Books: Best Places to Start

Welcome to the Field

Dan Willingham introduced a generation of teachers (including me) to cognitive psychology. Why Don’t Students Like School? asks and answers several key questions: for example, “What’s the secret to getting students to think like real scientists, mathematicians, and historians?” He explains complex concepts clearly, and offers practical classroom strategies to help students learn. (BTW: a second edition is in the works. Keep your eyes peeled.)

Learning and Memory

Happily, we have several excellent books in this field.

Most recently, Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain have written one of the best books in this field: Powerful Teaching. Bain teaches middle school; Agarwal does memory research (and teaches college students). Together, they have the research chops and the classroom experience to be practical, flexible, supremely well-informed, and wonderfully helpful.

If you’d like to learn more about the ideas and research behind Powerful Teaching, I recommend make it stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel. (Yes, the title is all lower case. No, I don’t know why.) They review research paradigms in surprisingly lively detail. Equally good is How We Learn by Benedict Carey. As a science writer for the New York Times, Carey knows how to tell a good story—and with this research, he’s got a great story to tell.

For a different approach to memory, you might read The Perpetual Now by Michael D. Lemonick. He tells the story of a famous artist—Lonni Sue Johnson, whose work you’ve seen in the New Yorker—whose hippocampi were destroyed by meningitis. Unable to convert new experience into long-term memory, Johnson—like the famous H. M. before her—lives always in the present. Lemonick tells her story, and the truths about memory that researchers have gleaned from her experience.


Both adolescence and adolescents are super complicated. Happily, teachers and parents can rely on several wonderful books for guidance and comfort.

Untangled, by Lisa Damour, considers seven transitions from childhood to adulthood: for instance, the ever-popular “Contending with Adult Authority.” (Trust me: it’s a good thing.) With her experience as a college professor, K-12 school counselor, family therapist, and parent, Damour has all the perspective – and humor – necessary to clarify this subject. Although written for parents of girls, the research and guidance quite often applies to boys as well.

Inventing Ourselves, by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, rests on this premise: adolescents are not broken adults. They’re doing essential developmental work necessary for the transition from childhood to adulthood. As one of the key researchers in this field, Blakemore knows the essential points thoroughly, and explains them with clarity and humor. She’s reasonable, practical, and wonderfully well-informed.

If you’ve read Brain Rules by John Medina, you know he’s got a style and perspective all his own. As you can tell from the title Attack of the Teenage Brain!, he has his own take on this time of life as well. Medina focuses on executive function—especially self-control—as the essential ingredient, and offers many strategies to foster it among the teens in our lives. Some ideas are a bit out there, but they’re never dull.


Here’s a title to get your attention: The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Authors Gazzaley and Rosen combine their expertise in psychology and neuroscience to explain how and why we’re our attention is so easily lured astray. They rely—believe it or not—on “foraging theory” to explain their ideas. Their suggestions don’t break new ground, but their conceptual framework for understanding distraction can be mightily helpful.


Lots of people have written about the benefits of exercise for learning; no doubt much has changed since 2008. But, John Ratey’s Spark is still the best book in know on “the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain.” Ratey explains both the underlying neurobiological mechanisms (think “myelin”) and the school and classroom strategies that might promote the right kind of neural change.


Paul Howard-Jones explores the Evolution of the Learning Brain in this book, with the marvelous subtitle: How You Got to Be So Smart. Howard-Jones explains the evolution of many different learning systems that we still rely on today. This fascinating story offers a few specific teaching insights; more broadly, it helps us think about our work from a fresh and eye-opening perspective.

Strong Opinions

David Didau has written “a manifesto for closing the achievement gap,” called Making Kids Cleverer. (The connotation of “clever” is different in the US than in Didau’s native Great Britain.) To build his case, he explores the nature and evolution of intelligence, the deep sources of motivation, and the educational methodologies that must flow from those explorations. His conclusions may strike you as surprising. You won’t be able to mistake his passion, commitment, and scholarly insight.

Education can be a fad-driven field, but Daisy Christodoulou is having none of it. Having been trained in fads, and forced to teach with fads, she started looking into the research behind them. The result: Seven Myths of Education, a book with a higher mic-drop-per-chapter ratio than any I’ve read in ages. Her conclusions may well discomfort readers, but her logic and thoroughness are hard to beat.