Teachers – ‘Read…Refine…Reflect…Repeat’

Read repeat

A short reading list for your reflection and refinement.


There is a apocryphal tale, attributed often to Abraham Lincoln, though it almost certainly predates America itself, about the value of ‘sharpening your axe‘. The simple moral of the tale is that we need to spend more time sharpening our figurative axes – that is to say thinking, planning and preparing, before we undertake our intended action.

Lincoln himself honed the tale into a handy aphorism (well, he might said this) to simplify things further:

 “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Like all good aphorisms, it strikes at our instinctive sense of truth. I’m no experienced axeman (in fact, it is best you put no sharp objects in my near vicinity for fear of clumsy accidents), but the aphorism cuts to the heart of my instinctive notions of best practice as a teacher.

So, as a teacher, an English teacher at that, I thinking reading about teaching is a very important, and useful, business. I thought this notion was universal, but my experience has shown me it isn’t. I have had many a debate about the value of the reflection garnered from a mere book. You can’t improve outside of a classroom goes the argument – it is all about practice and experience.

Now, I don’t wish to draw a false dichotomy here. Reading, for me, is a rich and essential part of my practice, but I am not suggesting we don’t learn in the crucible of the classroom. Yet, there is a real problem in that practise in the classroom makes it hard to actually improve your practice. The seeming chaos of emotion, hazards and happenstance that make up the average lesson does not provide good conditions for good quality reflection. Good feedback, or reflection based on videos are very useful tools, but these are richly complemented by reading around your subject, reading about pedagogy, theory and subject specific practice.

I think we can balance research and our intuitions derived from practice. We can balance skill and drill with reflection and the knowledge gained from reading. We may be pushed for time, which teacher isn’t, but be wary of not reading to reflect to order to fulfil some sense of saving time when by sharpening our axe we may save time and stress in the log run.

Your axe may not be as sharp as it could be.

With this topic in mind, I was recently asked by the organizers of the prospective ResearchEd 2014 (I suspect it was Hélène Galdin-O’Shea beavering away behind the email address), the brain-child of teacher-writer-provocateur Tom Bennett, to suggest books ripe for the on-site shop at the event.

With a edge sharpened towards research and evidence-led reading, I suggested the following – limiting myself to five choices (apologies for glaring omissions – I went as far as leaving my own book out of the list!):

‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman


Ok, so my first selection isn’t even a book on education – I know. But all the better. This is the best nonfiction book I have ever read. It encapsulates a lifetime of knowledge from a bona fide genius and Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman. The book unveils the complex workings of our mind and it lays open a thousand lessons about how we teach and how students learn (and how we learn). It will make you consider every decision you make in the classroom and it can help you better understand yourself. What is not to like?

‘The Hidden Lives of Learners’, by Graham Nuthall


This is a book that should be owned by all teachers. If you think  research evidence is the sterile stuff of a blank laboratory, then read this book. Nuthall reveals the beautiful complexity of teaching and learning. The masses of video and transcript evidence will get you thinking deeply about your own experiences – as a teacher and as a student. The book does not produce any easy answers, but it does suggest some wise principles for good teaching and learning.


‘Education and Learning: An Evidence Based Approach’ by Jane Mellanby and Katy Theobold


This is a new book, so it is lesser known, but it deserves to be required reading on PGCE and School Direct courses. Not only that, it should become a staple for teachers and those school leaders who make decisions about teaching. The chapters of the book span aspects of learning and the brain, like memory and the impact of aging, alongside chapters on school systems, student groupings, pedagogy and more. Each chapter is rammed to the gills with interesting references that start a valuable reading list for those who want to go further with their professional reading. It is eminently readable and nothing like the stuffy academic tomes you may have encountered in your murky training past.

‘Visible Learning for Teachers’, by John Hattie


John Hattie is the trail-blazing, argumentative Aussie that looms large in the world of evidence-led education. His Visible Learning series are based on a meta-analysis (lots of lots of research stacked in the same pile) of thousands of research studies. There has been criticism of his methods and his summaries of his effect sizes (basically the strength and impact of the different ‘interventions’), but the book is unique in translating a huge amount of research in a readable and usable manner. It is a great staring point to then dig into the detail of the log-pile.

‘Visible Learning and the Science of how we Learn’, by John Hattie and Gregory Yates


Yes – it is that rambunctious Aussie. As the title suggests, Hattie has corralled the help of Greg Yates to chop through the woods of cognitive science to present teachers with a clear and hugely useful summary of learning. It is a fascinating book that asks interesting questions about creativity, technology and the origins of expertise.


There are other great books in the world of education, but these books, I think, provide a solid basis for four hours sharpening the mental axe, with an ‘evidence’ slant. They are rooted in research evidence and they often make us think anew or even challenge our intuitions. They provide the sound foundations for a career full of reflective reading.

Get sharpening your axe!

4 thoughts on “Teachers – ‘Read…Refine…Reflect…Repeat’”

  1. Really enjoy reading all your posts Alex. Have read some of the titles you recommend ( John Hattie books… By the way he is a New Zealander, NOT Australian.. He has only been at Melbourne University since 2011 .. !! We are a little precious here in NZ about our high flyers being claimed as Australian!! )
    Thoroughly agree that as teachers we must be continually reading and reflecting to hone our practice.

  2. Pingback: Teachers: ‘Read…Refine…Reflect…Repeat’ | The Echo Chamber

  3. I heartily second your choices on the reading list and although it’s tempting to add to them I shall resist!
    Just started Kahneman and it’s having a profound impact on me and how I’ll approach certain students. And that’s before I step into my classrooms for the new year. Enjoy ResearchED. Jealous I can’t make it but will try and follow on Twitter.

  4. Pingback: Rinsing the cottage cheese – making CPD meaningful. | @mrocallaghan_edu

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