The Battleground Bookshelf

May 16, 2009

I would recommend the following ten books to anyone interested in the issues covered in this blog:

“Why Don’t Students Like School?” by Daniel T. Willingham (2009). A book on what cognitive science can tell teachers by a professor of psychology. Some of it is common sense. Some of it is useful teaching advice. Some of it debunks rubbish like learning styles. Some of it is just interesting science. All of it is the perfect antidote to the nonsense teachers are told about the mind and the brain and how they work.

“All Must Have Prizes” by Melanie Phillips (1996). While I don’t agree with every policy suggested in it, this blistering polemic is a masterful survey of the dumbing down of education in the preceding decades. Devalued qualifications; attacks on content, and ridiculous methodologies are all given a thorough going over, as is the unaccountable, ideologically-motivated, educational establishment and the craven political classes responsible for what is described.

“Interest and Discipline in Education” by P.S.Wilson (1971). My favourite book from the philosophy of education boom in the sixties and seventies. Wilson analyses a number of key educational concepts in an interesting and thought-provoking way. I recommend it simply because once you have read the discussion on such things as “interest” and “needs” you will be more easily able to identify and challenge the shoddy, incoherent thinking on those topics that is still commonplace in education today.

“The Craft of The Classroom” by Michael Marland (1975). The classic, realistic guide to classroom management aimed at the secondary school teacher. This is solid practical advice that won’t achieve miracles, but is far superior to the sentimental nonsense that passes for advice in so much of the behaviour management industry. Solid routines, effective surveillance and “control” are seen as essential both to bring about learning and for the well-being of students.

“The Voice of Liberal Learning” by Michael Oakeshott (1989). A collection of philosophical essays by one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers. He helps establish the purposes of educational institutions as involving thought and knowledge rather than socialising inmates. Oakeshott, despite being a conservative, was always willing to think through concepts in new ways, and his analysis of what learning is remains the most convincing I have ever read.

“Does Education Matter?” by Alison Wolf  (2002). An analysis of education policy, concentrating particularly on vocational education. This book relates the recent history of efforts by politicians to boost the economy through education and the embarrassing mess that has resulted. The horror story of efforts to introduce vocational qualifications and “skills”, particularly in further education, is reason enough to distrust all alleged alternatives to an academic education.

“Wisdom, Information and Wonder” by Mary Midgley (1991). A philosophy book that seeks to answer the question of what knowledge is for. Not explicitly a book about schooling, this book, nevertheless, identifies many of the bad philosophical ideas that have poisoned our schools. She critiques the ideas that education is a simple accumulation of information and efforfts to make ethics a matter of subjective opinion, and suggests that unfashionable concepts such as wisdom and blame are still necessary.

“No Excuses” by Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom (2004). An American book explaining how schools in the US can close the “racial gap” in education. While the education gap in this country is more about class than race, the analysis still holds true. It turns out that the answer is providing good schools with good discipline and challenging the culture of failure is what works. By contrast, blaming everything on racist teachers and trying to raise children’s self-esteem doesn’t work.

“Laying Down the Law” by Joe Clark with Joe Picard (1989). The story of how a challenging US school was turned round, this book is the ultimate “how to” guide to improving a school. It’s pretty simple really. It turns out that if you stage a coup and impose a management regime that will refuse to tolerate teachers who don’t teach and students who don’t behave, there will be a positive effect on the lives of students. Inspiring and heroic.

“Surviving and Succeeding in Difficult Classrooms” by Paul Blum (1989). The best guide to teaching in the worst schools. Indispensable to teachers in bad situations; this is also a real eye-opener to anyone who wants to know just how bad things can get. Worth reading just for the introduction which explains just why we need to ignore the myth that behaviour problems can be solved simply by good teaching.


  1. I decided to limit myself to ten books for this blog entry. However, the following books also deserve an honourable mention:

    “Ethics and Education” by R.S. Peters
    “Philosophy and Practical Education” by John Wilson
    “What’s the Good of Education?” Edited by Stephen Machin and Anna Vignoles
    “The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education” by Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes
    “Dumbing Down our Kids” by Charles J. Sykes
    “The Spirituality of Christian Education” by John Baptist de la Salle
    “Everything You Need to Know to Survive Teaching” by The Ranting Teacher
    “It’s Your Time Your’re Wasting” by Frank Chalk
    “Bog Standard” by Daniel Ken
    “Why Johnny Can’t Read” by Rudolf Flesch
    (The second half of) “What’s Wrong with the World” by G.K.Chesterton

  2. Have you read any of the “How to get the buggers …” series? They seem a bit simplistic, but are very popular.

    I’m interested in the “Philosophy and Practical Education” title to which you refer.

    • My views on the only “buggers” book I have read are here:


      (The search archive facility is good for finding things like that. Why not try it?)

      • Thanks for the link.

        I have to say, I was a bit disappointed when I started to read “… Behave”. However, I asked you about the series of books. Have you read any of the others? Or, like me, did you wonder if it would be a waste of time?

        >A well known but unhelpful book is “Getting the Buggers to Behave” by Sue Cowley. Avoid it, as it would be better named “Letting the Buggers Misbehave”. It makes suggestions such as letting older children swear, chew gum and keep their coats on. It even suggests pretending to eat dog food as a way to win the students over, which is, quite frankly, as demeaning a suggestion as you are ever likely to hear.

        At least she didn’t suggest ACTUALLY eating dog food.

  3. However, I asked you about the series of books. Have you read any of the others?

    Which part of the phrase “the only buggers book I have read” did you not understand?

  4. I am surprised that you missed out
    “The Idea of a University” by John Henry Newman
    since it is one of the most influential books on a liberal education although it is mainly aimed out higher education.

    Two other fascinating books are
    “The Democratic Intellect” and “The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect” by George Elder Davie
    they are a philosophical history of the Scottish education system produced by the Enlightenment and particularly show how it managed to achieve a good general education for the Scottish people.

    • “The Idea of a University” was too university based to include, although I do like it.

      A copy of “The Democratic Intellect” lies on my shelf waiting for me to have time to read it.

  5. Even if I have given up on teaching, it seems I might have to do it after all (finance crisis just destroyed the labour market). Anyways, I’ll try to secure me one on the list for some bedtime reading.

  6. One day when I’m rich and idle, I’m sending a copy of Willingham to every policy maker, every education reporter and every school I can find. He’s excellent. If just a few people in influential positions take him seriously, my world will be a better place.

  7. Can’t thank you enough for introducing me to the work of Dan Willingham. I’m about half way through “Why Students Don’t Like School?” and it is a breath of fresh air compared to some of the drivel on the reading list from my PGCE five years ago.

    It makes a pleasant change to get advise on what to do in the class room and on how students think and learn based on objective research rather than by subjective anecdotal work based on the authors pet theory. It’s also writen very well. Ideed I found it odd during my training that books that were there to help you teach better were so poor at teaching you how to do it.

    Just got to work through some more of the reading list now.

  8. Thanks for info on “Why Don’t Students Like School?”.

    Have just ordered on Amazon and they signed me up for free 1 day delivery for the next month. Should be here by Tuesday so Tuesday and Wednesday will be busy. Will post feedback as soon as I can.

  9. This is a great selection of books. I had to get so many crap and overcomplicated books for my PGCE, i wish i had a couple of those at the beginning of my teaching career.

    I would add two boooks which explain the psychology of adolescents –

    A fine young man – Michael Gurian

    Queenbees and wanabes – Rosalind wiseman

    Both helped me to understand the students and the motivations and thus help me improve my teaching with them

  10. […] the last appearance of the Battleground Bookshelf I have discovered another ten books worth recommending to anyone interested in the themes covered […]

  11. It seems that Gove is also a fan of Daniel Willingham (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20319008). Willingham’s book is probably the most useful book I have ever read in enhancing my teaching (though Bounce by Matthew Syed comes close)

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