My #reading September 2016


“I came to the realisation that there was a major disconnect between leadership and teaching, and between teaching and learning. I realised I needed to know more about learning, how teaching facilitates this, and how teaching can be supported by leaders, whose main function shouldn’t be management.”         Prof. Stephen Dinham

Leading Learning and Teaching by Stephen Dinham, Professor of Instructional Leadership and Associate Dean of Strategic Partnerships in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne, is a book for school leaders who believe that the “continued focus on management to the neglect of teaching and learning” needs to be reversed. This has been a theme pursued for well-over a decade by the author. In a recent speech, Dinham said of his previous book, How to Get Your School Moving and Improving: An Evidence-based Approach (2008), “I’d like to think this book was influential in questioning the dominant management paradigm of the time.” 

The book has five well-formatted sections: research evidence on teaching for learning; the importance and impact of educational leadership; professional learning in education; school improvement and educational change; and leadership preparation and development. Dinham is focused on relaying what evidence suggests works but one also senses a good deal of experience and wisdom throughout the book, especially in selecting what he quotes.

Chapter 14: What are the forces, contexts and features of educational change? What role can leaders play? is a very sensible (and amusing) analysis of organisational culture with good advice to new (and not so new) leaders:

“…it takes time to tune into, dig down and understand the culture of a school…”

Dinham quotes extensively from Deal and Peterson’s text, Shaping School Culture, especially their “antidotes for negativism” to great effect. One suspects that academic research has been complimented by personal experience.

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Dinham summarises the essential messages from the research that underpins his book as:
1. Quality teaching matters
2. Leadership is a big enabler and is exercised with and through people
3. Professional learning is essential for change
4. The best classrooms. departments, schools and even systems have a central focus on students as learners and people
5. Educational systems, leaders and teachers need to plan, proceed, assess, evaluate and modify as necessary on the basis of evidence
6. Data is not just about compliance – it is about improvement
7. Vision is important but it must rest on evidence

Leading Learning and Teaching is a mighty achievement and Professor Dinham’s work in academia will help many educators in schools for years to come. However, it is difficult not to notice the lack of research about the impact of technology on education in his work. The index is worth scanning with this in mind. Dinham names the “so called 21st century curriculum” in his ‘fads’ chapter (which is fair enough) but does not explore further. There is a great need to have quality research about the impact of technology on learning and teaching practice.

Recently, I was asked by a student what is the greatest change schools have experienced in the last couple decades. The growth of technology, especially access to knowledge via the world wide web, has had a profoundly important democratising effect on who can access knowledge. In Australia, the ABS reports:

“In 2014–15 for those households with children aged under 15 years, 97% had access to the internet compared with 82% of households without children under 15.”

The Hawke-Keating governments addressed globalisation by opening the economy and modernising Australia. Currently, the digitisation of society is providing opportunities and challenges that are not being addressed by our education system or government with any strategy that makes sense. This area is ignored in the book but considering the speed of societal change super-charged by technology, educational systems, schools, leaders and teachers need to be better informed about what has changed and what works in the classroom.

Most would find it hard to argue anything other than the author is correct in his belief that here has never been a more “turbulent period in education, with competing pressures, agendas and ideologies all being brought to bear on the ‘problems’ of schooling, teaching and learning”. Dinham made it very clear at the launch of his book about his concerns with:

“…non-evidence based solutions to the so-called problems of education imported from places such as the UK and USA. Some of this is ideological and is a matter of financial opportunism. The biggest publishers in the world today are educational publishers and every day someone is knocking on a minister’s or director general/ secretary’s door offering a quick fix, but very expensive, solution to the supposed problems of education.”

One would hope Leading Learning and Teaching by Stephen Dinham will be read by a very large percentage of those who lead, or aspire to lead, Australian schools. The book is successful based on the author’s stated three R’s for educational research: relevance; rigour; and readability. Dinham successfully not only “bring(s) together essential research and understandings of how educators can lead teaching and learning” with very readable writing but also asks educators to be reflective, continually revising and reconsidering their professional practice. It will be interesting to see what changes for Professor Dinham in his educational outlook during the coming decade as societal change continues to be exponential.

davidszalay

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
                                                              (from Byzantium by William Butler Yeats)

All That Man Is  by David Szalay is on the short list for the Man Booker but won’t win for a number of reasons. The nine stories in the novel (and one cannot be listed for the Man Booker for short stories so it must be a novel) are not really connected. Yes, the male protagonists are all suffering ennui and relationships with women are challenging or unsatisfactory. Yes, employment and their lack of sense of a larger purpose or meaning connects them but each story stands alone (although in the final chapter the protagonist is the grandfather of the teenager in the first). I doubt the judges will award him the prize for this reason and ultimately, the book, as much as I enjoyed the stories of most of the nine, is a disappointment.

The opening pages really engaged, encouraging me to purchase; it felt like Szalay might have something to say about the male human condition. Unfortunately, by the end of the novel this was not realised in the way I’d hoped. The nine protagonists were mostly interesting and the slivers of their lives presented engaging but the philosophical musings – although certainly not boring or banal – were limited. Having said that, I enjoyed his representations of ennui: “Yesterday he experienced a sort of dark afternoon of the soul. Some hours of terrible negativity. A sense, essentially, that he had wasted his entire life, and now it was over. The sun was shining outside.”

The protagonists seem to become progressively older as the narrative unfolds. Two of the stories – about Balázs and Alexandr – were more interesting than the rest which included those of an unemployed teenager, real estate agent, scholar, drunkard and suicidal billionaire. Szalay’s prose loops, with endless repetitions that mostly work well and this style is evident from the first few pages and throughout the novel:

The life of the station plunges and swirls like a dirty stream. People. People moving through the station like a dirty stream. And that question again – What am I doing here?

He is enjoying talking to her – there is something fresh and straightforward about her – so he tries to think of something else to say, something which is true. He says, ‘When I woke up one morning and realised it was too late to change anything. I mean, the big things.’ ‘I don’t think it’s ever too late to change things,’ she says. He just smiles. And he thinks: That’s the thing about fate, the way you only understand what your fate is when it’s too late to do anything about it. That’s why it is your fate – it’s too late to do anything about it.

He leaves the office two hours earlier than usual. Mid-afternoon, half-empty train to Gatwick. A window seat on the plane. Weak tea, and a square of chocolate with a picture of Alpine pasture on the wrapper. And then it hits him. Floating over the world, the hard earth fathoms down through shrouds of mist and vapour, the thought hits him like a missile. Wham. This is it. This is all there is. There is nothing else. A silent explosion. He is still staring out the window. This is all there is. It’s not a joke. Life is not a joke.

All in all this is a better than average novel but I am surprised it has been nominated for such a prestigious prize. The author has been listed as next-big-thing for some time now and I would happily check out his next book to see if that promise is realised.

Finally, I was reminded that it is about time Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 – mentioned towards the end of the novel – which I have owned for some time was placed on the top of my reading pile.

stangrant

Australia still can’t decide whether we were settled or invaded. We have no doubt. Our people died defending their land and they had no doubt. The result though was the same for us whatever you call it. Within a generation the civilisations of the eastern seaboard – older than the Pharaohs – were ravaged.

There is nothing genetic that separates us; what divides us is our history – what we have done to each other in the name of race. It is this racism that persists so powerfully in our imaginations. Racism benchmarks civilisation and ranks us all in order. Racism justified taking everything from us.

I read Talking To My Country by Stan Grant for our school book club. By the end of the memoir, even though the author’s reliance on very short sentences was a distraction, wished it would grace the bestseller lists here and overseas. The story of Grant’s quest for identity and the paradoxes of his own ancestry are clearly rendered. Readers not acquainted with Australian history and Aboriginal dispossession post-1788 will learn about the ongoing impact and unresolved issues that are omnipresent in our nation.

Grant’s reading of Australian history is one I could not fault. I see our country through different eyes but in the same way. His experience of country towns and schools is significantly different to mine but I recognised it all too well. Socio-economic background impacts heavily on children growing up but he is unfortunately right in saying there was something more that became evident as he grew up; the colour of his skin. I related to the freedom Grant finds in books and love of learning:

I had never truly felt a sense of belonging except back on the road in any of the small towns that had littered my childhood.

My love of books formed a buffer against my sporadic school years. I read whatever I could find. My mother always joked that I was ‘old in the head’. I could read before I started school. I would grab what I could from libraries or old discarded books in second-hand stores.

But my school report cards would never reflect this love of learning. I could never settle in long enough to find any consistency. On and on we moved, from one ramshackle house to another. The years passed sleeping in the backs of cars or crammed into an old plywood gypsy caravan.

Grant relates how education, journalism and travel gave him perspective. As did his genealogical research which forced him to grapple with what it revealed:

Out of the haze of this frontier Australia, one name emerges. William Hugh Grant, an Aboriginal boy born in 1856 and raised on Merriganowry. He later married a white woman from nearby Cowra. His marriage certificate lists his father as John Grant, squatter. As in all families, there is argument and conjecture. There are competing stories and myth that shroud his birth and parentage in mystery. This one document – the marriage certificate – provides the only evidence…“Where official records may fail, I have my imagination to try to fill in the gaps. It isn’t hard to see a property with a white master and his growing children, surrounded by blacks still living on what they would consider their land. Like a scene from the slave plantations of the American south, the blacks worked as farmhands and cooks and cleaners for their new white landlords.

I found refuge outside Australia. My many years working in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa liberated me. Here were the problems of other peoples and other lands. Here I was an observer freed from the shackles of my own country’s history.

Stan Grant’s memoir is raw, reflective and deserves a wide readership. One hopes that his belief, that “racism isn’t killing the Australian dream. The Australian dream was founded on racism”  can be overcome by knowledge, wisdom, goodwill, sound policy and reconciliation.

“Humboldt wrote about the destruction of forests and of humankind’s long-term changes to the environment. When he listed the three ways in which the human species was affecting the climate, he named deforestation, ruthless irrigation and, perhaps most prophetically, the ‘great masses of steam and gas’ produced in the industrial centres. No one but Humboldt had looked at the relationship between humankind and nature like this before.”

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf made me want to do the author’s bidding and help place him ‘back on a pedestal where he belongs’. Humboldt, who died in 1859 just a decade short of a century, was a Prussian scientist, geographer, naturalist, botanist, explorer and embodiment of the Romantic era but is now largely forgotten. He was the most famous person in the world except for a monarch or two, and Napoleon. Take a moment to watch the biographer enthuse, quite rightly over her subject.

Humboldt’s travels and science influenced a who’s who of nineteenth century thinkers including Thoreau, Whitman and Darwin, who says he would never have boarded The Beagle without having read Humboldt. I loved how Wulf tells of her experience reading Darwin’s own heavily annotated copies of Humboldt’s books as part of her research; what reader could not imagine and share in her ecstasy.

“Knowledge, Humboldt believed, had to be shared, exchanged and made available to everybody” and the roads to his lectures in Berlin were jammed as both men and women strove to attend. He shared his knowledge and ideas literally to the day he died finishing his last book days before his death.

I will not read a more interesting book this year and, like Wulf, marvel that I have never heard of Humboldt finding this hard to believe considering his achievement in shaping the way we see our contemporary world. My highest recommendation.

I want to propose two readings of High-Rise here: the book is all about architecture; the book is not about architecture at all. Ned Beauman

I read High-Rise by JG Ballard after watching the film adaptation, which is slavishly faithful to the novel, directed by Ben Wheatley. After consuming both a review by Christos Tsiolkas appeared which accurately describes the novel:

The novel is a one-trick pony, an allegory of class set in a futuristic multilevel apartment tower. As the amenities of the high-rise begin to falter and break down, an increasingly savage conflict between the ruling elite on the top floors and the aspirational middle class on the lower levels begins to unfold. The carnage keeps building but, because the characters are never anything more than stick figures, the escalating violence has no resonance and, though only a slim volume, the book becomes wearisome very quickly.

Tsiolkas skewers the film too (a little unfairly because he values “Wheatley highly as a director”). The main criticism being that Wheatley has not updated the film to explore contemporary issues about class. There was a quote from Thatcher at the end of the film from a loudspeaker though:

There is only one economic system in the world, and that is capitalism. The difference lies in whether the capital is in the hands of the State or whether the greater part of it is in the hands of people outside of State control. Where there is State capitalism there will never be political freedom”.

Not having read the novel, I loved the film and found it sensuous, amusing and also very, very disturbing. Here is the trailer:

Like some of you, I saw the deeply affecting Portishead cover of  ABBA’s classic pop song, “SOS” during the lead-up to the BREXIT referendum earlier this year not realising it was from this film. The song was made even more poignant due to the murder of Jo Cox MP. Like Tsiolkas, “I think it will be the one moment that will stay with me from the film”.  Enjoy!

I would never have found The Last Wish (The Witcher, #1) by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski or the video game, The Witcher 3 without seeing a quote from Barack Obama about it used to advertise the franchise:

“The last time I was here, Donald (Polish prime minister) gave me a gift, the video game developed here in Poland that’s won fans the world over, The Witcher. I confess, I’m not very good at video games, but I’ve been told that it is a great example of Poland’s place in the new global economy.”

This book of inter-connected short stories about Geralt of Rivia is surprisingly engaging and it very likely to interest teenage gamers who may not always be keen readers, especially if they are immersed in the roleplaying game. You probably need to know that a witcher is a specially trained monster-killer. I am uncertain if Barack Obama read his signed copy or not but if teenagers and fantasy fans like this kind of thing there’s plenty more in the series.

andrzej_sapkowski_-_the_last_wish

I read (or rather listened) to The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation: As Taught by S. N. Goenka by William Hart and An Ancient Path: Talks on Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S.N. Goenka by Paul R. Fleischman to help with my deliberations about doing a 10 day retreat in the Blue Mountains for a significant birthday. I knew a little about the retreat – that one cannot speak, read, write or communicate with others – but not much of what underpins the philosophy and practice. Both books are excellent introductions and perhaps a little more than that. 

Vipassanā, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation and appeals to me as it has a more secular focus than other popular meditative practices. Originally, the notion of not speaking with my family at all, even via Skype seemed to be more problematic than the complete “digital detox” but on closer examination I suspect the physical discomfort of not moving, while meditating for long periods may be more of an issue for my back, especially my sacroiliac joint. I have not made a final decision about taking ten days – really it is eleven plus travel – to meditate and be silent but suspect it would be a good, reflective way to mark the significant personal milestone of half-a-century walking the planet.

You can read more here.

 

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard Feynman is pretty good fun and the best of his autobiographical books I’ve read to date. The author is such an interesting character and uniquely individual. Not only a Nobel Prize winning scientist, Feynman is an extraordinary autodidact and rebel against mindless conformity.

“You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.”

The most interesting stretches in this book are the extensive, detailed explanation of how he learns to crack safes and his bongo-drumming exploits. Against considerable personal and self-imposed odds, he learns to draw and has an exhibition after being taught by a friend. I think this has motivated me to try and develop my non-existent skills with brush, easel and pencil. Maybe.

I really do need to read or listen to his lectures on physics too.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Harry Potter, #1) by JK Rowling does not really need a review. However, I am reading the series aloud to Miss 10 and we finished it this month. Originally, before anyone had heard of Potter, I was at Better Read Than Dead in Newtown looking for a present for my niece. The assistant recommended* a book she said was selling well in Britain. I bought it and read the first three books in the series before stopping, as the films were released. Still haven’t read the last four instalments but am looking forward to working my way through the series with my daughter (who has read all of them and the latest script).

What I noticed is just how reassuring and comforting the book is while reading aloud. It is a really pleasant world to stay in.Even though I know people criticise this notion, Rowling makes me feel the same way Enid Blyton did as a kid. It is a very pleasant world to visit, especially with a child.

Featured image: screenshot of book covers

* Actually the assistant recommended two books. The other was by Odo Hirsch, Antonio S. and the Mystery of Theodore Guzman. Still haven’t read that one but am pretty sure it didn’t sell as well.

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. Jane Hunter:

    Love reading your analysis of books -,refreshing as I don’t seem to be able to read as many non education related texts as I would like. I will need to have a close read of Steve Dinham’s new book – a few people have mentioned it to me.
    Thank you.

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