The Learning Game, Jonathan Smith
Recommended by Vernon Hales. Vernon is my current headmaster, at Aldwickbury, who I first met almost exactly two years ago when I interviewed here. On arrival at Aldwickbury 18 months ago, one of the many things Vernon gave me that day was a copy of this book, announcing it as “the best book ever written about education.” I was somewhat ashamed therefore that when he replied to my email asking for recommendations he went with this book again. I can only presume he assumed that I hadn’t had time to get around to it, and indeed he was correct. I’m extremely happy at Aldwickbury, and that is due in no small part to Vernon’s careful leadership of the place – knowing when and how to assert authority, always ready with a quick quip, and very clearly working for the best interests of the pupils whilst making sure the staff are looked after as well.
I am not in a position to judge whether Smith’s book is indeed “the best book ever written about education”, having thus far read few books about education. However, I will start these comments off by agreeing that it is a very fine book. Smith, a lifelong teacher, wrote this book as he approached the end of his career, largely spent at Tonbridge. It is an autobiography of sorts, working through his life but always from the point of educational ideas and viewpoints. I can entirely understand why Vernon thinks this is a great book – Smith talks no nonsense, and makes straightforward, eloquent arguments about his views on education, from discipline to exams, from producing a school play to running a department.
He gives little truck to fads or fly-by-night ideas: instead Smith sets out his stall on the way to be the best role model possible, how to teach without hectoring, how to inspire without becoming a guru-like figure, how to encourage research whilst still instilling information. Smith was an English teacher (and author and poet), and his love of the language pervades this book, both in his own choice of phrase and also in the chapters which are quotations from favourite or apposite books or poems – Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Winston Churchill, C Day Lewis, William Wordsworth and may others are referenced, used to gently highlight points or simply inserted to make you understand where he is going with the previous chapter. Even in this book, Smith is showing us the way, gently teaching us to think about how to support our arguments.
For anyone interested in Education in any way, I would heartily recommend this short book as a way of helping you think positively about your job. For anyone else, I would still recommend this book – it has much to say about parenting and social interaction that is equally interesting even if you can’t think of anything less interesting than teaching! Its gentle humour and anecdote-rich style will keep you entertained and make you evaluate your own thoughts on how to bring the best out of everyone.