The 20 Most Important Education Books of the Last 10 Years

In Ecclesiastes 12:12 the author wrote, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should disregard books. There are plenty of good ones; books that inform, inspire, and help us look at ourselves, others, and the world differently. Sometimes they challenges our current ideas. Sometimes they confirm our thoughts or suspicions. Either way, amid our media-rich world, there is still something to be said for sitting with a good book and the author who wrote it, giving that author and book your undivided attention, and delving into the world of that author’s ideas.

When it comes to education books, we have a wider array of voices than ever before, especially with the growing publishing options available to people. There is no way to read them all, and there is really no clear way to sift through all the options. Some go with the big name popular publishers. Others give special attention to the top University or academic publishers. Others go with recommendations from colleagues or maybe the books mentioned by speakers at a conference. Or, perhaps you look for suggestions on blogs that you frequent, ones like this. Given that you are reading this article, there is a good chance that you use that last method on occasion or that you are thinking about doing it this time.

If that is the case, let me preface my list by explaining how I came up with it. This list is not based on the most popular books. It is not about which book earned the most awards or accolades. It is not even about the best edited books. It also isn’t a list that came about from some sort of poll, group vote, or careful research. It is also far from exhaustive. In fact, even after writing it, I debated about turning this into a list of fifty books from the last decade so that I could add many other favorites, but I resisted. Twenty will do for now. As such, what you are getting is my highly subjective list of what I consider to be twenty of the most important education books in the last decade, books that made me think and rethink, books that opened my eyes, books that further equipped me, and books that inspired me in some way. Perhaps you will find something of interest in the list too. Or, you are more than welcome to add your own book recommendations in the comment section.

The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness 

Average is a myth and Todd Rose does a great job showing how and why this is true. If you want a deep exploration of ideas that challenge much of the modern assumptions behind our education system, this is the book for you. It also offers ideas that offer greater depth and substance to topics like standardized tests, our use of test scores in education, personalized learning, and many other such topics.

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

I’ve written about this idea of expertise acquisition and deliberate practice in the past, and there are several great books on this subject. Yet, why not go straight to one of the leading experts on the subject, which is just what you will be doing if you read this book. If only our schools would embrace this science as a shaping force in classrooms and beyond.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

The popular expression of Carol Dweck’s research on growth versus fixed mindsets is one of those ideas that gained widespread attention, but we’ve yet to see such widespread application of the ideas. Nonetheless, this shift in thinking is, I contend, and important ingredient in the broader conversation about nurturing agency.

The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas

We’ve heard plenty of people talk about the need to shift to a post-industrial model of education, but I’ve yet to read a more coherent and convincing narrative than this book by Frederick Hess. Hess illustrates how both left and right leaning reformers in education often agree upon the same things, and these often keep us anchored in an increasingly less relevant past. This is a must read for anyone interested in truly imagining new possibilities in education.

Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph

This is a story of a school that, according to government metrics of standardized tests is low performing. Yet, look more closely and you will find an incredibly inspiring success story. Only, the narrow metrics used to evaluate it miss the wonders in the walls so much that some have pushed to have the school closed. This is an inspiring take of a school that is going great things while highlighting the need for us to broaden our definition of success and a thriving school.

Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children From Failed Educational Theories

E.D. Hirsch, a leading voice for core knowledge curriculum makes a case that knowledge and content still have an important role in education. While some are turned off by the style of his writing and his assessment of some educational theories is a bit light, his voice remains an important one, and this text will still leave the open-minded reader with ample food for thought.

When Research Matters: How Scholarship Influences Education Policy

This is the second Hess book in my list. It is part of what reshaped my own thinking to invest a bit more time in education policy work. In this text, Hess provides important insights on how research does and does not inform education policy. This is an important text for anyone wanting a more transparent view of how many of our existing policies come to be.

Learning in Depth: A Simple Innovation That Can Transform School

Kieran Egan is an important voice today because he provides an alternative to progressivism while not necessarily reverting to industrial models of education. In this text he outlines a simple but profound way to nurture curiosity, deep learning, a myriad of literacies, and a growing sense of agency.

The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined

Salman Kahn, most know for Khan Academy, shares an accessible vision for education informed by changes in a connected world. This is a quick read, but it is a good introduction to potential futures in our education system, illustrating the power and possibility of more personalized views of learning.

Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World

Tony Wanger’s work has been a refreshing addition to the modern education conversation, and this is a great place to start. You can always check out two others that could arguably have a place in this list, Most Likely to Succeed and The Global Achievement Gap.

The End of Education: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere

The rising costs of higher education and the information technology revolution combine to create a perfect storm. You don’t have to agree with everything in this book or even be interested in higher education to learn from this well-written and well-researched text that gives us a glimpse into the emerging future of education. This is the sole higher education book in my list, but as you might expect, I’d definitely need to extend this to a list of fifty if I were to draw from the higher education shelves in my home library. So, I chose this one because of its implications for all levels of education.

One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School

This book made the list partly because of the author, a student. It represents the growing student voice in conversations about education reform. It is shaped by this student’s expansive interviews of luminaries along with other personal study of the issues. Reading this text reminds us about the importance of student voice in education and how much students have to bring to these conversations.

Getting It Wrong From the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget 

Another book by Egan, in fact a predecessor the previously mentioned one, this is one of the strongest and most compelling critiques of the modern progressivist movement. Many are surprised to find that I have a fair number of critiques about progressivism. They assume that my support for many innovations and emerging models stems from progressivism, but they do not. I can’t think of a better author and book to explain why.

Hacking Your Education

This book makes the list because it represents the rapid growth of self-directed learning today. It is a trend with massive implications for education. While this book is a straightforward “how to” book for aspiring self-directed learners, it has important lessons for anyone interested in education in a connected age.

Someone Has to Fail: The Zero Sum Game of Public School

“In principle we want the best for all children. In practice we want the best for our own.” If that one garners your attention, then you will be riveted by this read. Labaree is an impressive thinker and scholar and challenges many of my own assumptions about choice in education. Yet, he also doesn’t fit neatly into any one camp. You don’t have to agree with him, but if you want to be challenged to truly think about the affordances and limitations of education and education reform, this is a great starting point.

Learning Futures: Education, Technology, and Social Change

Keri Facer does a tremendous job framing the future of learning around larger societal and global issues. It is one of the more substantive explorations of the future of learning that I’ve read.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

If you know me well, you would be surprised to find this book in my list. I disagree with Diane Ravitch on quite a few matters, but at the end of the day, we also have quite a few things in common when it comes to our critique of the modern education system. Ravitch does not write as a neutral scholar. Her personal beliefs and values drip from almost every page, something that readers of my books might find a bit familiar. Agree or disagree with her, Ravitch represents an important voice and set of viewpoints in modern education. This is a book that is sure to challenge people on all sides to check their motives and their methods.

Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways That Inspire Innovation and Performance

This is not a book about k-12 or higher education, but it offers important lessons for all of us. Jay Cross is a leading voice in the power of informal learning, and while it might be written for corporate learning, there are implications in this text for a myriad of audiences.

Grit

This book is a second that comes from that broader realm of positive psychology. In this case, Angela Duckwork illustrates that success is not just a matter of intelligence or traditional academic achievement. She demonstrates from research and highlights with engaging personal narrative, the importance of this trait sometimes known as grit.

Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why

This is a follow-up to Tough’s earlier book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Power of Character. Tough is a journalist, not an academic, and I am sometimes cautious about these popular texts. Yet, Tough does a fine job telling the story of why and how character matters. Yet, in this newer book, he also warns of efforts to create curricula that explicitly teach traits like grit. Instead, he offers a convincing case for creating environments where traits like grit are likely to be nurtured. This is an important book in helping us to think about how we learn beyond formal lessons and curricula, and what that has to do with the development of traits that are critical for success in a 21st century world.

New Book – What Really Matters? Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education

What Really Matters Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary EducationIn 2015 I wrote a short article on this blog entitled “Ten Critical Issues in Education.” It was one of my most read and shared articles of that year on my blog. It clearly struck a chord with readers, which challenged me to think even more deeply about the subject. As such, I am excited to announce the result of that thinking, the release of my newest book: What Really Matters? Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education. This short text (only 120 pages in total) represents what I consider to be some of the more pressing issues in modern education. This is my attempt to challenge all of us to think deeply about what truly matters in education. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my assessment, but it is my hope and prayer that this little book serves as a resource for deep, deliberate, expansive thought and action in the contemporary education space.

If you are willing, I appreciate your partnership in helping to get the word out about the book.

You can order the book today at the publisher website. I will also update this section as soon as it is live on Amazon as well.

The Official Book Description

What really matters in education? Amid headlines about standardized test scores, global rankings of students from different countries, technology-enhanced learning, the unreasonable costs of higher education, and preparing the workforce of tomorrow, what really matters? If we want to pursue education reform and improvements that truly benefit the lives of current and future students, where should we focus our efforts? In What Really Matters?, Dr. Bernard Bull draws from over twenty years of research and experience to offer ten issues that truly matter if we are going to create rich, meaningful, rewarding, engaging, and impactful learning organizations that are rooted in the best ideas of the past while preparing people for the challenges and opportunities of the present and future. This is a text for educators, school leaders, community members, parents, students, policymakers, and others who aspire to move from educational buzzwords to some of the most important educational challenges and opportunities of our age.

A Couple of Early Reviews 

What Really Matters? is a must-read if you care deeply about how young people will fare in the twenty-first century. Bernard Bull–long a favorite thinker for those who care about transformational learning–offers ten themes that go far beyond the tired arguments that divide many educators. From discovering hidden talents to forging character to finding meaning, Bull offers observations and questions that will keep many of us busy for the next decade, if not longer.”
–Jeff Sandefer, Middle School Guide and Co-Founder, Acton Academy

“In What Really Matters? Bernard Bull brings a deeply moral sensibility to an analysis of issues that all too often are treated as mere technical matters of connecting effective means to unexamined ends. Bull illuminates the ways in which education is inescapably laden with human values and interests, and guides us toward reflectively engaging with fundamental questions of meaning as we make choices in education policy and practice.”
–Michael Olneck, Professor Emeritus of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

20+ Education Books About Self-Directed Learning

I remain delighted to see growing interest in self-directed learning. A decade ago, if I would mention self-directed learning in a presentation, it evoked little to no reaction. Today I talk about it and people lean forward, curious and seeking how to nurture the traits of the self-directed learning in their students. They gather afterward to learn more or to share their own passion and experience with it.

I am convinced that there are three major factors contributing to this increased interest. First, the advancements in open learning and the connected world is opening people’s eyes to the many opportunities for informal learning and learning apart from formal teachers and classrooms. It is a critical element of everything from education reform to workforce development. Second, those in formal learning organizations are spending more time exploring the importance of topics like 21st century skills, non-congitive skills and mindsets in the longterm success of learners. It is hard to deny the importance of such skills, competencies and proficiencies in today’s world. Third, the growth of alternative education (everything from homeschooling to Montessori models and project-based learning schools) is giving people visible examples of what happens when you invest in the capacity for people to own their learning. We have exemplars that are producing solid results.

As such, more people are coming to me, asking how they can learn more about self-directed learning (Yes, I understand the surface-level irony in that, but self-directed learning was never about lone ranger learning). With that question in mind, here are 20+ resources to get you started. They include everything from classics to newer releases. They also represent diverse perspectives. The list below represents many perspectives. You don’t need to agree with everything they write to learn from them. If you are willing to bracket your biases and lean into your curiosity about what you can learn about self-directed learning (regardless of the source), this list will give you a solid foundation.

Adventures in Self-Directed Learning – This short and quick read is a guide for educators who are looking for ways in infuse more self-directed learning into classrooms and schools where there is not a long history of it. As such, it was written to serve as a quick primer and practical guide on the subject.

Self-Directed Learning by Malcolm Knowles – This is a classic and seminal work in the area of self-directed learning. While it is often read with the adult learner in mind, Knowles’ ideas are just as relevant today as they were when he first wrote this book, and his practical approach in this book is a great fit for teachers and others seeking how to get started with self-directed learning plans.

The Self-Directed Learning Handbook by Maurice Gibbons – As the title indicates, this is a handbook. It addresses the why and what of self-directed learning, but it is one of the best resources that I’ve seen when it come to the how of self-directed learning.

The Montessori Method Paperback by Maria Montessori – If you want a solid grounding in self-directed learning, you can’t miss out on learning from the master, Maria Montessori. This is a good starting point.

Montessori Today: A Comprehensive Approach to Education from Birth to Adulthood by Paula Polk Lillard –  While I always suggest going directly to the source (Montessori), Lillard gives a wonderful overfiew of her ideas, drawing from multiple writings. If you want to understand how the Montessori method works not just with the younger children, but up to adulthood, this is a great resource.

Fire Up the Learner Within by Atul Pant – This is written to help the reader grow as a self-directed learner, and that is a great part to start if you want a grounding in SDL. It has to start with your growth and experience as such a learner.

Assessment Strategies for Self-Directed Learning  by Arthur Cost and Bena Kallick – For many, this is neither an exciting or inspiring read. Yet, it does provide those in formal learning organizations with answers for how to go about the task of assessment as you consider nurturing self-directed learners.

Self-Determined Learning: Heutagogy in Action edited by Stwewart Hase and Chris Kenyon

Experiences in Self-Determined Learning edited by Blachke, Kenyon and Hase – Of course I have to include this in the list. I wrote one of the chapters. Apart from that though, this is about more than self-directed learning. It is a text grounded in the ideas of huetagogy and self-determined learning. It is also a collection of chapters that show it in practice across different populations.

Self-Directed Learning: A Practical Guide to Design, Development and Implementation by George Piskurich – Some might consider this an outdated resource. It is over twenty years old and it focuses on how to design self-directed learning modules and training. Yet, I find that some of the ways of thinking and models are still helpful as facilitators think about design considerations for a self-directed learning classroom, school, or community.

Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success by James Bach – This book will give you a compelling vision for the why of self-directed learning. Written by a unquestionable self-directed learning, it is both autobiographical and instructional, giving inspiration and tips for how to get started in your journal as a “buccaneer scholar.”

The Independent Scholar’s Handbook by Ronald Gross – The premise of this book is simple. You don’t need to have a bunch of letters behind your name and a  tenured post in a University to be a scholar and grow as an expert in your field. This book shows how to go about that. It was written in 1993, so don’t expect insights about all the great resources for scholars online, but apart from that gap, it is still a solid resource.

Self University by Charles Hayes – Institutions may have a monopoly on traditional credentials, but they don’t have a monopoly on deep, rich and rewarding learning. Hayes proves that and shows how you can go about learning and even credentialing yourself. It is also a bit dated, but the ideas remain relevant.

Don’t Go Back to School by Kio Stark – In some ways, this is a more current version of Hayes’s text. It gives a compelling why and practical hows for being a learning beyond the confines of formal schooling. Yet, even if you are in a formal school and are a champion for such organizations, the ideas in this book with help you learn how to nurture SDL capacities in your learners.

Don’t Go Back to College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a College Degree By Blake Boles – Blake’s personal journey as a self-directed learner is inspiring, and this book is a solid addition to the collection of resources on the subject.

Hacking Your Education by Dale Stephens – Dale Stephens has gained international attention for this book and his work around uncollege. It takes the spirit and approach of unschooling and applies it to college. It is written for those who might want to abandon the college route as well as those who just want to get the most out of their college learning.

The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn – This is a classic among unschoolers. It will give you a great introduction to the philosophy.

Guerrilla Learning by Grace Llewellyn and Amy Silver – Written for parents, this is guide for how to set your student up for success as an unschooler. Yet, like the others, if you can have an open mind, this is a great resource for those in traditional or alternative education contexts as well.

Unschooling Rules by Clark Aldrich – Clark put together a list of specific tips and insights about the unschooling mindset. While the title mentions unschooling, this guide is just as helpful for those in schools who want to design a learning community rich with engaged and self-directed learners.

The Unschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith – When we start talking about self-directed learning, the world is our classroom. Griffith explains that in practical and inspiring ways.

Project-based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners by Lori Pickert – This is specifically for homeschooling parents, showing how you can move from the workbooks and kitchen table to rich, student-centered projects. PBL is a great way to introduce young people to the world of self-directed learning.

Never Too Late: My Musical Life Story by Jon Holt – In this book, Holt, a central figure in the last century around education reform, tells the personal story of learning to play an instrument in his 40s. It is a wonderful reminder that it is never to late to learn something new.

Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better by Jon Holt – This book, on the other hand, is a classic work by Holt that sets down his philosophy of education (represented in many of his other books as well). It aligns very well with self-directed learning concepts.

The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman – This is largely from Kaufman’s personal experience, but it shows how he created a simple system to learn new things in around 20 hours. It is a great model for developing personal heuristics as a self-directed learner and can be used as template for those who want a little help getting started.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – If you’ve ever heard people say they are “in the zone” or “lost in the moment”, you understand the basic idea of flow. Yet, in this book, Csikszentmihalyi will open your eyes to all that this encompasses and how you can leverage flow in your own life and the lives of others, including a simple guide for designing learning experiences where people are likely to experience flow.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck – Do you have a fixed or a growth mindset? What about the learners around you? To thrive as a self-directed learner, that calls for a growth mindset, and Dweck will point you in the right direction.

Creating Self-Regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills by Linda Nilson and Barry Zimmerman – Written with the more traditional academic context in mind, this is a good text that explores how to help learners take more ownership and learn to regulate their own learner, two critical skills for the developing self-directed learner.

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael Gelb – I first read this book when it came out in 2000. Then I read it again…and again. Da Vinci is one of those inspiring figures from history and Gelb, a man who has studied Da Vanci’s life and work more than almost anyone else, explains how we can each nurture seven attributes of Da Vinci in our own life:  Curiosita, Dimonstratzione, SensazioneSfumato, Arte/Scienza, Corporalita, Connessione. 

Pick any five or ten of these texts, read and study them, and you will walk away with a solid foundation in self-directed learning. Whether you want it to grow personally as a learner, to help your children, to nurture more SDL in your business context, or you want to create a self-directed learning makeover in your school, these will point you in the right direction.

By the way, if you would like to suggest other “must read” texts, please consider adding a comment.

Books Written About Education by Teenagers

What do the following three books have in common?  They all address some aspect of education or learning.  They were also written by teenagers.

One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School  by Nikhil Goyal  – This 17-year old has amazing insight into the challenges and limitations of the current education system in the United States. Of course his access to certain minds doesn’t hurt.  Wait until you see the list of people that he interviewed as part of his research for this book.

Truancy by Isamu Fukui – a dystopian novel about education, written by a 15-year old.

Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations by Alex & Brett Harris – This book is a call for teens to step up their game, but the words work on a 40-year old man as well.  One of the most inspiring parts of the book is discovering how much these two authors practice what they preach.