Education Book recommendation for the Summer: Ecclesiastes

20140702-114319-42199272.jpgAs we approach the summer holidays it is a time when many teachers thoughts turn to their summer holidays and the reading material for those long, lazy days. On Twitter I have already seen a number of book lists, which seem to consist of weighty educational tomes (make sure you check your baggage allowance!) that all seem to be worthy contenders. I have a recommendation for your reading list and it is only 51p on Kindle and about sixty pages, it’s an easy, accessible treat. My recommendation for a summer reading is the book Ecclesiastes. Shockingly it is a book of the Bible. I am recommending it, not only because there are lots of gems in there to make you think about life, the universe and everything, but also because I think it can give an insight to a lot of what is happening in education at the moment.

The author is a shadowy figure, less accessible than say your Hatties and Dwecks. The author has no name as such, although is referred to as Qoheleth, which means the ‘wise one’ or the ‘preacher’, in fact in some versions this is actually translated as ‘Teacher’ so think of the connections there. They seem to be a philosophical kind of person, with their opening words, having more than a dash of Buddhism about them,

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:1)

Already I imagine there are some that might say, ‘Ah here is someone who truly understands the craziness that forms the basis of educational matters these days’. This quote certainly does set the tone for the one of the themes of the book. The author considers the meaningless nature of what we know. A wonderful epistemological question right from the outset. What can really be known? A question that, if we could answer it, might just guide our journeys through Teaching and Learning land. Qoheleth says that so many of the things that we consider to be important are really worth nothing; he says that it is just like chasing the wind. A lesson to be learnt there regarding levels perhaps, is there really such a thing as an objective benchmark and do we need one anyway?

Perhaps one of the most telling parts of the opening section of Ecclesiastes is when Qoheleth says,

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”? (1:9f)

I recently came across the phrase ‘graphic organisers’ when researching new assessment and differentiation practices and wondered what it was referring to. When I looked further it was essentially the distilling of information into boxes or different shapes on a handout. Look back across the decades of teaching experience and you will see this practice existing in one form or another. We might give ideas new labels, but perhaps Qoheleth has a point, is there anything of which one can say, Look! this is something new! Perhaps instead of looking for easy new answers, or debunking myths, we should be considering permutations, in the words of one of Ian Gilbert’s Thunks (@ThatIanGilbert), can you really stand on the same beach twice. It is all too clear that education is forever in a state of flux, perhaps there is nothing new, but what we can do is learn to adapt to our ever changing environment,

If you feel like the emphasis on the meaninglessness is a little too much for the summer holidays, keep going, in the way you would with Its a Wonderful Life, because chapter three takes you to familiar territory. One of the most well known passages of Ecclesiastes has made it into popular culture, particularly if you know the 1965 hit for The Byrds, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’. The passage famously examines the concept of time and the inevitability of certain events and rituals.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace. (3:1-8)

There is a time when certain things are right and a time when they are not. Inevitability requires an acceptance that there are things that are beyond your control. This is not the same as refusing to challenge injustice, but it is to recognise that ideas will come and go regardless. There is a time to search out, but there is also a time to give up. What is particularly noteworthy for teachers is the time to be silent. The space for peace and quiet can be a rare thing in schools and especially for those who work in schools. What better way to restore balance but to seek out a moment or two of silence over the summer. Even the tweets can cease some times. What is encouraged is to live your life to the full and to enjoy the pleasures of today, because they could be gone tomorrow.

This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. (5:18)

If Qoheleth is to be believed then our lives should reflect the balance of all those things. One of the worst mistakes you could make, particularly as a teacher, is to imagine you know what is going to happen. The academic year might be sketched out, dates might be in place, calendars taking shape, but it has yet to be painted in. Students will return as new individuals and their learning pathways are yet to be written.

Qoheleth writes on the nature of wisdom and encourages us to persevere. A number of interesting ideas are included, which you might agree with or think are ridiculous, but they at least might give you something to think about. Some might give you comfort when faced with the latest educational headline.

Frustration is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart. (7:3)

Other points might be helpful for those who get embroiled in ‘educational’ twitter debates.

Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit,
for anger resides in the lap of fools. (7:9)

Another point might be helpful when you find yourself about to embark on yet another debate about teaching standards.

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
For it is not wise to ask such questions. (7:10)

If after all of this you feel at a loss as to what your goal should be, Qoheleth has something to say about this too, which may appeal in its simple nobility.

So I turned my mind to understand,
to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things
and to understand the stupidity of wickedness
and the madness of folly. (7:25)

Now I’m not saying it is always an easy read. Ecclesiastes is a strange, challenging, difficult, depressing, uplifting, bizarre, annoying, confusing and illuminating read. I do recommend that you read it, whatever your beliefs and if you do not believe in religion. I haven’t given the end away. Read it, you never know you might love it.




Celebrating books: covers, pages, spines and ink

I promise you I am not a dinosaur. The evidence might appear to be to the contrary given that I have declared my love for the days of chalk and blackboards and now here I am championing the age of print. However, to reiterate I am not a dinosaur. I don’t have an ereader as such although I do have relevant apps for tablets and phones, but I still tend towards buying books either from…horror shock book shops or yes, I admit, the internet. So there is a part of me that gives a secret cheer with the independent booksellers who, when asked if they wanted to be able to s20131109-165701.jpgell kindles in by their stores whilst receiving a cut said, thanks but no thanks ( I definitely think that ereaders fulfil a function and I find it quite handy to read research articles as PDFs on a tablet, allowing you to whizz to the relevant quote or table. Of course it’s not the same as little page markers and a soft pencil to gently annotate the page. There is something beautifully tangible about books, whether they are new or old. I’m a child of paper upbringing and it’s a hard history to shake off.

I was lucky enough to be brought up with book-loving parents who took us to countless second hand bookstores. When I was primary age my mother worked in an independent bookshop which was such an old building that there really was a curtain behind the counter, behind which a trap door mysteriously led to an underworld cellar of stock. On days off school I would live in between the boxes of books, playing games, reading and colouring in. By the time I was employable I got a Saturday job in the same bookshop, sadly now moved to modern premises. The theological specialism allowed me to use my discount to build my own library, from NT Greek lexicons to theological classics. The world of the bookshop was never dull. Over the years I worked there there were numerous adventures including shoplifting children, petrol bombings (yes really, although it was a mistake – they thought we were stocking the Satanic Verses & it was actually the bookshop fifty yards along the street), death threats, romances and suffering people. Everyone came in, it was somewhere that felt like home. Days were long, but I look back on working there with great fondness. I could easily have told you the price of any size or translation of the Bible, from cloth covering to red letter calfskin deluxe. There is something so enticing about buying books.

It doesn’t really matter if the books are old or new. If a book is new then it is the unopenedness of it which is so exciting. Of course my bibliophile upbringing meant that you NEVER broke a spine. The book adapts to you, is a reflection of you using it. If the book is second hand you inherit the book and it’s accompanying heritage. I’ve queued up to have editions signed by a favourite author, but there is something mysterious about inheriting someone else’s inscription and then turning the pages to see what words of wisdom might be penciled in the margins. There is something wonderful about owning books. For ten years I commuted to work and I had the opportunity to read so many books, there was those moments on the tube where you checked out what everyone else was reading before settling into your own little world. Perhaps if i was still commuting I might have succumbed to a little ereader for transport ease, but maybe I would do what I have done with many audio books purchased and that is buy t20131109-165730.jpghe print edition as well. I admire those people who are able to pass books on once read, but the hoarder in me likes to see a well stocked shelf, each spine a memory of the time and location when the book was read. I love libraries, but I tend not to want to give the books back! I promise I have no outstanding fines. The wonderful thing about libraries is that they celebrate books. This week I saw that a new academy opened up its library with this quotation written on the wall, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library” by Jorge Luis Borges. I think it’s a legitimate idea. I was so impressed by the unveiling of the beautiful new Birmingham library as a celebration of the written word. Books deserve to be treated well and stored in a beautiful way and the architecture is stunning (

So with this tribute to books you can imagine my feelings about books in schools. I have to hold my tongue at the piles of text books in their unloved state, but feel am uplifted by the sight of children engrossed in a book, even if it was me telling them to put it away because the lesson is starting. The advert for a particular ereader with children absorbed is great, because ultimately we want them to read, but I wonder if the turning of pages back and forth transcribes to the electronic swiping experience. Maybe it does and I am sounding a little like a plodosaurus, but for now schools should be encouraging that contact with books. Don’t be ripping out shelves and replacing them with charging points. The library is not the same thing as a study centre, it is the home of books, with their dazzling colours and huge variety of shapes and sizes. I’ve worked in schools with amazing librarians and they have worked hard to make the library a place where intellectual curiosity thrives. Long before surfing or googling, discovering books was running a finger along a shelf, dipping in and out of the books that lived there. I’m excited by what future technology brings and that is as true for electronic books too – you only have to see ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore‘ to see that, but let’s not miss out on the tangibility factor of opening a book just yet. I’ll finish with the infinitely more eloquent words of Winston Churchill:

“If you cannot read all your books…fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.”