SSATB just posted this new “special report,” which I researched and wrote most of this past spring.   It profiles new (and relatively new) innovative educational models which are becoming more significant alternatives in the landscape of educational choice, and includes interviews with leaders of these alternative models.



As I do every June on the blog here, it is my pleasure to offer a suggested summer reading list for educators.   This annual list also doubles as my top ten list of best book titles from the previous (school) year, in this case, 2014-15.

(For the past years’ recommendations, you can click the following for

It’s never easy making this list, reducing a year’s worth of reading to only ten titles.   I’ve added a few honorable mentions to round things out.   Nor is it easy, as I do ever year, to name a book of the year, the singular standout, and this year saw  a very tight competition between the number one and number two titles.

Unlike in some previous lists, this year’s top ten exclusively come from books published in the last sixteen months or so, all of them 2014 or 2015 titles.  As I did last year, I’ve also added toward the bottom some recommended free reports which can be found online in pdf, and some recommended fiction reading.

I should make note that  I can’t claim this list to be entirely free from bias.   As I’ve become a bit of a writer myself in the past seven years, I’ve come to know many others writers in education—and it’s become impossible to stand entirely apart from those relationships as I prepare my recommendations. Counting the honorable mention titles, five books here are authored by people I know well and/or have worked with in various capacities, and one other, the top title, is by someone I’ve met a few times.   Full disclosure.

Note: After the first two titles, the remaining are listed in no particular order.

#1 (Book of the Year): Transforming Schools: Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessments, and Common Core Standards, by Bob Lenz, with Justin Wells and Sally Kingston.

Bob Lenz has long been a leader in both thought and action for Project-Based learning and for transformative educational program design in the Bay Area, and it’s terrific to get this book from him now, which should expand his voice nationally and internationally.  His network of Envision schools in San Francisco, Oakland, and Hayward, at one of which I visited and shadowed a student at in 2008, are places which live up to the two-fold promise of the book’s title: they transform the lives of students, and in their example, show the way on how to transform schools.

The book speaks effectively to both classroom teachers and school/district leaders, more so than many other books of this type. The chapter on PBL, the book’s longest, stands out as one of the best succinct explanations of best practice. Particularly for teachers in more traditional schools, the section which promises that yes indeed, “PBL can start in your classroom” offers plenty of actionable, bite-size practical steps. The chapter also effectively empowers educators to respond to PBL skeptics, and addresses the coverage, rigor, and demographic fallacies—all of which I encounter frequently in my own work.

One of the most frequent debates I’ve had in the past half-decade about PBL is whether it can be effectively implemented incrementally. Some representatives of deeper learning argue, in my experience, vigorously that it can’t—it is an all or nothing proposition. Lenz, however, will have none of that—he sees it as the work of our entire century, not something that should or can be done overnight. And he offers useful advice on how to take first steps for principals and district leaders: ensuring “at least one deep learning experience per year; developing a graduate profile for your school; spearheading one structural change.”

Helpfully, because let’s not ever underestimate how hard it is to execute on the promise of deeper learning, Lenz ends his inspirational call for school transformation with a note of humility and frank acknowledgement of the challenge. “Don’t mistake our passion for overconfidence. Our failures have been many. Our vision is still evolving. Our schools are works in progress.   The successes we’ve had can be frustratingly impermanent.   The quality of our PBL ebbs and flows.   School culture can feel healthy, and then you turn to the next thing and it falters.   The work is hard, and it’s never done.”

#2: (Runner Up, Book of the Year).   Learning To Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better by Tony Bryk with Louis Gomez, Alicia Grunow, and Pal LeMahieu.

It was tough deciding whether it should replace the Lenz as number one, but that the Lenz speaks a bit more widely to educators of all stripes helped it to its first position.   But for school leaders (at all levels), strategic planners, and consultants who work on helping schools get better, this may become a bible of sorts for a long time to come.

Bryk, who is President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, launches the inquiry by pointing out that despite tremendous initiative, our schools aren’t actually doing a good job of improvement.   But instead of jumping to the offering of solutions—so tempting!— by suggesting that what we really need is more (or less testing), or more, or less, pedagogical innovation, he turns his attention instead to the growing (but to me, previously largely unfamiliar) field of improvement science.   What we need as educational transformers to become better at is not what is needed for improvement, but how improvement actually can be brought to life.

The book takes as inspiration and template the way improvement science has been developed and implemented in industry and especially in medicine. “The lesson those experiences teach is that problems ranging from defective products to hospital-induced infections do not stem primarily from an absence of basic research of inferior workforces. Rather, they result from the ways that work systems are designed and thereby shape how individuals carry out their responsibilities.”

Six key principles are thoroughly explained and well exemplified, each in their own chapter of the book. Fans of design thinking, systems thinking, process over product, kaizen, the Deming cyle, data-informed improvement, and connected learning all will find their favorite practices reflected in these six steps, but integrated into a larger and more holistic system of continuous improvement.

The six: “Make the work problem-specific and user-centered; Focus on variation in performance; See the system that produces the current outcomes; We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure; Use disciplined inquiry to drive improvement; Accelerate learning through networked communities.”

On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting, by Thomas Guskey.

It’s funny: many things inspire me as practices to improve teaching and learning, but only thing really boils my blood as an entirely outdated, though pervasive, ill-informed practice: grading.   I think that so much of how we grade is so often so poor. Rarely is it deeply reviewed, and rarely are its underlying principles—or lack therof-closely examined.   Yet it is has such a huge impact on our kids and their learning, in so many ways.

Tom Guskey, of the University of Kentucky, is only one of many important scholars and writers striving to upend our deeply flawed grading norms, alongside Reeves, Popham, Marzano, O’Connor, Stiggins, Brookhart, and many others whose work has been so important to me in thinking harder about these issues.   But this recent 2015 book is particularly accessible, succinct, comprehensive, and provocative.   How I wish every principal would read it, and would then read it again with an advisory teacher committee, and then use it to inspire and guide a real transformation of grading practice.

In it, Guskey provides eight practices we should—no we must—confront and “challenge:” “the purpose of grades; the use of percentage grades; plus/minus and half grade increments; bell-shaped grade distributions; the computation of class rank; the use of a single grade; and the [many] practices which confound the meaning of grades.”

Yes, please.   Like some other books on this list, he offers the critical beginning steps to bring about this long overdue revolution: “clarify the purpose of grading and reporting in your school; align all classroom and school policies and practices with the stated purposes; ensure proposed changes are supported by strong research evidence.”   The time is now: let’s do this for our kids.

Setting the Standard for PBL: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction by John Larmer, John Mergendoller, and Suzie Boss.

Suzie Boss, with whom I’ve co-presented on multiple occasions and whom I admire greatly, is an extraordinarily prolific writing dynamo, especially on PBL.   In the last year or so she’s published a second edition of a book which greatly influenced me six years ago, Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age, and also Real-World Projects: How do I design relevant and engaging learning experiences?; PBL for 21st Century Success: Teaching Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Communication, and Creativity; and Thinking Through Project-Based Learning: Guiding Deeper Inquiry.

They’re all useful, but this new book, co-authored by Boss with two of the top people at Buck Institute of Education, is the one which made this list. Only just published (I read it this week), it provides a very useful overview and history of PBL and the research evidence for it, but also valuably updates BIE’s previous model, demonstrating the organization’s own adherence to one of its core principles of learning: critique and revision.   It also provides a bunch of helpful project “sketches” as appendices.

I enjoyed particularly the search for PBL’s origins, and the story of how Renaissance artists distinguished themselves from artisans by their education, which were based on “progetti:” which were organized around “the solution of a challenging problem. Rather than requiring students to simply listen and remember, progetti gave them the opportunity to think, solve problems, and apply what they have been learning.”

Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools by Tom Little with Katherine Ellison.

“We could keep talking about Finland—and make ourselves miserable—or we can move forward by reviving our own past. We have all the tools we need to make our education system great again. In fact, we invented them. Schools that produce bighearted innovators are part of our American heritage, and the time is ripe to share their benefits with many more American children.”

These are the closing words of Tom’s book, and may well be some of the last words Tom wrote before he died, only days after this fine book’s completion. Tom Little, one of our nation’s most thoughtful, reflective, and passionate Progressive educators, led a very charming, lovely, and inspirational school right in the heart of urban Oakland for nearly three decades, and was a colleague of mine—a fellow head of school in that community—for twelve years.   He was, without a doubt, my single most important role model and mentor as a head of school, and I’ll never forget the day he called me to tell me he had terminal lung cancer and a short prognosis.

This book is many things in one. It is a lovely and loving review of his school’s history and practices; it’s a travelogue of sorts from his year visiting Progressive schools around the nations and speaking with educators at them; and it’s a passionate plea that the spirit of John Dewey be revived and rallied around as a guide for the future of children’s learning, here and everywhere.   It’s an easy read, and could be pleasantly consumed on an medium-length flight or by the pool in an afternoon.

Myself, I spend more time observing and taking lessons from “Deeper learning” than from the “Progressive Educators Network,” but helpfully, Little works to unify these two constructs of educational practice.     He does so by singling out two school networks which he thinks exemplifies educational progressivism, both of them leading members of the Deeper Learning Network: Big Picture Learning and Expeditionary Learning Schools.

As Tom’s sixth graders wrote in a poem to him upon his passing, “Tom is an old fountain pen, dancing nimbly across a piece of paper inking out ideas for a better world; he is a radiant red apple, hanging off a tree, glistening in the sunlight.”  He will be deeply, profoundly missed in the continuing conversation about how to revive Progressive education for our children.

Deeper Learning: Beyond 21st century Skills, edited by Jim Bellanca 

This is a treasure trove of seventeen short pieces, averaging just under twenty pages each, which will provide anyone interested a highly accessible, informed and informative, overview of this thing called Deeper Learning. I’m, obviously, a fan, since the year (2008) when I shadowed students at half a dozen different schools which practice deeper learning and PBL, an experience which entirely changed my worldview of what high school education could, and should, be.

This book could easily guide a school leadership team in a full year of rich discussion and reflection on their own school’s practices as they use it to inform questions like: How do we help teachers learn and collaborate? How do we better develop student critical thinking and creativity, fully implement PBL, and accelerate PBL with technology? How do we take our school or district through an effective series of phases toward meaningful transformation? How do we change up our assessment practices to align with the principles and demands of deeper learning?

As Bellanca writes, “It is now time for us all to accept the challenge, to wade into the fray, and to advance the re-construction not just of individual schools but of American education, so that deeper learning is available to all… After reading these chapters, I find it difficult to believe that anyone could say ‘but we don’t know how.’”

[Note: I know and have written for Bellanca in the past, and know and/or have worked with nine of book’s contributors.]

[Note #2: There is another book published in the last year with the same title, Deeper Learning, (subtitle: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century) by Martinez and McGrath. I like that book too, but it didn’t quite make my list.]

Beyond the Bubble Test: How Performance Assessments Support 21st century learning by Linda Darling-Hammond and Frank Adamson.

This is a behemoth of a book, over four hundred pages long, and not nearly so reader-friendly as many others here.   But, if you are, as I am, fascinated by the opportunity better testing presents to guide us to better teaching and learning, this is a tremendous resource.

Performance Assessment, for Stanford Professor and former Deputy Secretary of Education (and curses for the fact that that “deputy” is in the title)   Linda Darling-Hammond, “requires students to solve complex problems and defend their ideas orally and in writing. These assessments—which include research projects, science investigations, mathematical and computer models, and other products— are mapped to the syllabus and the standards for the subject and are chosen because they represent critical skills, topics, and concepts.”

Are they easy to design, implement, score, and make meaningful use of? No—but that they are not easy to do doesn’t mean they are not worthwhile for doing: they surely are. This book reviews their use in the US in previous decades, in other countries, and in their “next-generation” forms in the coming years.   I particularly appreciated the discussions of “supporting teacher learning through performance assessment” (influencing their understanding of the standards and of their student’s true abilities in the skills which matter most) and building systems of assessments for deeper learning, which “can generate information for a variety of purposes without distorting classroom instruction.”

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why it Happens by Ben Carey and Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel.  

So perhaps I’m cheating here a tad, counting these two titles as one, but I’m running out of room here, and these two twin together very nicely. The first, by New York Times journalist Carey, is breezier in style and wider ranging. It doesn’t revel many surprises but reviews important recent advances in the science of learning, including the importance of sleep, the value of “chunking,” and fascinating ways in which context—our location and state of mind—help us to remember.

Because I, weirdly, love tests, my favorite discussion here is Chapter 5, “The Hidden Value of Ignorance and the Many Dimensions of testing.” Sometimes I think I’m so bizarre, being a huge advocate of PBL and of testing both—how is that possible?   But for me, testing, when done even moderately well, is time spent by students thinking—and that is where the learning happens. Listen to Carey’s summary of his study of the research by Robert Bjork and others: “Testing—recitation, self-examination, pretesting, call it what you like— is an enormously powerful technique capable of much more than simply measuring knowledge.   It vanquishes the fluency trap that causes so many of us to think that we’re poor test-takers. It amplifies the value of our study-time. And it gives us, in the case of pretesting, a detailed, specific preview of how we should being to think about approaching a topic.”

How We Learn could work very effectively, I think, as a school-wide faculty summer reading assignment, and perhaps, as an informant to faculty level action research. Many of Carey’s chapters could be used to help form hypotheses which teachers could test with their own students, share with colleagues, and move practice forward.

The same is probably true for the second of these twinned titles, from a writer and a pair of professors at Washington University, St. Louis. Coming from academics, though written with a clear intent to serve a general reading audience, the book is a bit more technical, a bit more academic, than the previous (Carey), but it is astute and profound.   Several themes are consistent in both books, such as the power of chunking and “interleaving:” the mixing of problem types during study and practice.

And yes, the authors of Make it Stick too strongly believe in the power of testing.  “Where more cognitive effort is required for retrieval, greater retention results. Retrieval practice has been studied extensively in recent years, and an analysis of these studies shows that even a single test in a class can produce large improvement in final exam scores, and gains in learning continue to increase as the number of tests increases.”

#EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education by Grant Lichtman.  

Another title on this list by a friend, this book tells the story of Grant’s fascinating and illuminating journey around the US in his little Prius, visiting more than sixty schools.   At each, he visited centers of excellence and spoke with both teachers and administrators about what innovation meant to them, and how best it can be spurred and sustained.

Innovation may be hard for many—though as he very amusingly and memorably points out, it’s hardly hard compared to defeating Nazi Germany or settling the Great Plains, things our not-so-distance ancestors did with aplomb. Instead, let’s call it what it really is: “uncomfortable.”

Lichtman examine acutely and astutely the obstacles which must be overcome, and gives great attention to what is simultaneously the largest challenge and the most important opportunity: our people.  As he explains, we need to support our people in developing a growth mindset and in becoming “lead leaners: teachers develop a view of themselves as participating in a constant evolving journey of exploration with their students, as opposed to teachers’ traditional role of providing knowledge to their students.”

Grant, to his credit, knows that the two most helpful words of advice in our language are “for example.” This must-read for anyone, teacher, administrator, trustee, or association leader who wants to see schools accelerate their evolutions—or launch their revolutions— does summarize important theories of change and leadership, but is at its best in its many colorful and specific illustrations of people working in the front lines of this work, people with huge hearts and brilliant minds who are bringing better learning to children.

Meeting Wise: Making the Most of Collaborative Time for Educators, by Boudett and City.  

My summer reading recommendation list last summer included two titles from these same pair of authors, their Data Wise books.   Here, these two Harvard GSE faculty members take on a closely related topic: faculty meetings and other meeting types in schools.   Surely most of us agree that this is much-needed guidance—so many meetings, and I’m not saying I’m not as complicit in this as anyone else, desperately need to be improved.

This book isn’t a beach read—it’s more of a how-to manual, complete with sample agenda and planning worksheets.   But it’s certainly a worthwhile investment for every principal and faculty member who chairs a department or grade level team.

Their argument is almost a moral one: why do we spend so little time preparing for something which occupies so much person-time?   Don’t we owe it to people to make the most of their investment?   “Spending so much time getting ready for a meeting struck as odd until we reflected on how efficient it was to have one or two people invest a few extra hours to make sure the hours of everyone at the meeting were used wisely. After all, the planning that goes into forming a successful surgery, constructing a spectacular building, or designing an exceptional science lesson is often much greater than the actual amount of time it takes to do it. Why should the planning that goes into supporting adults be any different?”

Honorable Mention 

Solving 25 Problems in Unit Design: How do I refine my units to enhance student learning?   By Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.   This is a very little booklet, part of the ASCD arias series, and has a very narrow focus.   Framing unit design problems in three categories— Unit Goals, Assessment Evidence, and the Learning Plan— it describes some of the most common mistakes educators make, and how to fix them.

This is the meat of much of the work, getting into the thick of it, moving from theory to the real problems faced on the ground, and it is very useful advice.   One example from a favorite subject of mine, assessment using rubrics: “Specify the key qualities that characterize successful performance relative to the unit goals being assessed and use these as your key evaluative criteria. Too often, evaluative criteria or rubrics focus on ‘surface features’ (eg neatness, creativity, number of words) rather than on the most salient traits tied to standards or goals.”

This title is here also because of the obligation I think we all have to honor the work of Wiggins on the occasion of his passing last month: such a terrible loss. I know I speak for many when I say his work has been of the highest influence to me, my understanding of teaching and learning, and my work with schools and educators.

The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing—but you don’t have to be, by Anya Kamenetz.  

I’m certainly a big fan of Kamenetz’s writing in general. But as  I’ve shared on the SSAT blog and with a number of people, I’m deeply conflicted about this new title from her.   I find it dismaying the way it fans the flames of parental anxiety about testing, and at least in part encourages them to drop out rather than work to improve the system.   I think she underestimates the value testing can offer, and I think she contradicts herself when, after communicating we test too much and that testing offers little value, she writes about new and additional ways to test.

But that said, her discussion of the “Four teams” and “Measuring what matters” impressed me.   It is great to see her appreciate the innovation being brought to this work, and the way she describes and explains it to the general reader in highly accessible ways. I find myself using her teams— Team Monkey, Team Robot, Team Butterfly, and Team Unicorn— often as ways about thinking about the future of assessment.    And I’m with her when she says we should expand how we assess student learning in schools, in broader systems which include, but do not overly rely upon, standardized testing. “Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond’s work describes a complex eco-system of test, standards, and accountability that comes closes to what I would like to see happen in schools.”

Social Skills Assessment Through Games: The New Best Practice, edited by Melissa DeRosier, Ph.D.

Among the things I’m most excited about for the future of testing, and noncognitive assessment in particular, is its gamification.   Call me a trend-chaser, if you must, I think there’s real potential here, and one of the most interesting new tools for this work to hit the market recently is something called Zoo U.   This book from the creator of Zoo U provides a somewhat technical, comprehensive, and well illustrated overview of how we’ve historically measured social skills such as cooperation, initiation, emotional regulation, empathy, and communication, and impulse control.

It then describes how Zoo U has been designed, and how it functions to effectively assess these attributes in elementary aged students—and it’s pretty cool.

Unleashing Student Superpowers: Practical Teaching Strategies for 21st century Students by Kristen Swanson and Hadley Ferguson.

Another title from friends, this is a colorful, charmingly designed, and very engaging look at how teachers—particularly, almost exclusively upper elementary teachers—can implement project-based learning using technology.   As PBL ought to, it takes as its focal point the competencies it wants to support and cultivate (or “unleash”) in students, and puts a fun spin on them, labeling them superpowers, something which should connect with all but the most jaded fourth through sixth grade students.   Six are covered: the Wondering, Curating, Connecting, Digital Inking, Designing, and Gaming Superpowers. For each, the authors describe the authentic problems, lesson activities and “tech upgrades,” the formative and final assessments, and the rubrics are provided to develop the skills.   This book belongs on the desk of any teacher working with these aged students.

Free Reports

Looking to read something shorter, or perhaps, preferring not to spend money on summer reading? Every year there’s a cornucopia of free reports published online, usually with colorful graphics, which provide a great deal of both inspiration and information. Here are half a dozen suggestions, with links.

UntitledData Storytelling: Using visualization to Share the Human Impact of Numbers.

This is just one of several dozen monographs about data and effective communication published by Tableau software, and they are terrific: succinct, well researched and documented, beautifully illustrated, effectively exemplified.   In this one, the authors look the basic foundations of stories and storytelling to guide their discussion of how data can be effectively employed to strengthen the way you capture interest and move people to a new point of view.   While you’re at Tableau, check out the many other interesting papers there.

https downloads 11212014_Skills_for_Success_Tooley_Bornfreund.pdfSkills for Success: Supporting and Assessing Key Habits, Mindsets, and Skills in PreK-12 from the New America Foundation.

Although we all know they are important, and nearly every teacher reports that they do indeed work hard to develop these other-than-narrowly defined academic skills, it is important that we be able to communicate how we know they are important, and have good access to evidence-based techniques to develop them.   This sixty page report is a comprehensive and informative guide which many educators could use to better review and improve their programs.

Essay Series on Character and Opportunity   Brookings Institution

Essay Series on Character and Opportunity.

When the Brookings Institute published their wonky policy analysis on the importance of character education (“The Character Factor: Measures and Impact of Drive and Prudence” which itself is highly recommended), they did something rarely done.   They wonderfully extended the discussion for a sober review of the evidence by publishing an accompaniment of eighteen short (mercifully, charmingly concise) essays by distinguished scholars and energetic practitioners.   These bite-sized nuggets will both entertain and educate you; see especially the ones by Riverdale’s Dominic Randolph (“Character outcomes must become part of our entire educational system”) and Mike Rose (“A good education has always had as one of its goals the development of character. But as a matter of public policy, it would be counterproductive, and ultimately cruel, to focus on individual characteristics without also considering the economic and social terrain on which those characteristics play out.”)

Assessing Deeper Learning: A Survey of Performance Assessment and Mastery-Tracking Tools

Knowing that we want to move assessment toward the measurement and reporting of higher order thinking skills and transfer, and believing that technology can assist, many are seeking to build platforms to make this possible. This useful analysis from Getting Smart, Asia Society, and New Tech Network evaluates what the requirements are for systems which will best benefit students and teachers in this work.   Even if not reading this report as a platform developer, educators can extract from it an improved understanding of what deeper learning assessment entails, what technologies are improving the work of teachers, and how we can better align technologies with our educational aims.

Deeper Learning for Every Student Every day

Another one from Getting Smart.   Clearly a major theme of this summer’s reading recommendations is “deeper learning,” and surely some readers of this post are saying to themselves, remind me again what deeper learning is all about.   Here’s a handy, free, colorful, and comprehensive (70 pages) guide to the subject, using as most do the Hewlett Foundation definition and terms.   Terms are provided in a glossary, and many deeper learning practices are carefully explicated with examples for DL schools.   Assigning this as summer reading or using it in faculty study groups might be a great (and free) way to introduce the concept of, strengthen people’s understanding of, and stimulate innovative practices in deeper learning at your school. sites default files downloads report Report 1 The Shape of Deeper Learning_9 23 14v2.pdfThe Shape of Deeper Learning     

This is a three part study from American Institutes of Research, funded by the Hewlett Foundation.   In it, researchers carefully compare evidence student learning at Deeper Learning schools with carefully matched traditional public high schools, and generate findings about whether the DL schools are achieving their aims.   They are, though not in every case as much as DL fans might wish for.   This report is dually interesting; set aside the content of its research and findings, and you might find its framework as a useful way to think about how to assess effective schooling generally.   The researchers take a wide variety of approaches, including surveys of and interviews with teachers and students, review of “most challenging” assignments, graduation and college-going rates, and yes, test scores, but not only the conventional tests.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.   Probably my single favorite novel of the past five years, this one finds beauty in the tragedy of apocalypse.   Post-apocalyptic fiction is, I realize, all-too-common currently, but I think this one is different.   Set primarily twenty years after, there are no zombies, but there are survivors seeking, and finding, their way to preserve culture and generate catharsis through Shakespeare. Their motto, a Star Trek line form the series Voyager: Because Survival is not Enough.   The story spirals; we see life before, during, and after the horror of the plague, but never sit still with it, experiencing the tragedy as a kaleidoscope of images, each of them capturing the heart of an person in the maelstrom, brought alive as an individual tragedy.   The survivors look back to our civilization from a distance of twenty years, struggling with what’s been lost and trying to remember what was important.
All the Light You Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Winner of the Pulitzer, this book is everywhere this summer.   Set in World War II, it both conforms to and upends fictional conventions of that event—in some cases unsettlingly.  How do we communicate, and how does technology strengthen our connections even as it complicates our world?  How do we make meaning of what we cannot see, and how do we reconcile our responsibilities to ourselves and our community– and to justice?   At the end, this is the story of two children and the gradual, challenging, heartbreaking and miraculous ways they come to see and know the world—which makes it ideal reading for educators.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters.   Almost Hitchcockian, this psychological thriller and passionate love story is set in a detailed post World War I London, a place and time of loss and depression, where two women navigate their way to each other through highly constrained social strictures.   And as soon as they’ve done so, their challenges grow even greater, and the stakes grow to mortal peril.   What compels love, and what love compels—is deeply plumbed here in an un-put-downable narrative. .

The Children Act by Ian McEwan.   I never miss a McEwan, and this one was better then some of his most recent outings, I thought.   A judge, amidst a marital crisis that challenges the way she understood obligation, responsibility, and the commitment we make to one another, must make a judicial determination about a teenage boy’s health. Does he have the right to make his own decision—and what does it mean, in the complicated way all of our lives intersect with one another, to “make one’s own decision?”  As the judge gets more and more drawn into the life of the young man in question (as happens for educators far too often, though not usually with all these particular complexities), the inevitable McEwanian allegorical machine comes into being, providing plenty of fruit for thought for educators and others.

The Secret Place by Tania French.   Largely compressed into less than 24 hours, though punctuated by flashbacks, this hothouse of a novel is set inside a girl’s boarding school in Dublin.   A boy has been murdered, and two detectives, in a spiraling series of interviews with the girls, their teachers, and the headmistress, must unravel the events that led to the crime—and must try their best to understand the psychological mysteries of teenage girls.   A crime novel and a school novel both, educators will find much to savor and to reflect upon here.

Enjoy your summer reading.  Please feel free to use the comment section to add your own reading recommendations! 

This post originally appeared on the Education Week blog Global Learning, May 21, 2015.

i’ve been working on various projects around noncognitive (social-emotional leaning and 21st century competency) assessments for the past three years, as some readers know, including for Secondary School Admission Test Board (SSAT-B) and for Index and its Mission Skill Assessment.  Recently the Asia Society published a new paper, A Rosetta Stone for NonCognitive Skills, which I co-authored with Richard Roberts, Ph.D., the former ETS research scientist who designed the Mission Skills Assessment.    The following was posted to EdWeek as a teaser of sorts for the full paper. 


“It’s become a Tower of Babel,” Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Chris Gabrieli said recently when presenting at the Brookings panel, “Ready to be Counted? Incorporating Noncognitive Skills into Education Policy.” Gabrieli listed the nearly dozen labels used to describe  21st century skills or noncognitive skills, including character, soft skills, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and many more.

It’s not just here in the U.S.: this is a global phenomenon. In one recent post, UNESCO’s Asia Pacific Regional Bureau for Education examined the shift toward transversal competencies in the Asia-Pacific region. The OECD calls them skills for social progress.

These terms each come with a different list of associated skills, strengths, competencies, and attributes.   The table we’ve prepared below names almost 50 of these skills, and it isn’t even exhaustive.

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As the pendulum swings back from the narrow focus of No Child Left Behind, researchers, policymakers, and educators alike are returning their attention to the enormous importance of student affect, attitude, and effort, and their ability to self-control, collaborate, and commit themselves to learning.  Nearly every school system now recognizes that in order to have a world-class education system, students must be advancing in more than the cognitive and academic achievement domain.

To make the most of the opportunity to address the social and emotional skills gap, we have to be able to make sense of the Tower of Babel. How do we know how all these various skills and attributes relate to one another—and whether one group’s teamwork is another’s collaboration; one group’s work ethic is another’s responsibility?

The Big Five Factor Personality Model
There is a powerful way to reconcile, translate, and unify the myriad of terms and constructs that have emerged over the past decade. It isn’t new, and in fairness, in many psychology circles it is no secret, but it has been problematically underappreciated in education. It is the “Big Five” factor model of personality.

Under the assumption that all important matters in life have been named and are thus represented in our language, researchers in the 1930s searched Webster’s New International Dictionary from 1925 for English words that described human characteristics. In total, 18,000 English words were selected, with 4,500 being classified as descriptions of stable personal traits. They then analyzed the underlying patterns among them to reduce the massive list of traits, and studied personality data from different sources (e.g., interpersonal ratings, objective measures of daily behavior, and questionnaire results), and measured these traits in diverse populations to arrive at first 16, and then five, major personality factors.

These analyses consistently yielded five factors that were labeled Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism/Emotional Stability, and Openness.

Even though they were first discovered in the English language, replication studies in other major languages resulted in the same five factors. Indeed, this research has proven the Big Five’s universality in the vast majority of countries, cultures, and languages across the world. In short, the Big Five play an important role in human nature, independent of the environment writ large. See below for the countries where the Big Five have thus far been replicated.

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Last winter, the Headmaster of The Hill School, Zachary Lehman, had a vision for his annual board retreat: he would engage trustees more meaningfully and educate them about the 21st century learning concepts which he’s leading his school toward by reconstructing the board retreat itself as a 21st century classroom.     Headmaster Lehman asked my assistance, which I was delighted to provide, and we fashioned a 2 day program which was by all accounts highly successful.    The Hill School’s videographers fashioned the video above to tell the story, at least in part. Enjoy.

Zack Lehman and I presented about this new kind of board meeting, which can also be a model for other types of meetings in school, including admin retreats and faculty days, at the annual meetings of both PAIS and TABS (Washington DC, December.  For NAIS (Boston, February), I’ll be accompanied by Clair Ward, Head of School at Valley School of Ligonier; if you are attending either event, please consider this video a trailer and teaser for the full session, and we hope you will join us.

Having enjoyed the success of this experience, the Hill School board intends never to revert to previous form; this is the new format of their meetings.  At their most recent event, they went on to employ Design Thinking to develop programs as part of the capital campaign and master plan planning.     We both, Headmaster Lehman and myself, are converts and believers, and are eager to advance this model of meeting and learning, and are both happy to answer questions or be of service to schools wishing to employ this model in their meetings. Contact me at for more information. msa docs MSA-Toolkit-Interactive.pdf

INDEX, a school benchmarking association, developed the Mission Skills Assessment with researchers at ETS to measure students’ proficiency and growth in six character or noncognitive skill areas: teamwork, creativity, ethics, resilience, curiosity, and time management.

In a report prepared for the ASIA Society of deeper learning schools by the RAND Corp entitled Measuring 21st century Competencies, researchers reviewed the breadth of tools currently available for assessing these competencies, and declared the MSA, which is now used at over 90 schools nationally and globally, as the singularly most impressive, finding it especially cost-effective, easy to use,  with strong reliability, validity, and resistance to faking.

I was fortunate enough to have been invited by the INDEX board and its executive director, Lisa Pullman, to research and write this user’s guide and toolkit for schools, empowering them to better use the MSA to improve student growth in the six Mission Skills.   INDEX has graciously permitted me to share it here.

Below the toolkit I’ve also posted a charming video about the MSA from one of its original founding schools, New Canaan Country School.



Pleased to share here the just completed SSAT Think Tank on the Future of Assessment Special Report 2014.   For the 2013 report, click here.   It was a pleasure to work with my SSAT colleagues in preparing this, and a delight to speak with so many fascinating people whom we profile and interview in the report.


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If you’re like me, one of the joys of summer is the time it makes available to catch up and jump ahead on the reading list.  I know I spend each spring nearly as much time deciding what to read as I spend reading itself.

Drawing upon my own reading in the past twelve months,  I’m pleased to share here some summer reading recommendations for Summer 2014.

(For the past years’ recommendations, you can click the following for

My annual lists are usually populated primarily by books published in the past year or so, but this year’s list is a bit broader, with about a third of its titles dating back over the past three or four years.   This is because as I worked this past year on preparing the OECD Test for Schools toolkit (see previous post), I did a deeper dive on two related topics, using data in schools and international benchmarking, and doing so brought me to some terrific, previously overlooked,  titles I am delighted to share on this list.

(Note: I write a monthly book recommendation column, “Sparks” for the L+D newsletter, and in some of the bits below, I’ve “self-plagiarized” a bit,  drawing upon and re-purposing from some of those pieces.)

The Top Ten 2014 Summer Reading Recommendation for 21st century educators (this year with indication on titles suitable for Beach Reading!)

(For those on a budget, Scroll to the bottom for five additional recommended freebies!).

berger   1. 2014 is only half over, but the front-runner for 2014’s  educational book of the year has to be Ron Berger’s Leaders of their Own Learning. This book elevates assessment to the its rightful place in the center, not the after-thought back-end, of learning, and to its rightful home in the heart and mind of each individual student.   For Berger, assessment is collaboration: “As students are given the tools to understand and assess their own strengths and challenges, their ability to take ownership increases.  In very concrete ways, students become leaders of their own learning- understanding learning targets, tracking their progress, using feedback to revise their work, and presenting their learning publicly-and partners with their teachers.”

The book is chock-full of action items and organizing lists for implementing this program, but especially wonderful are the charming, lovely, and sometimes even tear-inducing short essays with Berger which open each chapter: nobody writes as beautifully about children learning.

berger ethicPAIR THIS BOOK> Berger’s 2003 title, An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship belongs in the Hall of Fame.  In this extended, almost-lyrical essay, Berger writes as both a master cabinet maker and as an elementary school teacher to testify that it is the work that matters, and that when this is our guide and foundation, we can see student work soar and sparkle spectacularly.


Make-Space-Cover-e1325835564910-730x7302.  Wonderfully eclectic and beautifully graphic, both how-to manual and philosophical essay, Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration  published in 2012 was my singularly favorite read of 2013 and is my most frequently recommended book of the past year.   Co-authors Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, who are also co-directors of the “Environmental Collaborative” of the Stanford d. School (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design), bring the intellectual animation and ingenuity of the d. School to life on these 250 pages.

third teacherHow_Buildings_Learn_(Stewart_Brand_book)_coverPAIR THIS BOOK> Make Space stands tall among a set of wonderful titles in this extremely fascinating genre, such as the comprehensive and highly visual survey of learning space enhancements, The Third Teacher (2010) and Stewart Brand’s brilliant 1995 treatise on the importance of adaptability and continuous evolution of space, How Buildings Learn.

Data-Wise-in-Action-DWIA__35995.1361422570.325.4003. Data Wise  (rev. 2103) and Data Wise in Action (2007) are comdata wisepanion titles
from the Harvard GSE and the its Data Wise project.  I think they are dynamite resources for any school administrator or teacher who wants to become more intentional, systematic, and action-oriented in using student assessment results meaningfully.    Every school collects data of various kinds, but very few school-folks, I fear, and I know I speak for my past-self as a principal, effectively use the ever-growing pile of numbers and statistics to make meaning and make change. In these titles, the path is clearly marked (in Data Wise) and effectively illustrated (in in Action).  The spirit of these books is very appealing, empowering and honoring the professionalism of teachers in an approach that is student-centered, inclusive, collaborative and reflective.  Highly recommended for all administrators and for those teachers interested in this subject and wanting see teaching to become not data-DRIVEN but data-WISE.  


sticks and stones4. Emily Bazelon, a legal journalist for Slate, writes from outside our ranks with highly attuned empathy, compelling storytelling, and great common sense to the enormously complex phenomenon in schools which we problematically reduce to the one-word characterization “bullying” in her 2013 title, Sticks and Stone: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.   Carefully recounting in great detail three notorious examples of bullying in schools, she calls it like she sees it, applying a careful definition—repeated and sustained physical or verbal abuse in a situation of unequal power—to each event and unpacks the complexity that lies behind the actions and decisions.  School-leaders are spared little mercy for their mistakes, but are offered sympathy as their situations escalate and misunderstandings accrue.   The book isn’t perfect: the promised-by-the-introduction section sharing solutions doesn’t bring the reader as far as one would have hoped, though the resource guide at the back is a useful tool.  PAIR THIS>  I’d suggest pairing this with the excellent anti-bullying report prepared for Harvard’s Berkman Center and the Born This Way foundation by danah boyd and Andover Headmaster John Palfrey: they are really great resources on this subject.  (Bazelon: BEACH READING!)


SmartestKidsintheWorldRipley9.125. This book isn’t by any means, the smartest book of the year: it disappoints on several fronts, but it’s still a worthy (and easy) read.   Ripley beautifully honors they student-eye perspective on high school,  illuminating international educational practices through the eyes of students she literally follows  around the world to Poland, Finland, and South Korea.  By reflection upon their authentic experiences she evaluates schooling: would that we all did the same more regularly. She cross references the anecdotal with authoritative PISA data to offer fascinating insights about comparative educational practice, and she doesn’t hesitate to proffer the strong opinions she has drawn from her research, controversial though they might be (against technology and athletics, for high stakes exit testing and national standards).   Very much worth reading as a conversation (or argument) starter and as an accessible introduction to international benchmarking and comparative educational studies. (BEACH READING!)


49398_Hargreaves_Global_Fourth_Way_72ppiRGB_150pixw6. Reading Ripley might entice some to go deeper into global educational studies, and there are some terrific, richer and wiser, books available.   Having read three of them recently, my pick among this trio is from Boston College professors Hargreaves and Shirley: The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence.    The authors explain what they mean by the fourth way of educational change, which includes broadening the range of learning beyond the basics, using data to inform teacher inquiry not “drive it,” testing by sampling, and teachers as the co-creators of curriculum, not the deliverers of it.  The discussion of the fourth way by itself is worthy of extended examination and discussion as a model for educational transformation—it is worth the while.

The authors also tackle the fascinating and complex problem of whether innovation and improvemeallure_of_order-194x300nt are at odds or can be reconciled in the pursuit of excellence, and they then survey six surpassing shanghaidifferent case studies to exemplify the fourth way.  Some of the six they profile are a bit too familiar (Finland, Singapore) or fall a bit short in convincingly illuminating the Fourth Way in practice (California especially), but the sections on England (a particular school there), Ontario as a province, and especially the province of Alberta are inspiring and informative.  Bravo Alberta!

PAIR THIS> with Tucker’s Surpassing Shanghai and or Mehta’s Allure of Order, both of which similarly scan the international landscape and draw fascinating and applicable insights for US education.


leadingOnline.225x225-757.  If you are reading this blog post, you are probably already someone practicing online learning and leadership, and so you’ll easily agree with me that it was great to see this past year three Jersey educators issue two excellent guides for the practice of digital and online leadership.  From Montclair Kimberly Academy, Richards and Valentine argue in their short, colorfully illustrated Leading Online:  “These days, leaders look out for their organizations by looking out of their organizations… they know you don’t have to leave school to leave school.”   And they know that no matter how powerful the technology, human decision-making is still demanded.   As they explain in a chapter entitled “Design for Spaces, Care for Spaces,” tools cannot reorganize, synthesize, or make meaning:  “these tasks fall to the leader.” PAIR THIS> with the following.


sheninger8. New Jersey high school principal Eric Sheninger offers Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times, which comprehensively covers the terrain of his topic and his passion.  This is a how-to introduction, with chapters on communication, public relations, branding, professional growth and PD, and increasing student engagement. Sheninger recognizes the challenge of digital leadership, and recounts mistakes he has made.   He opposes the idea of cultivating buy-in, which he says “requires a salesman-like approach that might contain if-then rewards.  We have no mandates to use technology at [my school.]”   Instead, he urges “Embracement attained through empowerment and autonomy.”


smarter-than-you-think9. Wired magazine columnist Clive Thompson published last fall Smarter Than You Think, which will brighten your outlook and bring many ideas to mind about the future of learning in a digitally enhanced, connected world.  The “huge impact on our cognition” digital tools are making is grouped into three major categories: “they allow for prodigious external memory; … make it easier for us to find connections– between ideas, pictures, bits of news– that were previously invisible; … [and] encourage a superfluity of communication and publishing which has many surprising effects.” (BEACH READ!)


download10. Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st century, comes from what until recently Karen Cator’s excellent EdTEch shop at the US Department of Education—and it is free for download.  Available at the USDOE since Febraury 2013, it is confusingly still labeled a “draft,” but that doesn’t make it less worthwhile reading.  As the importance of non-cognitive factors for student success has surged back into consciousness these past several years, and most particularly that of what Duckworth calls grit,  many have been responding: OK, stipulated, but HOW?   Even Duckworth’s own TED talk offers next to no guidance on this question.

This DOE 100 page free resource, after reviewing terminology and fostering gritassessments, walks the readers through more than fifty intervention programs and methods for doing so, and then provides valuable recommendations for policy-makers, educational leaders, and parents for this work.   PAIR WITH>  Hoerr’s ASCD “Aria” sort book, Fostering Grit—though if you have time for only one, choose the DOE’s freebie.


Bonus: Five more Freebies
As noted, number 10 on the list above is yours for free, and do remember that your summer reading doesn’t have to cost you the equivalent of a special restaurant  with your best friend.  Many excellent special reports and even full book titles are available for free as downloads.


nrc report cover1. One is the National Research Council’s comprehensive, evidence-based, rich and rewarding 200 page 2012 book, Education for Life and Work. It’s not the lightest reading, but it provides an excellent foundation in what is known already, what we must inquire into more thoroughly, and develop more completely, to advance true 21st century learning.

The NRC frames this “education for life and work” as “Deeper Learning:”
“Calls for such “21st century skills” as innovation, creativity, and creative problem-solving can also be seen as calls for deeper learning—helping students develop transferable knowledge that can be applied to solve new problems or respond effectively to new situations.”
photo2. The National Research Council has also helpfully summarized its research for educators, in the succinct and accessible Practitioner’s Guide.

measuring 21st century competencies3. The Asia Society engaged researchers from the RAND corporation to prepare a really interesting and useful report which I think would be found valuable reading for all who are engaged in advancing 21st century learning.    Called “Measuring 21st century Competencies: Guidance for Educators,” it is about sixty pages in length, and after helpfully defining this set of competencies, and reviewing the key issues in testing and assessment generally, it reviews a wide array of techniques and tools for doing so.   Interestingly, it chooses one as being most worthy of a “deeper look,” the Mission Skills Assessment from the Index group, and the discussion it provides about this fast emerging tool, (full disclosure: one with which I have an association) is very informative about the future of non-cognitive assessment.

PISA-2012-(vol4)--Cover-(eng)-miniature4. The OECD, based in Paris, owns and manages PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment—which makes news every three years for its “league tables” ranking national educational performance.  Less well known is that its team of educational researchers spends years reviewing the testing data and studying international educational practices to prepare fascinating reports on what works in education—and they are all free.  There are half a dozen or more I especially like, including the two Lessons for the US from PISA (2009) and (20012), but my top pick is the recent 2013 publication: PISA Results 2012:  What makes school successful.  Learn what these researchers have found about areas such as governance, school climate, student grouping, grade repetition, student-teacher ratio, teacher professional development, and much more.


SSATB  Who We Are » Think Tank » Think Tank Special Report 2013 (1)5. Forgive me tooting my own horn, but I’d add last to this list the “Special Report on the Future of Assessment” published last summer by SSAT, a 24 page review of the big ideas, leading thinkers, and innovative practices in non-cognitive assessment.    (Note, a second SSAT special report is due out in a few weeks.  Check back here or at the SSAT website to grab it when it is available).


If you’re looking for even more “freebies” for 21st century learning reading, be sure also to check out the DML website of the MacArthur foundation.  They’ve teamed up with MIT press to publish a series of fascinating volumes such as Measuring What Matters Most and The Future of the Curriculum, and they’re all available for free download.

Enjoy your summer reading, and please: take a moment to use the comment box to share your suggestions for summer reading for 21st century educators.


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