A reading list: learning, teaching & professional development

Harry Fletcher Wood:

On request, this is a list of good reads on learning, teaching, assessment, professional development and organisational culture; I’ve also added a few books not directly related to education I’ve found useful.  In each category I’ve chosen three books or articles I’ve found:

  • Well-evidenced or well thought through
  • Clear and well-written (at least relatively)
  • Formative and thought-provoking

All links to journal articles are open access; all links to books lead to Amazon.


Willingham, D. (2009) Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Daniel Willingham summarises how thinking and learning happen clearly, succinctly and usably.  He takes experiments (are we more likely to remember a piano if the cue is its weight or its sound), explains the psychological principles at work (context cues are critical) and provides principles for teachers (ways to structure a lesson around stories).

Nuthall, G. (2007). The hidden lives of learners. 1st ed. Wellington, N.Z.: New Zealand Council for Educational Research

Graham Nutthall went to amazing lengths to understand student learning.  By recording every word spoken, written and heard by individual students during a term, and comparing them with teachers’ goals, he was able to learn how many times students need to encounter a concept to learn it, the effect of peer culture and why better off students learn more.

Sweller, J., van Merriënboer J. J., Paas F. G. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational Psychology Review, 10, 251-296.

John Sweller and co review Cognitive Load Theory, defining three kinds of cognitive load: intrinsic, complicated material; extraneous, poorly designed instruction; and germane, complication which depresses performance but increases learning.  The authors offer a range of techniques which put these principles to work, like varying practice, avoiding splitting attention, and using dual coding (linking words and images).


Coe, R., Aloisi, C, Higgins, S., Elliot Major, L. (2014) What makes great teaching? Review of the Underpinning Research. Sutton Trust.

Rob Coe and his team summarise research on great teaching, highlighting effective instruction, pedagogical content knowledge, a positive classroom climate and efficient classroom management.  For variety, they also highlight practices which don’t work, including lavish praise, discovery learning and focusing on confidence before content.

Berliner, D. (1988) The Development of Expertise in Pedagogy. Charles W. Hunt Memorial Lecture presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (New Orleans, LA, February 17-20, 1988)

David Berliner reviews the stages in a teacher’s development from novice to expert, drawing on studies he’d conducted to show how experts work more fluidly, seeing differently and, eventually, end up working ‘arationally’.  Berliner concludes with suggestions for teacher educators, noting the value of routines and of evaluating experts and novices differently.  More about teacher expertise here.

Ball, D. Thames, M., Phelps, G. (2008) Content Knowledge for Teaching: What Makes It Special? Journal of Teacher Education 59(5) 389-407

Deborah Ball and her colleagues refined Lee Shulman’s definition of pedagogical content knowledge, identifying sub-domains including Common Content Knowledge – things which are generally known; Knowledge of Content and Students – how students are likely to respond; and Knowledge of Content and Teaching – effective ways to sequence representations and problems.  More about these ideas here.


Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. 1st ed. Bloomington (In.): Solution Tree.

Dylan Wiliam explains the five strategies of formative assessment in a clear, evidence-informed and practical way, providing a useful toolkit of both ideas and practical techniques.  I suspect I’ve referred to this book more than any other as a teacher.

Sadler, D.R. (1989) Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instruction Science 18, 119-144.

Sadler explains how feedback and self-monitoring should work: the teacher sharing criteria and exemplar for success and then leading students to experience and understand these criteria and helping them to close the gap between criteria and their own performances.

Christodoulou, D. (2017) Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford, OUP.

Daisy Christodoulou’s explanation of effective formative and summative assessment is impeccably clear.  She dismantles each concept, shows the limits to how they have been applied and offers clear directions for what we should do next.  An instruction manual for designing effective assessments.

Teacher development

Ericsson, A., Pool, R. (2016) Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Bodley Head, London

K. Anders Ericsson reviews the research on expertise and what makes deliberate practice different from any other kind of practice including its focus, feedback and the sequence we follow.  Deliberate practice is more complicated (and more limited) than he perhaps suggests, but this book offers thought-provoking material for the design of teacher education.

TNTP (2014) Fast Start: Training better teachers faster, with focus, practice and feedback

Teacher training doesn’t work, TNTP concluded.  Teachers who don’t master basic skills early never do master them, nor do they get better.  TNTP transformed their programmes to focus narrowly on key skills, developed through practice and coaching.  There’s much to learn here about the very start of a teacher’s career.

Grossman, P., Compton, C., Igra, D., Ronfeldt, M., Shahan, E., Williamson, P. (2009) Teaching Practice: A Cross-Professional Perspective. Teachers College Record (111, 9), 2055–2100

Comparing the preparation of priests, teachers and clinical psychologists Pam Grossman and her colleagues identified three key aspects: representations highlighting aspects of practice, decomposition of that practice into smaller units, and approximations which can be practised by trainees.  They also noted that we spend a lot more time practising preactive work (like planning) than interactive (like discussion).

Organisational culture

Heath, C., Heath, D. (2010) Switch: How to change things when change is hard. Random House.

The Heath brothers summarise the research around change around three characters: the elephant, our instincts; the rider, our rational mind; and the path, our contexts.  This is an invitation to work with the grain of human behaviour, and a toolbox of ways to do so.  More about the book here.

Gawande, A. (2012) Big Med: Restaurant chains have managed to combine quality control, cost control, and innovation. Can health care? New Yorker, 13 August

The Cheesecake Factory (an American restaurant chain) has standardised food production, offering high quality at affordable prices.  Healthcare in the US has failed to do the same thing: it is expensive and results are uneven.  Atul Gawande eplores how this might change and the barriers it faces: what happens when you try to standardise knee surgery, for example?

Kraft, M., Papay, J. (2014) Can Professional Environments in Schools Promote Teacher Development? Explaining Heterogeneity in Returns to Teaching Experience Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 36(4) 476-500

What makes great teaching?  Kraft and Papay show that the kind of school you teach in makes a big difference: in schools rated by their teachers as better professional environments, teachers keep getting better – and student results follow.

Personal development

Loehr, J., Schwartz, T. (2001) The Making of a Corporate Athlete. Harvard Business Review

Awful title, worthwhile points.  Firstly, work-life balance is not just about reducing pressure: athletes stress their muscles in order to develop them; likewise we have to build physical, emotional, mental and spiritual strength.  Secondly, it’s the alternation between stress and relaxation that build athletes’ muscles and our capacity – and its habits and rituals that help us alternate successfully.

Covey, S. (2003). The seven habits of highly effective people. 1st ed. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.

Another awful title, more worthwhile points: Steven Covey shows how you can identify a set of priorities and stick them: one of the most useful things I’ve ever learned.  More about the book here.

Broader perspectives on education

Berger, R. (2003) An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. Heinemann

Ron Berger is a carpenter and an elementary school teacher.  This book shows how he brings the idea of craftsmanship into the classroom, designing authentic projects, creating a culture of craftsmanship and of continual improvement.  More about the book here.

Crehan, L. (2016) Cleverlands: The secrets behind the success of the world’s education superpowers. London, Unbound.

Lucy Crehan decided to discover what countries with successful education systems were really like.  Visiting Finland, Canada and Shanghai, among others, she lived with teachers, taught in schools and interviewed parents.  The result is a nuanced examination of the contribution made by schools, parents and teachers and a reasoned argument as to what we can learn from this.

Willis, P. (1978). Learning to Labour: How working class kids get working class jobs. Ashgate, Farnham.

Paul Willis’s book is a dense, powerful book which records the lives of a handful of boys with whom he spent much of their final year in school.  He looks at the culture of resistance ‘the lads’ develop, how they differentiate themselves from the school, and the consequences for their working lives.

Broader perspectives on everything

Gawande, A. (2015) Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End. Profile.

An immensely powerful book looks at how we think about and prepare for death – our own and others’ – and how we might do so better.

Hayek, F. (1944/2001) The Road to Serfdom. Oxford: Routledge.

In a short, exquisitely-articulated book, Friedrich Hayek persuaded me of the limits of central planning and provision.

Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Vintage Books.

The subtitle says it all: if we want to understand the sources of much of our disagreement, and so to discuss more productively, this book gets us a long way.

Further reading recommendations

I’m working through Paul Kirschner’s list of seminal papers in educational psychology.

Rob Coe has written an excellent reading list here ‘What’s worth reading for teachers interested in research?’

I also have a longlist from which I worked to create this list, if that’s of interest.

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