Recommendations

Discover my recent book recommendations below, or explore the full searchable recommendations archive.

In the Houses of Their Dead: The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits

By Terry Alford

Recommended on: 18th November 2022

In the Houses of their Dead: The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits, by Terry Alford. This meandering book provides background about both Abraham Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, through a cast of lesser-known characters, often involved in spiritualism, who were acquainted with both men.  The book provides context on the US era of the 1850s through 1860s. Alford is a good writer, but the final portions of the book were a bit of a disappointment as Alford plodded on through the dispiriting lives of relatively minor, rather disappointing characters.

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Red Roulette

By Desmond Shum

Recommended on: 18th November 2022

Red Roulette: An Insider’s Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption, and Vengeance in Today’s China, by Desmond Shum.  This is a fascinating look at the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party by a brave man who stands out from the many others who gain privately as they enable and support mass public harm.

The CCP enabled Shum and his wife Whitney Duan’s rise into China’s billionaire class as the couple used their insider connections and natural smarts to built a massive air cargo facility at Beijing International Airport, as well as one of Beijing’s premier hotels.  But, much as with Bill Browder’s experiences in Putin’s Russia, (as told in Red Notice), Shum and his wife gradually became inconvenient for the CCP, and she was to disappear even while Shum himself escaped to the West. A riveting cautionary tale of how one superpower can operate. 

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Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body

By Daniel Goleman and  Richard J. Davidson

Recommended on: 2nd November 2022

Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body by Daniel Goleman and  Richard J. Davidson.  Barb spent the past week teaching about the neuroscience of teaching and learning at the Tergar Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal.  The Lead Abbot of the monastery is Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, perhaps the best-studied yogi in the world (here is a recent paper, co-authored by Davidson, summarizing the extraordinary differences in how Rinpoche’s brain as compared to the brains of typical controls).  Altered Traits gives a careful guide into what is known, and some of what is not known, about the neuroscience involved in various meditative processes. (For those wishing to dive deeper, here is a synthesizing article, behind a pay wall except fot the abstract, about the neuroscience of meditation.) 

There is some evidence that focused types of meditation, such as those that rely on bringing back attention that wanders, may suppress the activities of the default mode network–the brain’s states of relaxation. This suppression can reduce anxiety, which is great.  But there is perhaps a concomitant trade-off of reducing the mind-wandering that can sometimes be at the heart of creativity.  

During his discussions with Barb, as well as in his book The Joy of Living, (a very informative book on Buddhist meditative practices), Rinpoche emphasized that there are many other forms of meditation, besides focused mode, with many different neural effects.  It does seem, however, that many meditative practices begin with practice through focus, so it may good to be aware of potential tradeoffs in the type of meditative mind-training you may select. Meditation is indeed brain-changing!

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Running the Room: The Teacher’s Guide to Behaviour

By Tom Bennett

Recommended on: 21st September 2022

Running the Room: The Teacher’s Guide to Behaviour, by Tom Bennett. This book is a masterpiece of specific advice about how to handle a classroom, written by a former nightclub manager turned teacher who has become one of the world’s leading experts on classroom management. It’s virtually impossible to summarize the many pithy insights of this extraordinary book, but this snippet gives a sense of the approach:

 “I once saw behaviour deteriorate from excellent to terrible in a matter of a few weeks. The school had a challenging demographic, but the behaviour was good because the senior staff led a team of motivated teachers in a rigorous way. Then along came a new head, whose first words to the students were, ‘I want you to see me as a friend,’ and ‘I will always give you another chance.’ Within a week, the most ambitious of students had tested his word and found that he would indeed permit anything as long as they thought he was a nice guy. Within a second week, the change in behaviour was palpable. A month later, with little support, teachers started to give up. The school went into a terminal nose spin. But it was OK: the school head moved on after a few years to another school, and no one was hurt apart from thousands of children who had their futures shredded by naivety, incompetence and the fairy tales we tell ourselves to feel good.”

Tom’s book, along with his company’s training, provides critical information that should be taught in every pedagogical program:

  • How to deal with students who are late
  • What are the best ways to work with parents?
  • Managing cover lessons successfully
  • How to tame smartphones
  • The best way to design a seating plan
  • How to start the lesson for the first time
  • Dealing with low-level disruption
  • Getting the class quiet when you – and they – need it most

Whatever your approach to teaching (or parenting), you will almost certainly benefit from this book. A bonus is that Tom is a funny, insightful writeryou’ll enjoy even as you are learning.

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In Love with the World: A Monk’s Journey Through the Bardos of Living and Dying

By Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche and Helen Tworkov

Recommended on: 19th August 2022

In Love with the World: A Monk’s Journey Through the Bardos of Living and Dying, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche and Helen Tworkov. We’re a bit meditation-heavy lately. But this is because while in Nepal (along with many other Asian destinations) in October-November, Barb will be spending time at the Kathmandu Tergar Osel Ling Monastery. (Barb, Terry, and Beth’s book Uncommon Sense Teaching is used there as a textbook, thanks to its neuroscientific insight that also supports the monastery’s Buddhist perspectives.) In Love with the World is a fascinating book about the world of meditation because it centers around world-renowned Buddhist monk Mingyur Rinpoche’s near-death experience and the insights he gained from it.

Basically, Mingyur Rinpoche decided to do a “wandering retreat”—which meant going out into the real world instead of withdrawing into solitary meditation. In some sense, he sought to escape the patterns that had been locked in by his habitual, basal ganglia-based procedural system.  As he notes: “To break the mold of my conditioning, I had needed to do something a little extreme. In order to break through our conditioning and confront old habits, we might deliberately reverse a common pattern, at least for a limited time: If we habitually pick up a cup with our right hand, we commit to using our left hand; or we vow not to check our media devices more than once an hour; or for one week we promise never to exceed the speed limit when driving. I do not drive, but I have been told that this can be quite difficult. Anything that interferes with mindless repetition can function as a wake-up call, and an antidote to automatic, mindless behavior and habitual fixations. To encourage curiosity and flexibility, it’s important to discover our limits, and then stretch a bit further. In terms of lifestyle, a wandering retreat for me was a very big stretch, no doubt about it. But… That’s how I’d ended up on this train, all alone, in the middle of the night.”

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Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

By Sam Harris

Recommended on: 8th August 2022

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris.  This book is meant to be a common sense guide to finding spirituality without necessarily springboarding from a religious tradition. 

In Harris’s hands, we gain a clearer understanding of mindfulness. “It is simply a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant.” (But for those LHTLers amongst us who are interested in such matters, it seems cultivating mindfulness translates to continuously maintaining focus and concomittently diminishing both anxiety and creativity, perhaps a mixed blessing.) 

As Harris notes: “The crucial point is that you can glimpse something about the nature of consciousness that will liberate you from suffering in the present. Even just recognizing the impermanence of your mental states—deeply, not merely as an idea—can transform your life.”

Harris has knocked around the world of meditation for many yearslong enough to have a good feel for both the best and the worst of meditation experts and spiritual gurus.  You’ll find yourself thinking about Harris’s ideas  long after you finish the book.

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The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil

By Tina Brown

Recommended on: 19th July 2022

The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil, by Tina Brown.  We have to admit, we enjoy gossip about the British monarchy. And few are as “in the know” gossip-wise as Tina Brown, former top editor of some of the world’s leading magazines, including Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.  Brown covers all today’s leading charactersCamilla, Duchess of Cornwall; Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge; Meghan, Duchess of Sussex; William and Harry; and of course the Queen herself.  What’s particularly interesting about this book is how Brown doesn’t take sides.  Even when there’s an easy layup to dump on someone, Brown digs deeper and shows matters from multiple perspectives. Everyone comes out spattered with a bit of both mud and gold.  

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Flicker: Your Brain on Movies

By Jeffrey Zacks

Recommended on: 20th June 2022

Flicker: Your Brain on Movies, by Jeffrey Zacks.  We have no idea how this magnificent book slipped under our radar when it was first published in 2014, but it’s a doozy!  Zacks is a renowned neuroscientist, but he also loves movies. The result let’s us peer into Zack’s life’s work, including an in-depth look inside movies to see what makes them work, and what makes us love them. 

Most followers of Learning How to Learn, as well as virtually all cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists are aware of working memory.  But few are aware of the importance of “event models”–the contents of working memory.  We believe the concept of event models, which Dr. Zacks helped pioneer, will become an important one in education, and particularly online education.  More about that to come in our upcoming MOOC 3 of Uncommon Sense Teaching!

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The San Francisco Fallacy: The Ten Fallacies That Make Founders Fail

By Jonathan Siegel

Recommended on: 20th June 2022

The San Francisco Fallacy: The Ten Fallacies That Make Founders Fail, Jonathan Siegel. Many books on entrepreneurship tell you what to look for, and what to look out for.  But they don’t focus on the failures–and how those failures can eventually lead to success.  Siegel’s book is jaw-droppingly good. He knows how to write and how to tell a story—this means that it’s hard to put his book down as he makes point after point from his sometimes disastrous, but ultimately phenomenally successful career as an entrepreneur and angel investor. ( Incidentally, the “San Francisco Fallacy” refers to herd mentality in thinking that the enormously expensive Silicon Valley area is necessarily the place to go for tech startups.) 

VERY highly recommended!

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The 2-Hour Cocktail Party: How to Build Big Relationships with Small Gatherings

By Nick Gray

Recommended on: 16th June 2022

The 2-Hour Cocktail Party: How to Build Big Relationships with Small Gatherings, by Nick Gray. The more Barb has researched the neuroscience underlying how we learn, the more she (as a shy person simulating an extrovert) has discovered the importance of personal relationships, not only in learning, but in life.  Interacting with people with whom you have become familiar, as it turns out, activates the brain’s reward mechanisms.  It’s little wonder that we teachers like to use techniques such as “Think-Pair-Share,” and collaborative learning sessions sprinkled amongst the more difficult sessions of explicit instruction.

Which leads us right to Nick Gray’s delightful The 2-Hour Cocktail Party! (Nick himself, it should be pointed out, doesn’t drink, so alcohol isn’t at all necessary for Nick’s approach to work.)  The trick to activating those happy feelings of reward, remember, is not just interacting with people—it’s interacting with people with whom you are familiar.  How do you become familiar with people?  Invite them to a short cocktail party!  And that’s part of the trick—the party should be short.  Nick (in real life, one of the world’s nicest people) shows you how to comfortably set up the part, from sending out the first invitations, inviting your great guests (people you’ve wanted to meet!), pre-party prep, navigating the first twenty minutes, icebreakers, how to end on a high note, and what to do the day after.  

This is a wonderful book—Barb is planning her first party for after the launch of MOOC 3 of the Uncommon Sense Teaching specialization (Teaching Online) in two months! 

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The Distributed Classroom

By David Joyner and Charles Isbell

Recommended on: 31st May 2022

The Distributed Classroom, by David Joyner and Charles Isbell. Online teaching has a sometimes confusing welter of terminology. Common buzz words include synchronous, asynchronous, remote, flipped, hybrid (blended), and hyflex. (This article provides a quick overview of what these terms mean.)  Where Joyner and Isbell’s book comes in is to provide an encompassing perspective on how the many different forms of online learning can be used by universities, high schools, and other educational institutions to meet the needs of diverse populations.  Both authors have been deeply involved in the development of Georgia Tech’s outstanding Online Master of Science in Computer Science (or OMSCS) degree, which has captured 10% of the market for US computer science masters degrees and has become one of (if not the) largest masters program in the world due to its quality, accessibility, and low price. If you are interested in creating better online programs, this book is worth your time.

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Who Killed Jane Stanford?: A Gilded Age Tale of Murder, Deceit, Spirits and the Birth of a University

By Richard White

Recommended on: 31st May 2022

Who Killed Jane Stanford has all the ingredients of a thriller—a murder by strychnine of the primary founder of one of the world’s leading universities. In able hands, this book would have been a real page-turner—the deceit, acrimony, corruption and malevolence by academicians that underlie the true origins of Stanford University are mindblowing.  Sadly, the bulk of the writing centers on petty details, while skimming over important big-picture issues such as the corrupt means by which Leland Stanford apparently gained his wealth.  A great book if you like petty details.

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Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea

By Jens Mühling

Recommended on: 24th May 2022

Barb glanced at the title of this book and thought, “The last thing I need is to be diving into, (amidst the hundreds of samples already downloaded onto the Kindle), is a book about the Black Sea.” Out of curiosity, she took a look at the first couple pages, and suddenly she was one hundred pages in, hooked by Mühling’s combination of scintillating prose (which comes across even in the translation by  Simon Pare from the original German) and remarkable ability to bring out fascinating bits of local lore and culture.  Troubled Water, as it turns out, is a compendium not only of adventure travel (fortunately, Mühling has a remarkable talent for holding his alcohol), but also of semi-forgotten and little-known groups. We learn, for example, of the Karaites, a Jewish religious movement that recognizes the written Torah alone as its supreme authority in Jewish religious law and theology (this subtle difference in beliefs protected the Crimean Kariates from the Nazis in World War II). And we learn how successful Russian efforts to foment divisiveness in Abkhazia has kept that gorgeous region from helping its people progress. Mühling has no more than to hear about an outlying cultural group, whether it’s Turks in Romania, Bulgarians in Turkey, Greeks in Russia, or simply a hermit, and off he goes on the hunt to meet them. Mühling’s serviceable Russian is extremely helpful in these parts of the world, but it’s a lucky thing that Mühling is Germanit allows him to gain insights and confidences that many writers in English miss.  And we learn of all sorts of other aspects of the biology of the Black Seafor example, the fact that its unusual top layer of fresh water and bottom layer of salt makes a poisonous mixture that leaves three-thousand-year old sunken vessels as fresh as if they had sunk yesterday. 

If you want a “you are there” reading experience that gives you a good feel for a vitally important region, you couldn’t do better than to read Jens Mühling’s fantastic Troubled Water. Highly recommended!

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99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos: A Guide for Online Teachers and Flipped Classes

By Karen Costa

Recommended on: 24th May 2022

99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos: A Guide for Online Teachers and Flipped Classes, by Karen Costa. This simple, upbeat, encouraging book gives a nice boost for creating simple online videos for your classes that can be used over and over again (hence the “sustainable”) part of the title.  As Costa notes: “I’m here to shout from the rooftops that videos will make your life easier! Let me explain. How many e-mails or phone calls from students do you respond to each term asking you the same questions over and over? Tons, right? I teach first-year students, often in their very first online course. They have a lot of questions, and they need almost constant support. Being a great teacher is time-consuming. What if we could support our students and save ourselves time in the process?… This time is given back to me tenfold in the time that I save from answering countless and repetitive questions term after term. I have taught with and without these videos, and I can attest to the fact that in the terms in which I use videos, I receive far fewer frequently asked question-type queries from my students, and the quality of my students’ work is much better. That means I also spend less time working with students on revisions or resubmissions, because they are more likely to get it right the first time. While creating a video might cost you 15 minutes, it will pay you back in saved time.” 

If you’re looking for a quick-to-read motivator to get you going with simple videos, this is a good book to get you started.

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I Love You All the Time – and – You Have Feelings All the Time

By Deborah Farmer Kris

Recommended on: 3rd May 2022

I Love You All the Time and You Have Feelings All the Time by child development expert Deborah Farmer Kris, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin. These wonderful books are meant to reassure children about your enduring love for your child, whether they are mad, glad, or sad, and also to help your child to recognize and manage their feelings.  Start by skipping past the delightful illustrations to read the letter to caregivers at the back of the bookyou’ll get a sense from these brief instructions of how to best use and teach the ideas in the books as you go through the book with your toddler or pre-schooler.  Then enjoy paging through the book together reading aloud with your little one.  Highly recommended and engaging for youngsters!

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After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Époque Through Revolution and War

By Helen Rappaport

Recommended on: 29th April 2022

After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Époque Through Revolution and War by Helen Rappaport. As Barb was learning Russian back in the 1970s, the exiled “White” Russians (that is, those who opposed the communist “Reds”), had left their mark on the Russian-speaking diaspora worldwide. So it was fascinating to read this book and learn more about this community of millions who fled Russia as a result of the Soviet take-over in 1917.  What makes this book particularly intriguing is the many personal stories. Talented writers and poets in exile, for example, who found themselves lost in melancholia, unpublishable under Soviet censorship; and the mind-bogglingly wealthy who were lucky enough to escape largely penniless to the West, re-emerging as seamstresses and taxi-drivers, or worse, as drunks and suicides.

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The Brain in Search of Itself: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the Story of the Neuron

By Benjamin Ehrlich

Recommended on: 10th April 2022

The Brain in Search of Itself: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the Story of the Neuron, by Benjamin Ehrlich.  What a magnificent book!  Longtime fans of Learning How to Learn know that we’re in turn longtime fans of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience.  As a youngster, Santiago struggled markedly with his learning, and as this remarkably researched book describes.  We can’t help but wonder whether Santiago might have had dyslexia coupled with dyslexia’s frequent comorbid companion: ADHD. Hints and clues abound through the text:

  •  “…though he struggled to remember the spelling of words or their order within a sentence, Santiagüé never forgot an image… his talent allowed him to reproduce even the most intricate maps to perfection.
  •  “… his academic reputation was far from stellar. Cajal ‘was the typical student who was inattentive, lazy, disobedient, and annoying, a nightmare for his parents, teachers, and patrons,’ one teacher at Huesca recalled. He ‘will only stop in jail,’ predicted another, ‘if they do not hang him first.’
  • “[Santiago] passed his examinations at the end of the year in Latin I , Castilian I , Principles and Exercises in Arithmetic, and Christian History and Doctrine , earning the lowest possible grades—no doubt aided by the fact that [his father] had performed a life-saving surgery on the wife of one of the examination judges.
  • “Careful not to slacken ‘the creative tension of the mind,’ he avoided gossiping and reading newspapers , ceased writing short stories , abandoned the study of hypnotism , and even quit playing chess . He exercised his will not because he was uninterested in the world around him but precisely because he knew himself to be so distractible.  [Those with ADHD can have hyperfocus in what they are interested in—but also be easily distractable.]
  • “All who had known the Nobel Prize winner as a young delinquent responded with the same expression: utter shock.”

Cajal was a fabulously gifted and prescient researcher who pushed back against the stodgy “academic reactionists“ who, then as now, clung to outmoded ideas.  (One of Cajal’s colleagues disparaged the new truths of microscopy as “pure fantasy.”) This is a brilliant, beautifully-written book for all who wish to have a sense of how neuroscience was moved to a solid, modern foundation. A great biography of a great man.

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Journey of the Mind: How Thinking Emerged from Chaos

By Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam

Recommended on: 19th March 2022

Journey of the Mind: How Thinking Emerged from Chaos, by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam. This engrossing book provides a step-by-step understanding of how consciousness, language, self-awareness, and civilization itself arose. What’s unique about this book is its gradual exploration, with vivid illustrations, of how consciousness advanced as it progressed from amoeba to worms, frogs, birds, monkeys and humans.  In the context of all this, we learn of the extraordinary work of Stephen Grossberg, a Newton of neuroscience whose groundbreaking discoveries have quietly underpinned many neuroscientific advances. Highly recommended!

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The Molecule of More

By Daniel Z. Lieberman and Michael E. Long

Recommended on: 10th March 2022

The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity–and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race, by Daniel Z. Lieberman and Michael E. Long.  This book starts out with a bang, differentiating future-oriented, anticipatory dopamine from “here and now” oriented molecules like serotonin: “Dopamine is one of the instigators of love, the source of the spark that sets off all that follows. But for love to continue beyond that stage, the nature of the love relationship has to change because the chemical symphony behind it changes. Dopamine isn’t the pleasure molecule, after all. It’s the anticipation molecule. To enjoy the things we have, as opposed to the things that are only possible, our brains must transition from future-oriented dopamine to present-oriented chemicals, a collection of neurotransmitters we call the Here and Now molecules… [t]hey include serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins (your brain’s version of morphine), and a class of chemicals called endocannabinoids (your brain’s version of marijuana). As opposed to the pleasure of anticipation via dopamine, these chemicals give us pleasure from sensation and emotion.”  And off the authors go on a journey to describe dopamine and its influence on motivation and drive. The end of the book became a bit too speculative for our tastes, but the beginning of the journey made the trip worthwhile.

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