Four books for rethinking school

School is changing faster and faster. These four books can help you navigate that shifting landscape.


How might we understand the system?

Thinking in Systems, by Donella Meadows

One of the best, most impactful books I’ve ever read.

According to conventional wisdom, new school leaders should wait a year before initiating significant changes, because during that time they can build social and political capital to “spend” later.

There is an even more important reason.

A school is a living and complex system, so leaders should intervene with care. As Meadows puts it,

Listen to the wisdom of the system. Aid and encourage the forces and structures that help the system run itself. Notice how many of those forces and structures are at the bottom of the hierarchy. Don’t be an unthinking intervenor and destroy the system’s own self-maintenance capacities. Before you charge in to make things better, pay attention to the value of what’s already there.” (Emphasis added.)

This book will enable school leaders to see through “The Matrix” and discern the “stocks,” “flows,” and “feedback loops” that produce the dynamic equilibrium of a school.

If I could recommend only one book, this would be the one.


How might we understand the individual learner?

Dark Horse, by Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas

And if I could recommend only two books, the second one would be Dark Horse.

Many have come around to the idea that we must evolve the industrial education model, yet many also expect student performance to fit a normal distribution curve (i.e., some kids will get excellent grades; most will get average grades; some will get poor grades).

This expectation blinds us to the fact that most kids can do extraordinary things under the right conditions. Would it shock you to learn that the right conditions are not standardized?

Dark Horse will enable you to envision ways of unleashing every learner’s potential.


How might we understand learning for an age of accelerations?

Range, by David Epstein

If you are an adherent of the liberal arts approach to education, this book will reinforce your beliefs.

If you are an adherent of the idea that kids should specialize early and develop expertise in one or two areas, this book will present research and stories that may reframe your sense of what constitutes “learning excellence.”


How might we gather people for maximum effect?

The Art of Gathering, by Priya Parker

Virtually everything in schools:

  • prepares people (students, parents, teachers, et al.) for a gathering;

  • is a gathering itself; or

  • deals with the aftermath of a gathering.

Yet so often we default to forms and functions that do not fit what people need.

This book will change how you think about designing a class, a staff meeting, a back to school night—and everything else that gathers people at your school.

H/T to Ashley Pinakiewicz from Through the Looking Glass for this recommendation.


What are your top books for rethinking school?


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Christian Talbot