Book Reviews: Education

Listed alphabetically by author (where known).


Critical Incidents in Teaching

Fascinating, readable, and important. It impressed upon me the difficulty of knowing the right thing to do in the classroom and the need for subtle thinking in handling those difficult situations. Very valuable, though regrettably dated. Well worth a second, more thoughtful reading (see "How to Use This Book," p. xxx). Highlights: p. 81-88, esp. last paragraph; 107 paragraph 2; 159-163 important!; 193-194, esp. 1st paragraph; 196 top paragraph. 2/27/96


An Introduction to Teaching

Essential reading! An unusually good look at many aspects of teaching and the environment in which teachers must function. Especially good lists of recommended books. Very little wool gathering here. Some weaknesses, but many invaluable strengths. Rereat this one---soon! Summarize, cull quotes, etc. Work on this one. 12/27/95

Sylvia Ashton-Warner


Some excellent, crucial ideas, especially re teaching reading, writing, and spelling. However, not too much else . . . too much unimportant and boring stuff about sports. The second half of the book really not worth reading. All in all, a mixed bag that's worth another look some time.

Really, I'm not giving enough credit here. I think her "organic" methods nd approach are vital. There are the makings of a system here . . . very important ideas. Don't let the excessively chatty and sentimental writing blind you to these invaluable ideas and attitudes. 4/28/94

G. Coles

The Learning Mystique

Really important and interesting. Shows how the diagnosis of "learning disability" is another example of blaming the victim and has no proven neurological basis. Instead, [in this book,] families and schools get most of the blame when children fail to learn. Chapters 7 and 8 are the essentials here; the remainder is largely excess detail and some regrettable wool gathering. A crucially important book! 11/5/95

John Dewey

Experience and Education

Important theoretical underpinnings of progressive education. Thoughtful and provocative, but distressingly short of examples and applications. The teacher wanting to apply the methods talked about here will have a tough time. Yet there is sound thinking here, and it's more readable than what I've seen of Dewey's other works. Definitely worth another serious look. 10/12/97

Margaret Donaldson

Children's Minds

Excellent and very interesting, though regrettably old (1978). Important, readable, and memorable. Did not read the appendix on Piaget's theories. Despite more recent advances, this might well be worth rereading. Some valuable and important guidelines for teaching. 4/24/95

Fader & McNiel

Hooked on Books

P. 1-4 invaluable reminder. Quote from p. 4: "The poorest man in the world is the man limited to his own experience, the man who does not read." A wonderful book, full of good ideas. Read only through p. 75, however. Just about the most valuable stuff imaginable on children's (young adults') reading. 10/31/95

Edward Fiske

Smart Schools, Smart Kids

Informative, positive, encouraging book about recent efforts to reform American education. Essential reading. Full of stories about successful programs and innovative, gutsy people. Useful appendix provides a guide to further information. Read this again. 6/7/95


Children and Science

Not very good for my purposes---too much history of science, too much philosophy, too much poetry, too much wool gathering, and not enough practical advice on teaching children about science. Also, the general approach he advocates ("play in a laboratory") not relevant to my situation. I skimmed some of the later material. 1/2/92 [This review seems particularly unhelpful; was it worth reading at all, or not?]

Paul Goodman

Compulsory Mis-Education

A searing, depressing critique of modern (1964) education and society. Covers much the same ground as Holt's Freedom and Beyond. Goodman is more learned than Holt, seemingly, and is probably more quotable.

"In reconstructing the present system, the right principles seem to me to be the following: To make it easier for youngsters to gravitate to what suits them, and to provide many points of quitting and return. To cut down the loss of student hours in parroting and forgetting, and the loss of teacher hours in talking to the deaf. To engage more directly in the work of society, and to have useful products to show instead of stacks of examination papers. To begin to decide what should be automated and what must not be automated, and to educate for a decent society in the foreseeable future." p. 189

He is glum about the prospects for change, perhaps too glum, though I am not optimistic either.

One good point, anticlimactic after the above: good teaching is that which leaves the student eager to learn more.

The critique of "the present moment in progressive education" in chapter 3 is valuable, though in fact the whole book is readable and useful. Well worth rereading, though dated. 10/17/97

James Herndon

How to Survive in Your Native Land

Herndon's book is fascinating and informative, very educational reading for a future teacher. Also funny, raucous, "written all wrong," etc. A good antidote to an excess of reformatory zeal (e.g., Kozol), but also depressingly resigned to mediocrity and madness . . . Invaluable. Make this your own. Read it yearly if not more often. 3/22/94 [Note: not reread as of 2001]

Notes from a Schoolteacher

A big disappointment after How to Survive . . . . Full of trivial and seemingly useless incidents, mostly having little to do with school. Much carping about boards and principals and such. Very little of use here, seemed very self-indulgent. Don't read this one again! It sucks bigtime. 3/24/94 [It's all well and good to go on about "written all wrong" until you do actually write it all wrong, like this.]

Gilbert Highet

The Art of Teaching

Pretty awful. Much wool gathering, little substance. Strictly oriented toward traditional lecturing. Didn't read even half . . . don't bother with this one! 11/28/94

John Holt

How Children Fail

Holt's best. The essential book about young children in public school. He makes painfully and unforgettably clear how children act in the classroom and why the system damages young intellects. Essential and memorable. Consistently interesting, often vivid. A true classic. Read once before, quite a few years ago. Should read again, often. 4/23/94 Note: I've read this probably 5 times by now, consider it the best book on education of young children. 6/24/01

How Children Learn

Essential reading; essential sequel to How Children Fail, though somewhat less interesting. Still, a very readable, generally fascinating study of the subject. Should be required reading for all teachers and parents. Not only required reading . . . required rereading. 4/27/94 [Reread a couple of times.]

Freedom and Beyond

An astonishing and important book. Full of stunning insights into American society. Especially good re education, but also mind-changing ideas about our economy and institutions. Reread this one often! Make it your own. 5/31/93

Instead of Education

As good as How Children Fail, while much broader in scope. Chapters 11-13 invaluable. Also a depressing book . . . schools are so awful, and so unlikely to change.

Skimmed the appendices . . . would be much more interesting if read along with the relevant sections of the main text. Keep this in mind on next rereading.

Bottom paragraph on p. 49 is fantasy. The book is somewhat dated---the Internet is the poor man's free press these days.

Hugely important. A death knell for S-chools. Reread. This was my second reading. 2/28/97

A Life Worth Living (letters) edited by Susannah Sheffer

A wonderful book of letters. I used to think that I wrote good letters, but his clear, excellent prose and logical structures are well beyond my capabilities. His ideas, too, are invaluable. I had the urge very often to photocopy individual letters, and often did so. I do think he's too pessimistic, however. A great book. Reread, buy, keep forever. 4/4/94

Never Too Late

Least interesting of all of Holt's books that I've read [which is about all of them]. The first part is stunningly boring, recollections of old song lyrics and old popular musicians, etc. BUT the parts on 'cello playing are very relevant and important re that instrument ("Inventions," p. 162) and how to learn an instrument. 5/31/93

Learning All the Time 1989

Generally little new here to add to the Holt opera. What Do I Do Monday? and How Children Fail and How Children Learn together cover this ground very well. Still, it's very readable, and the material on math is useful. I skipped chapter 4 on music, and skimmed some of the rest. [But see below.]

"Leon, a young black man of about seventeen whom I met some years ago in an eastern city, was a student in an Upward Bound summer program. He was at the absolute bottom of all his regular school classes, tested, judged, and officially labeled as being almost illiterate. At the meeting I was part of, the students, some black, some white, all poor, had been invited to talk to their summer school teachers about what they could remember of their own school experiences and how they felt about them. Until quite late in the evening Leon didn't speak. When he did, he didn't say much. But what he said I will never forget. He stood up, holding before him a paperback copy of Dr. Martin Luther King's book Why We Can't Wait, which he had read, or mostly read, during that summer session. He turned from one to another of the adults, holding the book before each of us and shaking it for emphasis, and, in a voice trembling with anger, said several times at the top of his lungs, 'Why didn't anyone ever tell me about this book? Why didn't anyone ever tell me about this book?' What he meant, of course, was that in all his years of schooling no one had ever asked him to read, or ever shown him or mentioned to him, even one book that he had any reason to feel might be worth reading." p. 27

"The myth that if you don't start [music] early, you might as well not start, tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The music-making world that young people confront reminds me a lot of the world of school sports. After a lot of weeding out, in the end you've got a varsity with a few performers and an awful lot of people on the sidelines thinking, 'Gee, it's too bad I wasn't good enough.'" p. 110

Holt goes on to say that those who start late can achieve a high level of skill. What he doesn't say--and I wish he had--is that the "good enough," in sports or music, really means "good enough to make a living at it" [or good enough to compete with the top-flight performers]. Do we study music or play sports only to do it [i.e., in preparation for playing] as a pro? Is there no joy in the journey itself, or in merely playing at our own level of skill? Of course there is.

One thought about Leon: my guess is that the King book was recommended to him by a friend. If the school had given it to him, would it have done any good? One can't know for sure, but as Fader's Naked Children made clear, after a certain point school and the dominant culture (i.e., "culture" as selected and presented by the school) become anathema, and may be rejected out-of-hand.

I did go on, after writing the first page of this note, to read the section on music, which is probably the most valuable part of the book. The "Suzuki" section in particular. Reread this some time. 11/2/97

R. Kendall

White Teacher in a Black School

Dismal, depressing, "stacked deck" of a book. The author/hero seems like a totally Republican prig, probably paranoid, too. This is close to trash. Yet, it is good to read a book now and then that one totally disagrees with. This is often much more thought provoking than the alternative. But I really hate this book! 11/5/94

Tracy Kidder

Among Schoolchildren

An excellent novelistic treatment of one teacher's experience with a 5th grade class for one school year. Vivid and memorable scenes of classroom interaction. This is what teaching is like. A few digressions are tedious, but this book is a winner. My biggest dissatisfaction, however, is with the teacher's methods---at times it seems like she's hopelessly blind about how wrongheaded some of her choices are (e.g., basal readers and workbooks). She needs a good dose of John Holt. The endless battles over homework and unwillingness to work make me shudder. So in some (many?) ways this seems like an object lesson in what not to do. Reread this one. Some of the best material comes at or near the end, so stay with it. 6/10/96

Herbert Kohl

Math, Writing, and Games in the Open Classroom

Though old, still an excellent source of ideas about writing and games in elementary classrooms. Particularly good material on game design! Has some hints on how students may react (e.g., some will be turned off by competition). Looks very useful and practical. In other words, a rarity! A gem! 9/7/95

The Open Classroom

Thought-provoking, does not ofer easy answers. More of a suggestion of how to develop a personal style than a guidebook of how to do it. I was doubtful about the book at the start, but eventually it won me over. The section called "Ten Minutes" was excellent. Some useful and practical ideas here. Well worth another look some time. 3/1/97

Growing Minds 1984

". . . it's remarkable how young people can become sophisticated when talking and thinking about things that matter to them. [Holt makes the same observation.] I believe that intellectual sophistication can be developed even within the context of an overcrowded, undersupplied, stuffy public school classroom. What is essential is taking time for what the Germans call Sprache, which can be loosely translated into English as serious continuing discussion which allows people's voices to develop and be heard." p. 111

This book is pure gold. Thoughtful--deep, even--funny, practical, and extremely readable. In a way it's also somewhat (very?) discouraging because his experience suggests--though I don't believe he says this--that there is almost no room in the public schools for such a teacher as he is and as I aspire to be. He does not fail to point out, however, that the children need such teachers.

Much of the book is personal history which is excellent reading but not something one would care to study. But part III is crucially important as theory, and I recall being especially impressed by section 14, "Content and Control," and section 18, "Sprache."

Very instructive was his attempt to introduce a "learning center" structure in his KG/1st grade room and how it failed. This is described in section 14. This book is important! 11/3/97

Jonathan Kozol

See my separate page on Jonathan Kozol (Link).

John Lembo

Why Teachers Fail (1971)

"When students are told what to think, say and do each minute they are in school, and when they must comply with the teachers' demands to avoid punishment, can we say that these students are learning in a way which will enhance the development of a democratic society? Can we even say that these students are learning in any sense connected with education?" p. 17

"Provisions for honest, free, and thorough inquiry and discourse--the only adequate avenue for becoming resourceful and creative individuals who are constructive and responsible in facing the reality of self and society--are conspicuously absent from the agenda of most classroom teachers." p. 16

This book provides a devastating step-by-step critique of traditional teaching methods, learning conditions, curriculum, etc. The presentation of his alternatives is far less persuasive and at times approaches the fantastic. The discussion of the "inquiry method" is useful to a point, but seems to bear little relation to the individualized approach that he advocates.

The proposed method stresses teacher evaluation of and planning for the student, while mostly giving lip service to the involvement of the student in his own education.

It should be possible for a teacher to act as facilitator and counselor to twenty autodidacts-- this seems to me the ideal towards which I need to work. Anyway, a useful book, but not irreplaceable. 10/31/97

Ken Macrorie


Entertaining and important, though the journalistic style is occasionally tiresome. The focus is on writing ("college composition") and---more importantly---how students are [treated] and how they should be treated by teachers. Particularly valuable in this regard is p. 179. Material from p. 161 to the end is the best, and p. 161 has larger implications, including an important paraphrase of Louis Agassiz. Reread this one, and take p. 161 and 179 to heart. 11/22/95

Jay Matthews


Fascinating, generally vivid and well-written story of an exceptional teacher and his Latino students. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, though the lessons are confusing. Escalante's example can hardly be expected to be emulated, but it does encourage greater effort in meeting difficult challenges, educational or otherwise. Really a good book, worth rereading, though hardly a textbook on educational methods. Any book praised by Jonathan Kozol and William Bennett demands scrutiny! 3/9/97

Jeannie Oakes

Keeping Track (read to p. 98)

A really boring book. Only the importance of the subject matter [tracking in schools] kept me going as far as I did. The main problem is stylistic. Don't bother with this one . . . there must be a more readable treatment somewhere! 11/16/95

Seymour Papert

The Children's Machine (1993)

Exceptionally interesting and valuable book about schooling in general and computers in particular. Lego-Logo is a very exciting learning tool. I photocopied chapter 4. His philosophy is basically "open classroom." No data or studies that I recall, but good stories and ideas. Reread soon.

Highlights: 24; 40; 55; school as hierarchy: 60-61; theory of knowledge 63; wanting to learn 67; 110 paragraph 5. 1/18/99

Edward Pauly

The Classroom Crucible

An eye-opening, important book which is unfortunately tedious and repetitive. The essential point is that prescriptive educational policies do not effectively penetrate to the actual behaviors of teachers and students. Teaching is effective only when the classroom as a whole functions well, and this is mostly determined by the quality of the relationships between teacher and students, and among students. This book is worth summarizing---then reread summary often.

Books recommended: Seymour Sarason, The Culture of School and the Problem of Change ('82) [see my review of different Sarason book below]; Philip Jackson, Life in Classrooms ('68); Dan Lortie, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study ('75) 6/16/96

Neil Postman

The End of Education

Amazing revelation of what's wrong with public schools and what we need to do to make education work. After reading probably 50 books on education it is always surprising to come across something new (as well as old), and good, too.

Invaluable for homeschooling. I don't necessarily agree with every detail here, but the overall thrust is right on target. Get a copy and study it, treasure it---it's essential reading.

Although Postman doesn't say much about the ills of our society as a whole, the larger implications of the deaths of the old "gods" seem fairly clear. [Really? Not now, they don't.]

Too many highlights to list here . . . Part II expands on the ideas in Part I and could be omitted with only a minor loss of detail. 10/3/98

Postman and Weingartner

The School Book

Very useful, informative, clear-headed, easy to read, and amusing. Unfortunately, somewhat dated (1973), but a good introduction to thinking about schools and an excellent guide to further inquiry. Well worth a second reading. 2/21/95

Seymour Sarason

You Are Thinking of Teaching?

Almost totally useless. The style is turgid and precious, the substance is thin and seemingly mostly off the point. Defensive and apologetic. Two useful things: a quote from a teacher and a very lengthy excerpt from Kids Who Care by Robert Vlahakis. Don't reread! (In fact, I skimmed most of this.) 5/24/95 Note: A different Sarason book was recommended by Pauly in The Classroom Crucible.

Charles Silberman

Crisis in the Classroom

Excellent, intelligent, vast, though regrettably out of date. Much more even-handed and objective than Holt or Kozol, and more positive . . . a good antidote to their probably excessive pessimism. The start is the best; interest begins to flag after about 300 pages. Reread this one! Invaluable. 11/29/94


Dumbing Down Our Kids

An overwrought, almost hysterical attack on the soft underbelly of the educational establishment. Which is not to say that he's totally wrong, but merely too one-sided, too committed to the factory model, and too willing to load his prose with hot button words . . . the title is an example. Granting this, one must admit that he makes many excellent points. The truth lies somewhere between Holt and Sykes, and so this is well worth another look. I skipped much of the middle . . . he gets tedious.

What this book makes painfully clear is that the best theorizing can turn to shit by the time it filters down, through many ignorant and uncaring minds, to the classroom. The "factory" model may even be the best for the average teacher! [Surely not!] Indeed, it may be best if the teacher has no real feeling for children. Amateur psychologizing is more harmful than helpful . . . what is needed is caring, sensitive teachers, not thoughtless order-followers. 4/29/96

Nancy Wallace

Better Than School: Read in 1998, excellent.