What to Read This Summer

My love of books began before I could read. When I was still a toddler, one of my fondest memories was of visiting the local bookmobile. A library had not yet been constructed in the rural area where I lived, so instead, a large bus crammed full of books would visit our community weekly. The picture books I brought home would transport me to places I could only dream of. For me, books were a way to push boundaries.

My most prized possession as a child was The Red Balloon or Le Ballon Rouge, a book I won in an elementary school French competition. Adapted from the award-winning film of the same name, the book tells the story of a lonely boy who goes on an adventure through Paris with a shiny red balloon following him. The book became a symbol for me of beauty, freedom, and the power of being who you truly are. Le Ballon Rouge cemented my desire to make reading a book part of my everyday routine.

As we move closer to summer, I know many of you are thinking about your opportunity to catch up on reading—for knowledge, inspiration, or pleasure. Our next issue of Looking Ahead (our monthly communique to heads) is dedicated to books that will feed your mind and your soul. We’ll highlight favorites you have shared with us, as well as notable “best reads” from a variety of sources. To kick us off, I want to share some of my favorite reads from the past year.

An Ode to Non-Conformists

I confess that I tend to gravitate to books that combine my two passions—research and creativity. Thus, I was immediately drawn to Adam Grant’s Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. The book is a research-based exploration of the creative spirit and how to nurture it. I found Grant’s research to be incredibly relevant for schools today as they strive to create learning environments that prepare students for a changing world. Here are some specific takeaways:
  • Grant makes the point early in the book that creativity is never just about the idea, it’s all about execution. Our work at NAIS, led by our newly formed Innovation Team, is designed to do just that—help you make that grand idea a reality.
  • Grant explains that the “hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.” The starting point for this is curiosity. When I work with boards, I often suggest that they use the technique of Catalytic Questioning—spending 20-30 minutes just formulating questions to explore a topic—as a basis for generative discussions. Too often we move to developing a strategy before taking the opportunity to view an issue or opportunity through a variety of lenses.
  • Through a case study on Segway that explores why some very innovative and successful people (like Steve Jobs) backed what they thought would be an industry game changer, Grant makes the point that people who are successful in one area are not necessarily successful in others. As we look to innovate in our schools, we are most likely to succeed if we innovate in our areas of expertise.
  • His research also points out that true innovation is very hard work. He gives examples of master composers throughout history who penned literally hundreds of works before producing masterpieces. This underscores the need to nurture cultures that support curiosity and failure.
  • And perhaps some vindication for those of you who put things off to the last minute, Grant’s research identifies how procrastination can actually fuel creativity.
  • One of the most fascinating sections of the book for me was Grant’s detailing of why being the first mover on something can be a disadvantage, suggesting that being a “settler” rather than a “pioneer” can provide significant advantage. As we see so many new education models emerging today, how can we learn from them and take on the settler’s advantage as we think about the future of education?
Understanding Why

Another favorite read this year, Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice by Clayton Christensen, Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon, and David Duncan, explores the novel Jobs-To-Be-Done (JTBD) approach and how it can inform serving customers in ways that you may currently be blind to. The JTBD theory posits that a customer “essentially ‘hires’ a product or service to make progress and get a job done. If it does the job well, the customer hires that same product again. If the product does a crummy job, the customer ‘fires’ it and looks around for something else.”

I was intrigued by this theory, as I am constantly looking for research to assist our schools in thriving in a changing market. The book is chock full of case studies on how organizations gain deep insight into customers’ needs by employing the theory and, by so doing, ensure that their innovations’ chances of success are far more predictable. Some key takeaways for me:
  • Much of the data and research we use to inform market innovation of any kind is based on correlations, not causality. We correlate how likely a person is to do something based on a set of attributes. For example, in our admission work, we may theorize that the segment of our family prospect pool that attended independent schools is most likely to choose independent education for their children, and we promote our school to them by emphasizing that tie. In reality, this may have little or no connection to why families choose a particular school for their children. Understanding the progress that a family is trying to make will provide much more insight into how to recruit them to a school.
  • Christensen makes some interesting observations in the book about improving public education using JTBD theory. He notes the work that he and Michael Horn (an NAIS board member) engaged in when they wrote Disrupting Class. Applying the jobs theory to education, they ”concluded that school is not a job children are trying to do. School is one of the things that children might hire to do the job. But the job is that children need to feel successful—every day. Most schools don’t do this job well. Instead most children feel failure when they go to class.” Food for thought for all of us.
Talking to Students About Suicide

In the last few weeks, there has been a flurry of discussion about the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which revolves around unraveling clues that led to a high school student’s suicide. I’m not much of a television watcher, but the discussion prompted me to read the book by Jay Asher on which the series is based. Although I am sure it is not nearly as graphic as the series, it did raise many concerns. As mental health experts have commented, although watching this series can promote dialogue about suicide, it can also promote a kind of suicide contagion among the most vulnerable and for that reason, teens should not be watching unless a responsible adult can process the information with them. One of the most troubling aspects of the book for me is that it promotes the idea of the revenge fantasy, that is, that ending one’s life is a way to get revenge—a very unsettling notion to leave a teen with.

I know schools are having conversations about how to handle the important yet difficult topic of suicide. Should the unthinkable happen at your school, I want to make you aware of an important and valuable resource from the University of Southern California: https://grievingstudents.org/. NAIS has recently become one of many organizations supporting their efforts by making these materials available to schools.

Finally, two other great reads: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

Wherever your summer reading takes you, I hope it inspires, informs, or relaxes you. Enjoy the summer!
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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.