The Best Books for Teaching and Learning

The Best Books for Teaching and Learning

"It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge."

Albert Einstein

Teaching is an art and a science. More often than not, college professors are provided little to no training on how to actually communicate the information they have spent years studying. Shocking, I know. 

When I first started teaching, I read everything I could find on teaching and learning. These are some of the best teaching books I have read – especially for a college level teacher just starting out. 

Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning by Jose Antonio Bowen

“Time for reflection and interaction is a casualty of the digital age, and one of the primary goals of higher education should be to reclaim this time.”

Jose Antonio Bowen

No, this is not a book about what teaching nightmares are made of, and yes, I’ve had that nightmare. For some reason, it’s almost always on the first day of class when I also don’t have a syllabus. At first glance, you might think this book is anti-technology, but that’s not the case at all. It’s a big picture approach that recognizes there are better uses for classroom time than sharing your favorite TED talk.

 Bowen spends three chapters introducing ideas to help teachers and professors design learning environments where students focus on “learning content as a basis for discovery rather than being satisfied with receipt of knowledge.” Despite what you might suspect, this book actually has a lot of ideas for incorporating technology into your course, but most of the input happens at home instead of the classroom. This subject changes so quick, so there are a few moments that might seem outdated, but most of his argument and ideas are pretty timeless. Not only that, many of his recommendations are even easier because technology has improved since its 2012 publication. There is also a follow up text, Teaching Naked Techniques, that offers even more strategies and practical application for the classroom.

Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education by Mark Edmundson

“At a certain point, professors stopped being usefully sensitive and became more like careful retailers who have it as a cardinal point of doctrine never to piss the customer off.”

Mark Edmundson

Edmundson champions a posture toward teaching that returns the process to one of its Latin roots; educere, after all, means “to lead out” and toward something. You might remember the prisoner of Plato’s cave allegory gaining freedom from his shackles and moving toward enlightenment as symbolized by the sun. For the prisoner, a radical transformation takes place. 

The teacher’s responsibility, in the spirit of Plato and according to Edmundson, is to design an atmosphere that makes these kinds of transformational moments possible. I actually assign a chapter from this book in my Freshmen Composition course. When I teach this course face to face, students read four different educators and debate the best approach to teaching. Mark Edmundson’s approach is a celebration of the kind of genius and passion students of the past were made of. He contends with the consumer driven model of education that aims to entertain. I imagine his approach is the sage on the stage model that is criticized in discussions on flipping the classroom; nonetheless, he aims to advance real education and deep change in his students. As an educator, it makes my heart happy, and I do my best to create an environment where students can wrestle with ideas and pursue ideas they are passionate about.

Why Don't Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham

“People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.”

Daniel T. Willingham

This book is absolutely one of the best books for teachers and learners. Daniel T. Willingham lays the foundation for learning and elaborates on the following areas: thinking, questioning and curiosity, mental limits, background knowledge, memory, understanding, practicing, and characteristics of novice and expert thinkers. His newer text on reading, The Reading Mind, emerges out of this early research.

Perhaps most profoundly, Daniel Willingham is one of the first thinkers to articulate the importance of brain plasticity on teaching and learning. If the brain is malleable, if you can teach an old dog new tricks, then what does that mean for education? His argument is that educators need to design effective learning experiences and he does an excellent job of articulating the theory and the practice of how to do this. This is absolutely one of the best teaching books I’ve read.

Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom by John C. bean

“When students learn to wrestle with questions about purpose, audience, and genre, they develop a conceptual view of writing that has lifelong usefulness in any communicative context.”

John C. Bean

No matter what subject you teach, this book will give you practical ideas to start incorporating critical thinking and writing into your course in the spirit of writing across the curriculum. The author recognizes more writing assignments means more grading, but he offers solutions for this problem, including low stake assignments to build up to larger projects. This is one of the best teaching books because of the learning strategies and practical tips that you’ll want to return to for the rest of your career.  

There is a really helpful section on writing rubrics and how incorporating them into your writing assignments will add clarity to your expectations and improve student writing. If you’ve never used a rubric in your course, there are some samples you can use as a guide to structure your assignment. Rubrics also speed up grading and allows the instructor to provide more qualitative feedback. Additionally, he has quite a few ideas for low stakes writing assignments that require less intensive grading sessions from the instructor. Group work is addressed as well with tips on how to incorporate it effectively. I really appreciate how the author writes with the naysayers in mind throughout the whole text and provides some ways for instructors to design more effective courses and writing assignments.

The Best Books for Teaching and Learning