Loving Learning: Book Review

Loving Learning:
How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools


by Tom Little and Katherine Ellison

Tom Little, in collaboration with Katherine Ellison, has written a very nice book about Progressive Education. To start with, it is just easily readable. Not only is it readable but it is quite enjoyable as well. While authorship is given to Tom Little (co-founder of Park Day School) and Katherine Ellison (journalist), it is written in the first person from Tom’s perspective. At 200 pages of text (plus some useful appendices), it can be read leisurely in just few days.

Tom helped start and then direct a small independent progressive elementary school in Oakland California. At the end of his career he decided to tour the United States visiting other schools that identified as being progressive or that he thought met the definition of progressive. This book is the outcome of that tour. Sadly, Tom died of cancer shortly before the publication of this book.

The book starts out giving Tom’s history of becoming a teacher and founder of Park Day School. He weaves into this a brief history of progressive education since the late 1800s of John Dewey and Francis Parker. In giving us this history, he also gives us a definition of progressive education.

In an early chapter he give us six core strategies which he distills as “passed down form Dewey, Parker, and the other pioneers, and still in robust practice at progressive schools today” (p.52). In sum these are: Emotions as well as intellect; Student interest as a guide; ban of standardized testing and ranking; real-world endeavors; integration of curriculum and disciplines; and active civil participation for social justice. He illustrates these ideas through the rest of book.

However, mostly what this book does is describe what progressive education looks like, using anecdotes from Park Day School as well as many of the other progressive schools Tom visited. He uses these stories to illustrate the points about what progressive education is and can be, and why it is so vital to both a solid education and to a democratic society. In this way it reminds me of the style of two of my very favorite books in education, Deborah Meier’s The Power of Their Ideas, and Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence. All of these books are told in conversational tone, using the authors’ own experiences to illustrate important big lessons about what education can and should look like.

If you want an easy and enjoyable read on the power and practice of progressive education, then you must pick up Loving Learning.

Inquiry into Meaning

Inquiry into Meaning


by Edward Chittenden, Terry Salinger, and Anne Bussis
Teachers College Press.

For those interested in how children learn to read, I really think this is one of the very best books out there. It is actually a study of how children learn to read, rather than a study of how people teach reading or a book describing a theory of learning to read.

Academic studies that claim they are about learning to read are almost exclusively studies of a particular approach to teaching and how well students did on tests of reading after being exposed to that approach (the National Reading Panel report, which I have critiqued in an earlier post, for instance, was based solely on such studies).

This book took a different approach. A group of researchers sponsored from, of all places, the Educational Testing Service, decided to do an in-depth qualitative and somewhat longitudinal study of the children, rather than the teaching. This was a close examination of what the children were doing as they were learning to read, how they approached text. This was done much in the spirit of how Piaget examined intellectual growth of babies—by close examination of individuals. It takes a deductive, grounded theory, approach. Rather than testing some theory, it attempts to build a theory out of the data.

As the preface puts it: “This project entailed classroom documentation of over 80 children going about the challenge of making sense of print…over 2 years of instruction” (p.xi). The children came from several different classrooms and schools, with teachers using very different teaching methods.

The book is divided into several section. In the beginning the research process is described. Then the book looks at what they learned in different areas, from what supports learning to read, to how students use those supports and knowledge. The next part, which seems to be the main conclusion of the book, is a look at learning styles and its relevance to learning to read. It seems the teaching approach had little if any direct connection with the approach the students actually took to learning to read.  Lastly are case studies of three representative children.

The book is fascinating and full of rich description of the children and how they attempt to make sense of print, books and the world.

I think it should be required reading for anyone who teaches reading, and recommend it to anyone who is just fascinated by the topic.

P.S. Here are some other good reads on the topic of how children learn to read.:

  • Frank Smith, Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read. 6th ed. (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004).
  • Stephen D. Krashen, Three Arguments against Whole Language & Why They Are Wrong (Heinemann, 1999)
  • Gerald Coles, Misreading Reading: The Bad Science That Hurts Children (Heinemann, 2000)
  • Kenneth S. Goodman, In Defense Of Good Teaching: What Teachers Need to Know about the “Reading Wars” (York, Me: Stenhouse Publishers, 1998)
  • Jeff McQuillan, Literacy Crisis: False Claims, Real Solutions (Heinemann, 1998)

1421: The Year China Discovered the World

1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America
Gavin Menzies
Harper Collins


Occasionally we learn something that alters the way we see the world, that changes our paradigm. As Piaget put it, typically new information adds to and is fit into our schema of the world. However, sometimes new information does not fit the schema. When that happens we can dismiss the new information, decide it is an exception to the rule, or we may, when those strategies do not work, actually alter our schema. 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America by Gavin Menzies was a book that did that for me.

The title of the book is actually a misnomer. It really should be called The Year the Chinese Discovered the World (as some editions—probably those sold outside the US are titled), as the book documents how they sent fleets that went virtually everywhere in the world except Europe.

The author, a retired British nuclear submarine admiral, has amassed an amazing assortment of evidence to support his claims of how they did this.  His telling the story of how and why the Chinese accomplished this feat is a telling of a fascinating journey, both of the Chinese journey, and the journey of his research. He discusses how he, as a non-academic researcher has had to fight the entrenched beliefs and assumption of the academics experts in the field, as his claims undermine much of what has been accepted truths in their fields.

This history was lost because when the fleets returned to China after their several year voyages, China had gone through an internal upheaval that led to a period of isolationism that lasted centuries.

The book is full of amazing discoveries of how many animals, inventions and customs thought to be indigenous to certain places, turn out to have been brought by the Chinese, and historically accepted beliefs of directions of transmission are reversed.

Gavin also explains how the maps of the early European explorers, such as Columbus and others were actually based on copies of the maps the Chinese had made on their voyages. (Spoiler: not only was Columbus not the first non-American to come to the Americas, there were also European colonies well established before his voyages.

I don’t want to repeat here the content of the book and the details that changed my understandings of history. I want to recommend that you read it yourself (or, if you are like me, listen to it as an audiobook. there is also a PBS video based on the book).

I hope you read this fascinating book, both because it is just a fascinating story, but also because it may change the way you understand history. What other assumptions or paradigms might you or I hold that turn out not to be true?

An Ethic of Excellence

An Ethic of Excellence
by Ron Berger
Heinemann Press


If you are a classroom teacher and you have not read this, you have to! Ron Berger was a classroom teacher in a public school in a small northeastern town. He uses examples of his own teaching in his extraordinary school, as well as his experience working with schools and teachers in other places to describe what excellent schooling can and should look like.

In this relatively short book of only about 150 pages he takes us through is “toolbox” (Ron was also a carpenter). His teaching revolves around project-based learning. And many of his projects are authentic in the full sense of the word—they actually have an impact on real people in the larger community, such as studying water quality in local wells.

In his first chapter one of the things he talks about the importance of evidence. Over his many years teaching  collected many many samples of the quality work his students did. I have had the honor to see some of this work, and it quite awe inspiring.

His first Toolbox is A School Culture of Excellence. He describes how they create a culture in his school where excellence is expected. Peer pressure becomes a positive force. He describes the slow process of a new angry boy who over time comes to care about his work.

The second toolbox is Work of Excellence. In this he starts off my making the point that self esteem is gained from accomplishments, not compliments. By providing opportunities to do projects that have a real purpose, and plenty of time and support, students take pride in their work as they see it matters to do well, and they can keep redoing it until it is of high quality.

The third toolbox is Teaching of Excellence. In this chapter he goes though how teachers too need to be supported in order to learn how to teach this way. How teachers need both the autonomy, and the support of peers—just as their students do.

This is one of the most inspiring books on teaching I have read. It is full of both practical ideas, as well as real examples that ring true.

The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test

This is a wonderful book about the Boston Arts Academy written by the principal. In the genre of Deborah Meier’s The Power of their Ideas, discussing the history of the school to illustrate what it takes to make a powerful school. She describes the ups and downs. She gives stories of particular students. She describes how the school has developed, going through changes and struggles. She uses these stories to help us understand what schools could and can be like, how they can be powerful places for all to learn.


The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test:
Lessons form and Innovative Urban School
by Linda Nathan
Beacon Press

Review of “In Schools We Trust”

In Schools We Trust:
Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization
by Deborah Meier
Beacon Press 200 pp.
© 2002


As in her first book, The Power of Their Ideas, Deborah Meier uses her experience as a principal of a small public school to illustrate her ideas of what the best of public education in a democracy can and should be. By grounding the book in her personal experience, her ideas become not just academic rhetoric, but complex stories of real children, teachers and parents. However, this is not specifically a narrative of a particular school, but rather an exploration and critique of ideas central to today’s struggles to improve public education for all children, using real stories to bring these ideas to life.

As the title implies, Meier centers the book around the idea of trust. She discusses what trust means, its centrality to learning, and how the issue of trust plays out on a variety of levels. As in her other works, Meier argues that the necessary level of trust is best built on as small a scale as practical. True trusting relationships require knowing each other well. And in heterogeneous communities getting to know each other well takes extra care and work. As common assumptions differ among different cultures, it becomes easy to inadvertently break that trust based on misconceptions, misinterpretations and unacknowledged biases.

Meier has divided the book into three section. The first centers on the school level. In this section she uses examples from her own schools to illustrate these issues extensively. The second discusses the current high stakes testing environment. The third looks at the larger political and policy contexts.

In the first section she looks at the issue of trust from a variety of in-school perspectives: adults and students, parents and school, teachers and teachers, and how issues of race and class further complexify all of these. Each of these issues is explored with anecdotal stories from her experiences in the three schools she has founded and directed.

The second section examines how high stakes standardized tests have arisen as a mistaken answer to the lack of policy makers’ trust in teachers and students. Meier examines closely what such tests can and can’t tell us about important learning, coming to the conclusion that not much important about individual children or deep learning can be gained from such tests. Further she looks at what effect these tests have on eroding the very trust they are supposedly designed to restore. She then examines what high standards, rather than standardization can mean for improving schools and the quality of learning. And finally she looks at what influence each of these stances are likely to have on the achievement gap. Again, she is able to compare how the exhibitions and portfolio assessments used in her schools have compared to the standardized tests both for what they tell us about students and about how they drive curriculum.

Many have criticized that despite the amazing and enormous success of all three of her schools with some of the most disadvantaged students, her ideas of small autonomous public schools cannot be taken to scale. In the third section she examines those criticisms. Meier speaks to how the current system is designed to undermine the success of such schools, and what it would take to create a policy environment to encourage rather than discourage such innovations, while still holding schools accountable to the larger public. Finally she sums up with a chapter on how public education and a truly democratic society are dependent on each other.
Meier’s writing style is engaging. The reader gets to feel like they are listening to the musing of a wise woman explore deeply, yet humbly, some of the most important questions confronting our educational system.

Other praise for this book
“A wise and beautiful book that elevates the level of debate on tests and school reform.”
—Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities

“A rich, nuanced reflection on trust and schooling that examines trust’s many layers. . . . A terrific, important book.”
—Mike Rose, author of Possible Lives

“A passionate, jargon-free plea for a rerouting of educational reform, sure to energize committed parents, progressive educators and maybe even a politician or two.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Listen carefully to Deborah Meier’s In Schools We Trust: She speaks to the heart of a school and of democracy itself.”
—Theodore R. Sizer, author of Horace’s Compromise and founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools.

Book Review: “Tell Me More”

“Tell Me More”: Listening to Learners Explain
Edited by Eleanor Duckworth
Teachers College Press 200 pp.
© 2001


Eleanor Duckworth does it again! This is a book of Duckworth’s inquiry/discovery model of learning in action. In each of the first seven chapters a different teacher-researcher tells a story of their “teaching” using this model. The students studied vary from elementary through medical school, from poor minority students to the most privileged. The subject matter vary from math to literature to neonates. In each, the reader is captivated, following the reasoning and learning that is going on. It is a fascinating journey that explores how all of us develop and explore ideas if given the time and encouragement. These stories show us the complexity of deep learning, as well as a respect for the capacity for all learners to make sense of the world for themselves. Duckworth’s essay on exploring sinking and floating with teachers was for me the strongest. Schneier’s exploration of a Lucille Clifton poem with minority “low-achieving” high school students is almost equally fascinating. Knox’s essay on working with a medical student exploring the development of newborns shows us how this extends through the full range of learners, and that this way of thinking about teaching and learning is as needed in the highest most elite levels of education as in the most primary and most disadvantaged. The latter setting is explored by Quintero in a Puerto Rican elementary school in a unit on mapping. Duckworth and Schneier each sum up the collection with a look at what are some of the implications for research about teaching, as well as for teaching itself. This is a book that keeps you reading from cover to cover.

© 2005 Nicholas Meier

Other praise for this book“This book is a singular contribution on teaching and learning.”
–James A. Banks, University of Washington, Seattle“Duckworth has given us case studies of ‘mid-wife’ teaching at its very best.”
–Mary Field Belenky, co-author of Women’s Ways of Knowing

“Duckworth’s book is a fascinating and pioneering account of people working together over many weeks, struggling to invent ideas.”
–Howard E. Gruber, Teachers College, Columbia University

“These essays, in their concrete dailyness, give us a vision of what’s possible, some crafterly advice about how to proceed, and the courage to try.”
–Deborah Meier, [former] Principal, Mission Hill Elementary School, Boston

“This book by teachers…specifies a process of mutual inquiry and discovery that begins with a real problem in all its complexity and emphasized close observation and listening to the development of ideas.”
–Elliot G. Mischler, Harvard medical School

“This compelling collection vividly portrays Eleanor Duckworth’s notion of ‘the having of wonderful ideas,’ an educational practice, as you will see, typified by passionate teachers and engaged students, together collaborating in the ‘collective creation of knowledge.”
–William F. Pinar, Louisiana State University

“This book provides a close-up view of a foundational Freirian principal of learners constructing their own knowledge based on prior experience, new information, and meaningful dialogue with others.”
–Margo Okazawa-Rey, San Francisco State University

“Spend time with Eleanor Duckworth and you will become a better educator. Her life’s work has been studying the habits of engaged learners.”
–Ira Shor, city University of new York Graduate School