge cultural changes far beyond simply listening to music in your home. Early naysayers thought that this would undermine the ‘real’ live performance of music. If they were to see the stages of major dance music festivals these days, with a single person on stage armed only with CD players and a mixer they might say they were right. Others, including me would disagree. Last Thursday, for instance, I saw three guys who made their names as trance DJs play a full acoustic set of their songs complete with a full band and string section in a church in London.

The reality is that technology has allowed new and innovative ways to explore music, which still exist alongside the old and the in-between, in a fabulous melting pot. It’s not just about the technology though, it’s as much about the people, the characters who have experimented with it to express themselves through music in new ways. From Kool Herc’s looping of beats using two copies of records at street parties, Grandmaster Flash quickly playing records backwards and forwards in what became ‘scratching’, to the global superstar DJs on the late 90s and beyond, this book tells the story of the DJ as a musical and technological innovator.

For anyone interested in the intersection of technology and culture, this is a fascinating trip through a phenomenon that has shaped popular music for many decades now.

Get the book here.

Review: The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education – Kathryn Ecclestone & Dennis Hayes

The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education – Kathryn Ecclestone & Dennis Hayes

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These days there is a strong tradition of critical approaches to ‘Progressive’ approaches to education. However, when this book came out this was really not the case, and it was the first I read that made me realise there were certain orthodoxies in education that on the face of it appeared to make sense, but when questioned actually were quite problematic.

Ecclestone and Hayes take aim at the ‘therapeutic’ culture that was often promoted by the political and education establishment in the UK under the Labour government in the late 90s and early 2000s. They question the notion that schools should be providing emotional and social services to children, and that the way these are provided is even helpful to the problems they are meant to address.

I used to share this book with my BEd Primary Education students as part of a Personal Social & Health education module I taught, and as intended it certainly sparked some discussion. It’s hard to think analytically about how we care, and how this may or may not result in behaviors that are helpful and supportive of young people rather than exacerbating entrenched problems.

You don’t have to agree with it all, but I’d say engaging with the ideas in this book is essential for anyone working in schools or pastoral work with children and young people.

Get the book here.

Review: What I talk about when I talk about running – Haruki Murakami

What I talk about when I talk about running – Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is a hugely original writer, blending elements of fantasy into otherwise very deep and reflective novels and short stories. I first came across him though the short story ‘The Folklore of our Times‘ which stuck with me for much of my 20s, and later ‘Norwegian Wood’ one of the strangest but most affecting love stories I’ve written.

This book is a little different. It’s ostensibly a training diary leading up to his running the New York marathon. It goes much deeper than this though, revisiting races from his long experience of running, including capturing the running of an ultramarathon. Murakami reflects on an informal career in long distance running that is inextricably linked with his more formal career as a writer, and how it has affected his work.

He explains his approach to keeping a healthy routine and then importance this has to his work, but he never goes to far. Just as in many of his novels, he has a remarkable way of elegantly exploring areas where much is left unsaid. It is the reader that makes the meaning from his concise descriptions and reflections, and I found myself asking many questions about my own work and creative processes and how they fit into my life amongst all the other experiences I have.

Murakami’s characters are often unconventional, and I saw in him in this books the seeds of that; a man who is quite content to carve his own path. The monologues of his characters, and his own here, often show that everyone, even people living seemingly ordinary lives are unconventional in the way they see things, they way they experience them. Even you.

A great read for reflecting on the meaning of things the things you choose to do to fill your life.

Get the book here.

Review: Intro Neuroeducational Research – Paul Howard Jones

Intro Neuroeducational Research – Paul Howard Jones

People are fascinated with the potential of ‘hard science’ to influence teaching and learning, yet often this turns into fads with little basis in reality such as ‘Brain Gym’. In this book, an actual neuroscientist who has worked with many teachers explores the potential of the two disciplines to come together and move forward collaboratively.

Howard Jones covers some very complex material in a relatively accessible way, with a clear writing style and a good focus on what is important in the subject. He discusses the difference between education and neuroscience in their bases on concepts of the mind compared to those of the physicality of the brain, He deconstructs some of the ‘brain based’ myths that teachers have been sold over the years, and explores the much more nuanced territory of what they could really take from the science of brain structure and workings.

It’s certainly aimed as an academic book, but I think teachers with an interest in really getting to grips with this topic would be well served by this book. It clarifies a lot, but in doing so shows how complex and nuanced this area is. Don’t go here for some quick understanding of the brain to revolutionise your teaching. Do go here to be provoked and informed to think in a much smarter way about what neuroscience is and what we might or might not be able to do with it.

Get the book here.

Review: A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving

A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving

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Easter is one of those points in the year that gives me a little break and a mid year reflection point. One of my recent reflections is I’m not reading enough fiction these days, so I thought I’d recommend one of the most affecting fiction books I’ve read.

A Prayer for Own Meany tells the story of a remarkable bookish and quiet, but with a remarkable force of life in him that sees him achieve quietly amazing things. The book is beautifully written, expansive in it’s emotion, and explores well worth themes such as being different and platonic and romantic love in slowly suprising ways that will really make you reflect.

Get the book here.

Review: Gamestorming: A playbook for innovators, rulebreakers, and changemakers – Gray, Brown & Macanufo

Gamestorming: A playbook for innovators, rulebreakers, and changemakers – Gray, Brown & Macanufo

Many people dread workshops. At best they see them as a chance to switch off and snooze, at worst a teeth gratingly awkward journey through some contrived ice-breakers and cring inducing quips about ‘mood-hoovers’.

Done right though, they can be a very useful tool for generating and exploring ideas… and even a fun one.

When I was a lecturer I was running workshops almost every day, full of students often used to doing activities as if they were primary children, or lacking energy after a morning of lectures. I found this book a hugely usful stimulus for coming up with activities that were both active and deeper explorations of ideas.

The book uses a frame of ‘games’ to bring together a collection of workshop excercises that put participants right in the thick of activities. It has a thought provoking introduction on structuring activities over the longer term to reach particular goals, and then dives in to sections on different aspects of ideas generation, analysis, design and prototyping.

There are an awful lot of ideas in here, and the temptation could be to mix up your workshops all the time. However, I’ve found that choosing a structure and getting to know it well works best, and allows both you as leader and your participants to focus on the content they are considering rather than how the ‘structure of the day’ is meant to work.

After drawing on this book for a few months I did get known amongst students as someone always armed with a bag of post it notes… but at least that meant my sessions stood out!

Get the book here.

Review: Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas – Seymour Papert

Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas – Seymour Papert

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I’ve been re visiting the history of education technology, and in the area of programming and computing I’m not sure if there is a more important work. Papert was one of the inventors of the Logo programming language (remember that green turtle from school?). As he sets out here, Logo was as much a radical education philosophy as it was a programming tool.

Rather than a means to the end of ‘learning programming’, it was designed as an exploratory tool children could use to concretely embody ideas about mathematics and thinking that are usually too abstract for them to properly grasp early in their education.

As such, this book contains some really important counterpoint to much of the modern discussion of learning programming to get a good job and help the economy. The book is a good balance of powerful rhetorical argument and closely described examples of children learning using the tools and approaches Papert recommends.

Despite this book being almost as old as me, there really is very little to date it. Reading it now demonstrates that whilst our technology has moved on significantly from a little green triangle on screen, our thinking about it and our use of its potential for learning is still quite underdeveloped. There is much to critique here as well, especially due to the fact Logo was so assimilated into schools without really having the revolutionary effect that Papert describes here. However, the story isn’t over, and many people are building on this manifesto now that technology capable of teaching even more ‘powerful ideas’ is readily and cheaply available.

A visionary book that should be required reading for anyone working in computing education, or learning technology more generally.

Get the book here.

Review: How to come up with great ideas & actually make them happen – Ewan McIntosh

How to come up with great ideas & actually make them happen – Ewan McIntosh

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Ewan McIntosh takes big ideas and distills them into strategies that can be put into action for learning. His work on ‘design thinking’ was a huge influence on me when I was working in a school trying to develop project based learning with young children. His writing brought structures that could be used to some really abstract thinking I had been doing about how to understand the process of projects.

His work has gone broader than projects and design thinking, but he’s maintained a focus on taking big ideas and turning them into actionable tools and structures. This book brings together many of these, with a focus on organisational change and innovation, particularly in schools.

What I like most about the book is the balance of inspiring stories, discussion of more robust research, and the final step into tools, structures and methods that can actually make things happen (as he puts it). That last step takes this beyond most books on innovation or ideas, although it does situate it more firmly in formal learning institutions as a result. If you work in a school, college or university this is great, but if not I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to translate the specificity to your context. As long are you are involved in understanding and designing learning, this is a book your thinking will benefit from.

Get the book here.