Recommendations

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

Seven Essentials for Business Success

By George Siedel

Recommended on: 17th September 2021

Seven Essentials for Business Success, by George Seidel. Since we aren’t in the world of business, we found Dr. Seidel’s description of the world of business education, and the philosophy of great professor-teachers in business, to be intriguing.  The discussion is filled with nuggets of thought-provoking, teaching-related information we’d never encountered before, as for example: 

“In 1995, Robert Coles, a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard University, published an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled ‘The Disparity Between Intellect and Character.’ He wrote the essay after meeting with a student who was distraught after another student propositioned her on more than one occasion. She recounted to Professor Coles that she had ‘taken two moral-reasoning courses with [the other student], and I’m sure he’s gotten As in both of them—and look at how he behaves with me, and I’m sure with others.’ She went on to note, ‘I’ve been taking all these philosophy courses, and we talk about what’s true, what’s important, what’s good. Well, how do you teach people to be good?’”

Now that’s an important question for us as teachers!

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Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization

By Edward Slingerland

Recommended on: 13th September 2021

Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, by Edward Slingerland.  We were a little taken aback at the title and topic of this book.  After all, drunkenness is not a state most of us aspire to—at least not most of the time—and alcoholism is a tremendous bane.  Yet, while acknowledging alcohol’s dark side, Slingerland makes a credible case that alcohol, by virtue of its ability to tone down the ever-self-conscious prefrontal cortex, can have a helpful impact on the human condition, including the fostering of trust and opening of creativity. By turns witty and thought-provoking, Slingerland leads us through a new perspective on alcohol. This passage gives a sense of the book’s style and approach: 

“A significant portion of the Incan Empire’s organized labor was directed toward the production and distribution of the corn-based intoxicant chicha. Even ancient dead people were obsessed with getting wasted. It is hard to find a culture that did not send off their dead with copious quantities of alcohol, cannabis, or other intoxicants. Chinese tombs from the Shang Dynasty were packed with elaborate wine vessels of every shape and size, in both pottery and bronze. This represented a cultural investment equivalent, in today’s terms, to burying a few brand-new Mercedes SUVs in the ground with their trunks full of vintage Burgundy. Ancient Egyptian elites, the world’s first wine snobs, were sent off in tombs full of jars that carefully recorded the vintage, quality, and name of their content’s maker. Because of its centrality in human life, economic and political power has often been grounded in the ability to produce or supply intoxicants.”

Drunk is an interesting and thoughtful read—also good for audio listening.

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The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism

By Olivia Fox Cabane

Recommended on: 8th September 2021

The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, by Olivia Fox Cabane.  Every once in a while, it’s good to return to a book that’s shown its worth through the years.  Just such a book is The Charisma Myth, which is one of the best books we’ve ever read about how to get along with people while simultaneously being more persuasive, influential, inspiring, and yes, charming. (Who knew that charm could be taught?)  If you feel uncomfortable in meeting people and interacting in public settings, this is one of the best books we could suggest to help.  Also good for audio.

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Set it & Forget it: Are you ready to transform your sleep?

By Daniel Erichsen

Recommended on: 31st August 2021

Set it & Forget it: Are you ready to transform your sleep? by Daniel Erichsen.  Barb’s been doing her darndest over these past few years to try to make sure she gets at least eight hours of sleep most evenings.  Well, there’s been a problem with that.  Mostly, she just can’t get eight hours of sleep—instead, she generally spends an hour or two staring into the darkness trying to fall asleep.

Enter Daniel Erichsen’s intriguing, easy-to-read but potentially life-changing Set it & Forget itDr. Erichsen is a pediatrician who has also studied sleep medicine at the University of Chicago—his passion is helping people to improve their sleep.  His counterintuitive advice?  We generally don’t need as much sleep as the “experts” say.  Erichsen suggests simple, workable approaches for detecting when you are truly sleepy, (as opposed to just tired), and perhaps most importantly, he provides advice for reducing the stress that causes so many of us to lose sleep. (Oddly enough, one of the most common stressors on top of all our other daily stressors is that we stress about not getting enough sleep!)  If you have trouble sleeping, this thought-provoking book, and other related books and podcasts by Dr. Erichsen, may help bring you to your dreams.

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The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

By Tom Reiss

Recommended on: 27th August 2021

We can always tell when we’ve got a great book to read when we’re so excited about it that we sneak reading in even during the day, when we’re supposed to be working. And just such a book is Tom Reiss’s The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.  This is a stunningly good book—to be deposited on Barb’s shelf of “favorite books of history.”  It’s always fantastic when you read a biography centered around a decent, caring, but daring human being who gives whatever it takes to do it right by his fellow humans.  

Just such a person was Alex Dumas, father of the famous novelist Alexandre Dumas, (author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers—whose key characters were clearly based on aspects of the novelist’s father). Alex, the son of a white marquis and a black enslaved woman, Marie-Cessette Dumas, was the first person of color in the French military to become general-in-chief of a French army. What an extraordinary man!  You can’t help but read about his exploits and come to believe he was an eighteenth-century superhero. 

Reiss provides a very different perspective on the French Revolution and its destroyer, Napoleon Bonaparte.  By providing an in-depth perspective of someone who knew Napoleon well, we come to see how narcissistic Napoleon actually was.  And where the French Revolution had begun the process of freeing all enslaved people in French dominions, Napoleon moved to re-enslave them and to re-institutionalize racism in France.  (Somehow, this is never emphasized in Napoleon biographies.)  In the end, however, it is the wonderful exploits of Alex Dumas that makes this extraordinary book such a delight to read. Also fantastic for audio.

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Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World

By Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell

Recommended on: 16th August 2021

Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World, by Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell. In keeping with our enthusiasm for alcoholic beverages, and our own past experiences in the world of Marxist thinking, (both alcohol and Marxism feature in Barb’s Hair of the Dog: Tales from a Russian Trawler), we couldn’t help but be tickled by Lawson and Powell’s enlightening tales of travel through socialist societies. As Bob and Ben note: “In this book … we’re aiming for a popular audience that will appreciate not just our economic insights but our down-to-earth honesty. We wrote this book because too many people seem to be dangerously ignorant of what socialism is, how it functions, and its historical track record. We also wanted to get drunk in Cuba, and this was a great way to write off our expenses.” 

This not-to-be-missed book describes what’s really happening on the ground in socialist countries throughout the world—not just relating blinkered academic theory. Plus… beer.

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Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering

By Scott Small

Recommended on: 12th August 2021

Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering, by Scott Small.

This extraordinary book is the best, most riveting, most readable book related to learning (and PTSD, autism, memory, and a host of other topics) that we’ve ever read.  Small is an extraordinary writer—his tales of being at war, and why he didn’t develop PTSD despite what he’d experienced, provide thought-provoking insight for us all. And his simple, lucid explanations of why we forget—and how important it is to be able to forget—provide a whole new perspective on how you look at both life and learning.

Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Small provides a profound scientific underpinning for one of the most important points we make in Learning How to Learn—that having a great memory ain’t necessarily so great.  It can be hard for you to forget the details so that you can see the big picture.  (This is part of why people who can’t remember so well can be more creative.)  Even better, Dr. Small is by our estimation in the top ranks of non-fiction writers—our guess is that if he’d gone into writing fiction, he’d be ranked amongst the best in the world for his prose style.

We love this book—it is a tie for the best book we’ve ever read.  It’s also ideal for audio. You can’t start reading this fantastic book soon enough!

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Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste

By Bianca Bosker

Recommended on: 8th August 2021

We give an enthusiastic thumbs up for Bianca Bosker’s fantastic book Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste. You might think that this is just a simple book about wine tasting.  It’s not. Or rather, it is about wine tasting, but it is SO much more!  Much like our other favorite “immersion learning” book, Moonwalking with Einstein, Cork Dork is one person’s hilariously obsessive, but scientifically-informed pursuit of the development of memory.  But this time, rather than learning to memorize things like cards, numbers, or names, Bosker is learning to remember tastes and smells. That might seem inconsequential, but as Bosker reveals, improving your sense of taste and smell, in fact, improves all of your cognition.  Bottom’s up to this brilliant book! (Bosker also reads the Audible version; you may be able to get two free audiobooks through this link.)

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Greenlights

By Matthew McConaughey

Recommended on: 1st August 2021

Greenlights, by Matthew McConaughey.  It took us a bit to get used to McConaughey’s style. But once he hits his stride with stories, Greenlights soars as an unparalleled autobiography of a funny, tough, unfailingly curious extrovert with a sense that the world is conspiring to make him happy.  This is the kind of book you read so you’ve got funny stories to haul out when you’re sitting around jawing with friends. But the book goes much deeper than that, with insights ranging from the sacrifices and risks needed to get to where you want to go, to finding the love of one’s life, to the value of listening to your intuition.  Highly recommended—also good for audio (McConaughey himself is the narrator).

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Clean: The New Science of Skin

By James Hamblin

Recommended on: 29th July 2021

Clean: The New Science of Skin, by James Hamblin.  Clean begins with a startling claim: author James Hamblin, a medical doctor, had stopped showering for five years and had given up as well on shampoo, conditioner, or soap, except on his hands.  With this unusual introduction, Hamblin moves on to describe soap, skin, and the entire set of related industries.  The book is filled with interesting factoids, such as that the pharmaceutical industry is tightly regulated at great expense, but the cosmetics industry is basically the wild west—“there are currently no legal requirements for any cosmetic manufacturer marketing products to American consumers to test their products for safety.”  That, in a nutshell, is why you can find seemingly elegant $60 creams and lotions with the same basic ingredients as a $6 tube. 

Clean was named a Best Book of 2020 by NPR and Vanity Fair. This is an especially worthwhile book if you have skin issues, or spend a lot on skin products, or have ever wondered why—and whether it’s reasonable—to spend so much on skin products. Clean is also a good book for audio.

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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

By Stephen Greenblatt

Recommended on: 8th July 2021

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. One of the things we love about reading is that it allows us to discover how much we don’t know.  We had no clue, for example, about how the works of ancient Roman writers were able to make their way through two thousand years of mold, mildew, bookworms (the real kind), fire, and purposeful destruction. Greenblatt allows us to follow in the footsteps of Italian politician and humanist Poggio Braccilioni who, in the early 1400s, undertook journeys to northern Europe to seek out such ancient manuscripts as he could find hidden away in monasteries.  By leaning in to Poggio’s methods, we learn how and why manuscripts survived—often under the care of monks who were utterly opposed to the ideas contained in those ancient, heretical documents.  One of Poggio’s discoveries was epic. It was, in fact, Lucretius’s De rerum natura: On the Nature of Things, a poem that spelled out a shockingly prescient worldview of a world derived only of atoms that swerve—not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.  

Greenblatt explores the nature of the Italian world of the middle ages, and also shows how important free thought, shocking though it may be, has been for the development of the modern world. The Swerve is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction. Highly recommended, and an excellent book for audio listening. [Hat tip, Sadegh Nabavi]

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A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence

By Jeff Hawkins

Recommended on: 1st July 2021

A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins. Hawkins is a neuroscientist as well as one of the most successful and highly regarded computer architects in Silicon Valley. Some of his scientific papers have become the most downloaded and cited papers in their journals. 

A Thousand Brains is one of the most intriguing books we’ve ever read about the brain—Hawkins takes an utterly novel approach to understanding how the brain works.  As he notes: 

“People often say the brain is the most complicated thing in the universe. They conclude from this that there will not be a simple explanation for how it works, or that perhaps we will never understand it. The history of scientific discovery suggests they are wrong. Major discoveries are almost always preceded by bewildering, complex observations. With the correct theoretical framework, the complexity does not disappear, but it no longer seems confusing or daunting. A familiar example is the movement of the planets. For thousands of years, astronomers carefully tracked the motion of the planets among the stars. The path of a planet over the course of a year is complex, darting this way and that, making loops in the sky. It was hard to imagine an explanation for these wild movements. Today, every child learns the basic idea that the planets orbit the Sun… Similarly, I always believed that the neocortex appeared complicated largely because we didn’t understand it, and that it would appear relatively simple in hindsight. Once we knew the solution, we would look back and say, ‘Oh, of course, why didn’t we think of that?’” 

Hawkin’s book proceeds to lay out precisely those relatively straightforward ideas—often arising from his group’s research—that make the brain much easier to understand.  He also makes a prescient case for why artificial intelligence will advance only by copying the approaches used by the human brain.  Highly recommended for brain buffs and those interested in artificial intelligence.

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Churchill & Son

By Josh Ireland

Recommended on: 17th June 2021

Churchill & Son, by Josh Ireland. Reaching the end of a fantastic book like Churchill & Son is bittersweet. There’s a feeling of satisfaction with the closure, but that satisfaction is mixed with the sad knowledge that you will not be able to return and spend more time with characters and a story you’ve become entranced by.  Winston Churchill is one of history’s astonishing figures—an ostracized man who saw a future few others wished to see. His accurate vision, combined with his ability to unite and marshal his country’s (and others’) forces to combat the Nazi juggernaut was unparalleled.  But when it came to Churchill’s son, Winston took a path that virtually everyone—especially Churchill’s long-suffering wife Clementine—could see was bound for disaster.  By overcompensating for his own neglected upbringing, Churchill groomed his son to become a spoiled, overbearing, overweening character whose descent into alcoholism left him with few friends, and lost him even the respect of his father. As this book so eloquently reveals, being the son of a great man can truly be a curse. This is an amazing behind-the-scenes story of what was really going on from a family perspective during some of the most tumultuous political upheavals of modern history.  This book was hard to put down—highly recommended! (Also good for audio.)

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Teach for Attention! A Tool Belt of Strategies for Engaging Students with Attention Challenges

By Ezra Werb

Recommended on: 10th June 2021

Teach for Attention! A Tool Belt of Strategies for Engaging Students with Attention Challenges, by Ezra Werb. This brief, easy-to-read book provides “from the trenches” teaching strategies for students with ADHD, low self-confidence, distraction, and other attention challenges. There are dozens of true classroom stories that show the strategies in action. Ezra is an educational therapist working with students with attention
 deficits, learning challenges, and spectrum disorders, so his insights can definitely help build your teaching repertoire if you are working with attentionally-challenged students.

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The Tiger

By John Vaillant

Recommended on: 3rd June 2021

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Vaillant.  This is one of those books that’s hard to put down, as the story unfolds of a tiger with a lethal grudge against a particular human—a grudge that widened to encompass every human the tiger encountered.  John Vaillant is a magnificent story-teller—this brief excerpt gives hint of his literary prowess: “As the encyclopedic reference Mammals of the Soviet Union puts it, ‘The general appearance of the tiger is that of a huge physical force and quiet confidence, combined with a rather heavy grace.’ But one could just as easily say: this is what you get when you pair the agility and appetites of a cat with the mass of an industrial refrigerator. To properly appreciate such an animal, it is most instructive to start at the beginning: picture the grotesquely muscled head of a pit bull and then imagine how it might look if the pit bull weighed a quarter of a ton. Add to this fangs the length of a finger backed up by rows of slicing teeth capable of cutting through the heaviest bone. Consider then the claws: a hybrid of meat hook and stiletto that can attain four inches along the outer curve, a length comparable to the talons on a velociraptor. Now, imagine the vehicle for all of this: nine feet or more from nose to tail, and three and a half feet high at the shoulder. Finally, emblazon this beast with a primordial calligraphy: black brushstrokes on a field of russet and cream, and wonder at our strange fortune to coexist with such a creature. (The tiger is, literally, tattooed: if you were to shave one bald, its stripes would still be visible, integral to its skin.) Able to swim for miles and kill an animal many times its size, the tiger also possesses the brute strength to drag an awkward, thousand-pound carcass through the forest for fifty or a hundred yards before consuming it.”

In The Tiger, you will learn a great deal, not only about tigers and their remarkably human ability to think abstractly, but about how the Russian Far East is slipping toward ecological imbalance, even as brave conservators work to keep this unique region intact. Highly recommended!

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Undisruptable: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life

By Aidan McCullen

Recommended on: 6th May 2021

Undisruptable: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life, by Aidan McCullen. Aiden knows something about reinvention. He had finally achieved his dream of becoming a professional rugby player, when injury forced him to completely rethink his life’s journey.  Aiden is a master of analogy.  As he observes: “Rather than a rigid set of frameworks or business models, I present the book as a series of mental models. To bring these mental models to life, I offer analogies from nature, anecdotes from business, ancient wisdom, exemplars of perpetual change and evidence from evolution, neuroscience, business and life.” Aiden’s goal is to help you adopt a mindset of permanent reinvention. Enjoy!

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The Cattle Kingdom

By Christopher Knowlton

Recommended on: 25th April 2021

The Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West, by Christopher Knowlton. What an eye-popping read! Many North Americans grow up familiar with cowboys, cattle barons, and the battle of barbed wire fences in the Western US, along with haute cuisine (at least as haute as American cuisine could get) at the legendary Delmonico’s Steakhouses in New York City. And North Americans know at least a little about the meatpacking industry of Chicago and its accompanying scandals.  They may even be familiar with iconic, laconic, literary figures like Shane and the Virginian (an apparent legacy of European aristocracy). 

But until the publication of The Cattle Kingdom, few of us had the opportunity to put together the disparate pieces to understand this important era in US history. We know why the buffalo disappeared (a horrific addendum to the genocidal predations on Native Americans), but Knowlton helps us understand how cattle arose so quickly to take the place of buffalo, why the life of a cattleman became so popular, and how the whole enterprise came crushing finale with the Johnson County war, when local newspapers essentially owned by the elite, wealthy cattlemen spurred an insurrection allowing them to quite literally get away with murder.

This is an in-depth look at virtually every aspect of the history of the cowboy west, from the major players (including fascinating discussions of Teddy Roosevelt, the father of the American conservation movement),  to saddles, barbed wire, the economics of cattle rearing, British attitudes of “I can do what I want with my land,” and of course, the “Big Die Up,” where millions of cattle died in one horrific winter—officially sealing the end to the cattle kingdom. From about 1850 to 1900, the US Kingdom of Cattle was the equivalent to today’s Silicon Empire. A remarkable work of history. Also great for audio listening. [Hat tip, Ryan Holiday.]

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The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect

By Judea Pearl

Recommended on: 22nd April 2021

The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect by computer scientist and philosopher Judea Pearl. For anyone with the slightest interest in statistics, mathematics, or figuring out whether the public is being duped by yet another “solidly researched” fad, this book is for you.  Judea himself observes “In Statistics 101, every student learns to chant, ‘Correlation is not causation.’ With good reason! The rooster’s crow is highly correlated with the sunrise; yet it does not cause the sunrise. Unfortunately, statistics has fetishized this commonsense observation. It tells us that correlation is not causation, but it does not tell us what causation is. In vain will you search the index of a statistics textbook for an entry on ‘cause.’ Students are not allowed to say that X is the cause of Y—only that X and Y are ‘related’ or ‘associated.’

But, in large part due to Judea’s research, “…things have changed dramatically in the past three decades. Nowadays, thanks to carefully crafted causal models, contemporary scientists can address problems that would have once been considered unsolvable or even beyond the pale of scientific inquiry. For example, only a hundred years ago, the question of whether cigarette smoking causes a health hazard would have been considered unscientific. The mere mention of the words ‘cause’ or ‘effect’ would create a storm of objections in any reputable statistical journal. Even two decades ago, asking a statistician a question like ‘Was it the aspirin that stopped my headache?’ would have been like asking if he believed in voodoo. To quote an esteemed colleague of mine, it would be “‘more of a cocktail conversation topic than a scientific inquiry.’ But today, epidemiologists, social scientists, computer scientists, and at least some enlightened economists and statisticians pose such questions routinely and answer them with mathematical precision. To me, this change is nothing short of a revolution. I dare to call it the Causal Revolution, a scientific shakeup that embraces rather than denies our innate cognitive gift of understanding cause and effect.”

We love this book, which explains the new science of causality in a straightforward fashion. You’ll find yourself thinking about correlations in a new way.  

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Heroes & Hormones: From Screen Slave to Superhero

By Mali Alcobi

Recommended on: 15th April 2021

Heroes & Hormones: From Screen Slave to Superhero, by Mali Alcobi. Mali is an expert in work-life balance who helps both employees and organizations develop systems that help people lead productive, yet happy lives. Mali speaks around the world on this topic—which is how Barb happened to meet her and to read her book. Heroes and Hormones is one of those deceptively simple reads that teaches a few critical points—like how to train yourself to prioritize family even as you are pulling your weight at work. This book also has a good review of what you need to be doing healthwise, from exercise to the right foods, to keep your life on track—and not wake up one day at your seeming career peak only to find your family has given up on you, and your body is beginning to show the aftereffects of too much stress and too little care. This quick read will help you balance your priorities with dozens of practical tips.
Mali is the founder of Dynamix – Work-Life Balance. Barb and Mali will be speaking for Microsoft together next month—Barb can say with confidence that Mali is a great choice if your company is looking for a work-life balance speaker.

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Out on Good Behavior: Teaching Math while Looking Over Your Shoulder

By Barry Garelick

Recommended on: 6th April 2021

Out on Good Behavior: Teaching Math while Looking Over Your Shoulder, by Barry Garelick. We greatly enjoyed and got a lot out of this brief, sardonic memoir of an outstanding math teacher in an era when teaching math in public schools is becoming increasingly divorced from what neuroscience has revealed about how students actually learn math. Garelick’s witty observations give a sense of what’s going on in a way that would be difficult for most parents to discover—and some of Garelick’s observations are priceless: “I once told my eighth-grade algebra class that my classroom is one place where they won’t hear the words ‘growth mindset’—to which the class reacted with wild applause. Someone then asked what my objections to ‘growth mindset’ were.  I said I didn’t like how it was interpreted: Motivational cliches like ‘I can’t do it…yet’ supposedly build up confidence leading to motivation and success. I believe it’s the other way around: success causes motivation more than motivation causes success. [Or, as researchers Szu-Han Wang and Richard Morris have noted: “we rapidly remember what interests us, but what interests us takes time to develop.” And this Slate Star Codex article about growth mindset remains timeless.] 

Garelick presciently observes: “Where students frequently see through ineffective educational fads, people in education—after buying into such theories—see what they want to see.” Out on Good Behavior is well worth reading if you care about what your child is learning—or not learning—in school, particularly when it comes to math.

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