Quality of your summer reads

The summer is a great time to do some reading. Various folks, including me, have offered educators some suggestions for what they might read. I think putting some time into the “long form” is a great form of professional development. However, there is still reason to be critical when making selections on which you are willing to spend time.

I recently encountered an extended blog post that emphasized this point. The post references Drezner’s book The Ideas Industry which expresses the concern that many now encounter “thought leaders” promoting one cause or another. I suppose many such books are encouraged by what I think is a much more intense interest in “political issues”, but books for educators focused on leadership, how students learn, or how to teach some new skill or knowledge areas should be included.

The blog post author offers what seems a familiar list of critical thinking skills to be applied to pretty much any form of content (quoted below) but were focused in the post on books for professionals.

  1. Do they have an advanced degree in the field they’re discussing? If not, do their cited sources?

  2. What’s their methodology? Does their case rest on anecdotal evidence or scientific studies? Do they cherry-pick certain studies and ignore those that don’t support their view?

  3. What’s their motive? Who funded their research? Are they transparent about funding and other organizational ties?

Many of the books for educators I would place in this “thought leader” category offer few references of any type, but do tend to throw in a number of anecdotes to support their advocacy.

The blog post uses Gladwell’s book Outliers as an example. I happen to like Outliers and would still recommend the book even recognizing the validity of the complaint. The blog criticized the 10,000 hour rule Gladwell highlights in the book. I have also read accounts carefully demonstrating that the 10,000 standard need not be met and I suppose arguing that those who use this value are discouraging educators from taking on instructional challenges that cannot commit this amount of time could be an issue.

In fairness to Gladwell, I would describe the intent of Outliers a little more broadly. I interpret the book as an argument against “extreme genius” being responsible for the accomplishments of certain individuals (e.g., Bill Gates, the Beatles). It has been some time since I read the book, but I remember the explanation suggesting that “outliers” tend to be talented individuals who have the luck to fall into an endeavor or area before others and to work very hard. So major accomplishments are a matter of talent, luck and hard work. So, from Gladwell’s anecdotal analysis, such achievements result from more than talent.

Gladwell did not make up the 10,000 standard. If I remember from cognitive psychology textbooks, the 10,000 value comes from studies of the development of expertise. So, Gladwell did have some basis for using this value and it was probably appropriate to the examples he used (self-taught programming, musical creativity, etc.).

I do agree with the blog authors concern regarding the glut of “thought leader” books and critical analysis is certainly warranted.