Each of these books has had a profound impact on how I teach. Even though none of them were written specifically for educators, if you’re a teacher you’ll find them interesting and thought-provoking. There are major changes happening in education, and these titles can provide some perspective.
I’ll start with the oldest: Technopoly, by Neil Postman, in which he discusses how cultures have evolved from tool-using ones, to technocracies (where people uncritically admire and use technology), to technopolies (where technology itself becomes the culture, and people serve its needs). Even though he wrote it in 1993, before the dawn of the internet and years before iPods, it remains relevant today. The most useful lesson I took from it is to understand that no technology is ever neutral. Every new tool has an inherent bias, and it is important to try to recognize that bias before wholeheartedly adopting it. An obvious example is email. Email has a bias towards brief, factual communications, but it is awful for meaningful interaction between people. For some reason, handwritten letters are better at conveying the writer’s feelings than email. Something to think about as the US Postal Service is going out of business.
Next up is Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. This came out in 2005, and Pink’s basic premise is that we need to encourage “right-brain” thinking, which is more creative. He writes about six senses that will enable people to be successful today. They are Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. What I took away from it is the pressing need to incorporate more Problem-Based Learning in my math courses. That means more hands-on activities, more open-ended questions, more problems that encourage creative thinking to solve. There is less need for math students to memorize step-by-step methods of problem-solving, and more need for students who ask the right questions when given data.
Last summer, I read Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows. This is an eye-opening look at how web-surfing is physically changing the structure of our brains. If you spend a lot of time on the web checking email, keeping up with Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc., but find yourself unable to sit down and read a book for an extended period, then you might be interested in Carr’s research. I discussed this book with some students, and they were unanimous in their opinion that excessive internet usage has made doing school work more difficult. We are raising a generation that has short attention spans, is easily distracted, and has a hard time solving problems that require focusing for extended amounts of time.
Finally, this summer I’m reading Quiet, by Susan Cain. This book is a great response to the incessant pressure of our culture to “speak up”, “participate”, and “be a team player”. Cain begins with a brief historical overview of how American culture came to prize extroverts, and then she summarizes some of the latest research on how introverts possess unique and useful abilities that should be sought out and encouraged. Broadly speaking, extroverts tend to act before assessing risks, and they thrive on interaction. Introverts are more creative when they can work alone, and they tend to analyze a problem situation carefully before acting. Cain raises some very interesting points, such as perhaps we could have avoided the Crash of 2008 if the big brokerage firms didn’t concentrate so much decision-making power in extroverted traders and heeded the warnings of their more introverted ones. The big lesson I take away from this book is to allow a student to work alone if she fits the introvert profile. Not all the time, of course, because learning to collaborate with others is an important skill, but I need to be more sensitive to the different strengths of extroverts and introverts.