Discover my recent book recommendations below, or explore the full searchable recommendations archive.
Traditional Math: An effective strategy that teachers feel guilty using
By Barry Garelick and JR Wilson
Recommended on: 22nd February 2023
Traditional Math: An effective strategy that teachers feel guilty using, by Barry Garelick and JR Wilson. This wonderful book is highly recommended for parents, grandparents, and teachers of all kinds who would like a solid guide to help youngsters learn math in a simple, elegant, and straightforward way. As Stanford mathematician Wayne Bishop has pointed out, leaders in modern mathematics education often sadly and erroneously continue to push Freudenthal Institute’s discredited “reform” approaches to teaching math. On the uplifting side, as Bishop also points out apropos Traditional Math, “this book is a wealth of down-to-earth, logically presented topics from kindergarten through beginning algebra. The work will be effective for most mathematics teachers but especially so for those who have been indoctrinated with reform math but are recognizing its ineffectiveness and in need of solid ideas.”
Barb will be using this book with her new granddaughter as she grows up!
On a side note, Barb & her Hero Husband Phil raised their two daughters with twenty minutes of carefully designed extra math practice through use of the Kumon math program. The result of this extra “drill and kill” practice? One daughter is now a Stanford trained pediatrician, and the second is a graduate level statistician. Yet reform educators would have one believe that the decade Barb and Phil gave their daughters of twenty minutes of daily extra math practice would turn the girls away from math. What reform educators characterize as “drill and kill” is actually all-important “drill to skill”!
It certainly wasn’t that the girls loved every day of their practice. (Take heart, homeschooling parents!) But that practice led to the solid internalization of mathematical patterns that the girls needed long-term for professional careers in STEM—and for them to feel comfortable with and ultimately learn to love mathematics. Incidentally, when Barb was recently in Vietnam, she learned that her daughter’s statistics graduate advisor rarely takes on students educated in the US, because he has found that US-trained students simply don’t have the comfort and ability with math of students from countries that use more traditional approaches to teaching math. All those years of a little bit of extra practice a day for the Oakley girls paid off! (And interleaving of math practice, as with Kumon and Smartick, rules!)MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
By Daniel L. Everett
Recommended on: 2nd February 2023
Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, by Daniel L. Everett. At a time when ChatGPT has everyone’s attention, this timeless book of exploration by linguist Daniel Everett lends perspective on the nature of language. It also describes what might be called the views of “happy stoics” (the Pirahã) and their perspectives on life itself.
Daniel Everett was a brilliant missionary, graduating at the top of his class from the Moody Bible Institute, who was sent to crack the seemingly uncrackable Pirahã language in the far-off reaches of the Amazon and translate the bible into Pirahã. What Everett found was unexpected—that the Pirahã language appeared to overthrow the vaunted linguistic theories of MIT’s Noam Chomsky. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Pirahã worldview challenged and changed Everett in ways he himself would never have predicted.
Interestingly, Chomsky’s recursion theory, convincingly rebutted by Everett’s hard-won research, was developed with Marc Hauser, the disgraced former professor who resigned from Harvard after substantive allegations of scientific misconduct. As our own Terry Sejnowski describes in his Deep Learning Revolution, Chomsky’s theorizing is thought to have held back advances in artificial intelligence by decades. (We suspect far more will come out about Chomsky and his theories after his passing.) If you like adventure, language, numerical thinking, or what happens when worldviews collide, you’ll almost certainly love Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, just as we did. Enjoy! (And if you like audiobooks, this one is read by Dan Everett himself, so you could enjoy the nuances of the Pirahã language as spoken by the world’s best non-native speaker of Pirahã.)MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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Power Failure: The Rise and Fall of an American Icon
By William D. Cohan
Recommended on: 2nd February 2023
Power Failure: The Rise and Fall of an American Icon by William D. Cohan. This book has earned pride of place on The New Yorker Best Books of 2022, The Financial Times Best Books of 2022, and The Economist Best Books of 2022. Great leadership in business matters in providing for people’s needs, as Southwest Airline’s recent catastrophic meltdown attests. Power Failure is the magnificent telling of the rise and fall of one of America’s formerly greatest companies, and a cautionary tale of how eminence can lead managers to hubris—and disaster.
General Electric Company grew in the late 1800s from Thomas Edison’s brilliant innovations. By 1896, the company was so important that it was one of the original 12 companies listed on the newly formed Dow Jones Industrial Average. Ultimately, the company’s story revolves around two men. Jack Welch, who is sometimes called “the CEO of the Century,” took GE to greatness during his reign as Chairman & CEO from 1981–2001. Many people working for GE revered Welch, whose rapid-fire and flexible brilliance (he also sported a doctorate in chemical engineering) meant that he relished well-reasoned dissent. Welch’s successor was Jeff Immelt, a Harvard MBA whose slick ability to present and glad-hand were enough to get him to the top—but not make great decisions. It turned out that Immelt, unlike Welch, didn’t tolerate dissent and rarely took advice from others. Under Immelt’s leadership GE lost over $150 billion in market value—the company was not only ultimately dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average, but dismembered. (Cohan points out how Immelt’s self-serving biography often seems at variance with the facts.)
Cohan’s book provides a perceptive perspective on capitalism itself—the motivational aspects for workers and fulfillment of people’s needs that great companies can provide. But also, the cutthroat death spirals that companies can fall into. As Cohan pointedly observes, General Electric’s current CEO is the one who seems to be making all the money—not share holders. A lengthy read, but worth every page.MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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By Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian
Recommended on: 9th January 2023
Tiger Woods by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian
We are major fans of biographies—this is our favorite genre, so when we say that Tiger Woods is one of the best biographies we’ve ever read, it also means it’s one of the best books we’ve ever read. (That’s really saying something, since we knew nothing about golf going into the book.) From its opening pages at the scene of Tigers’ very public car wreck, and working backward through his implosive career arc, Tiger Woods is a book that’s virtually impossible to put down. It’s hard to believe the authors could bring such great insight when they weren’t even able to interview their subject, but if anything, the book is probably even better for its dispassionate ability to delve into the thick of Woods’ increasingly aberrant life. For parents, Tiger Woods provides a wonderful instructional manual on how not to raise your kids. A must-read.MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t
By Julia Galef
Recommended on: 15th December 2022
The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t, by Julia Galef.
Critical thinking has stood for decades near the top of the World Economic Forum’s “10 skills needed to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution.” A real standout for us amongst the hundreds of books on this vitally-important topic is The Scout Mindset—a book about being able to see things as they are, not as you wish they were.
You can think about it this way. Some people are like soldiers. They are there to protect their own thoughts and the thoughts of their team. It really doesn’t matter if those thoughts are well-founded or not, their job is to fight off any evidence that might be threatening to their position. As Galef, co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, observes: “A scout is different. Scouts are sent out to find out what is really out there—not what we want to be there.”
If you are looking for a great holiday gift, we highly recommend The Scout Mindset—one of the best books on critical thinking we’ve encountered.MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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Awaken Your Genius: Escape Conformity, Ignite Creativity, and Become Extraordinary
By Ozan Varol
Recommended on: 7th December 2022
Awaken Your Genius: Escape Conformity, Ignite Creativity, and Become Extraordinary, by Ozan Varol. The deluge of today’s lifestyles can ultimately lead to overload and shutdown. Awaken Your Genius uses uncommon stories coupled with research findings to lift and inspire. This great book will help you hit refresh on your sense of possibility. Highly recommended!MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel
By George Sauders
Recommended on: 5th December 2022
Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel, by George Sauders. While spending time in the Tibetan Tergar Monastery in Kathmandu, Barb heard a lot about Buddhist theories of reincarnation and the “bardo,” an intermediate state between death and rebirth that might also be related to Western conceptions of poltergeist activities. So, after reading In the Houses of their Dead, it was a good time to also explore how the ideas related to the bardo can be explored in fiction. This was a spirited effort to explore the afterlife in a way that adds meaning to our current lives. Odd, yet oddly satisfying.MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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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.MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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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.MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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!MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family
By Qui Nguyen
Recommended on: 21st September 2022MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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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 writer—you’ll enjoy even as you are learning.MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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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.”MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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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 years—long 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.MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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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 characters—Camilla, 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.MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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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!MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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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!MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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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!MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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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.MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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.MORE INFORMATION FROM AMAZON.COM >
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