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The Best Books for The Academic on Your Shopping List

  • 7 Min Read

Why should educators read books like Carol Dweck’s Mindset or Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon? Two words: Associative thinking.


One way to promote associative thinking (which is essentially the very lifeblood of innovation, even for people who have not experienced other professional contexts) is to explore the research of those who have. This is one reason it is so important for professors, who are typically subject matter experts in science or math, etc., but often not teaching and learning experts, to seek expertise about the art and science of learning. Similarly, academic administrators can learn valuable lessons while also generating strategies and plans by reading about contexts outside of their own.

That’s all-important context for a blog on the best books to sink into this holiday season. And trust me, we’ll get to my favorite picks soon.

Innovation vs. Invention

I recently attended a national “retreat” put on by an organization that provides thought leadership, connective strategies, and more. It might have been called a conference had more people shown up, but with the limitations of COVID, the lack of funds for travel (in addition to the normal attendee hurdles), the number of academic administrators who gathered to share ideas was around 50-70 people, max.

There was a nice mix of programming and networking and at one point we engaged in a common workshop experience. The session leader had placed poster boards around the room with topics on each. All were problems facing education today, from data privacy to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion concerns to student outcomes achievement.

The directions were simple: Over 30 minutes, find a poster board that has a topic you are interested in, gather with a group of similarly minded leaders, and create some strategies to solve those problems. After your group catalogues a “top three” list of solutions, share those ideas in a round-robin presentation.

These exercises are typically designed to promote ideas that can be taken back to home institutions where they can be honed and workshopped. While I doubt that happens very often, I’m sure a few strategic initiatives were spawned during conference conversations. The problem at this event was not in the idea generation, but in the underpinning of credible, reasoned positions. Let me explain.

As a former Chief Innovation Officer and an author of various academic articles and chapters, I have spent a healthy part of my career focused on innovation.

So, when I noted that one of the posters included the topic “How Do We Get Innovation into Our Schools?” I was pleased. That is an important topic! But rather than jumping into that group as a know-it-all, I sought out a different topic where I could flex my intellectual muscle a bit, hearing from others and exploring ideas that I had not spent as much time studying.

When the groups had finished, it was time to present our thoughts. The elected spokeswoman from the innovation group took the microphone and started by explaining that it’s crucial to help all institutions understand that innovation is all about newness. The key, she suggested, is ensuring schools realize that they have to create brand new, often “from scratch” processes, programs, or products so as to help students do better.

Associative Thinking

A few of you may be ahead of the class, so let me stop there and remind us all that what she described is not innovation, but invention. Innovation is not about inventing something that nobody has ever seen or used before, it is instead about taking an idea, concept, product, etc., from one context and bringing it into another context. This is often thought of as “associative thinking” and it implies a criticality for any organization desirous of innovation to employ people who have worked in other contexts. (In other words, having instructors who have only ever been instructors or a Provost who has only ever worked at a university or a SVP of Student Affairs whose first job was as a Residence Hall monitor working up directly through the organization suggests that innovation will be very, very difficult.)

This group’s recommendations and strategies were predicated on something completely and utterly incorrect. The innovation recommendations promoted invention, a noble aspiration albeit a significantly harder one to achieve. And as their basis for innovation was so flawed, the three ideas they gave to generate innovation in an academic context were largely impossible. (e.g. Give people time to go on sabbatical and think of new things…)

The Best Books for Exploring Associative Thinking

So, why would I take up so much of a blog on holiday reading with this story? Because, as noted above, without opportunities to expand our thinking beyond the normal guardrails and contexts we have been in or currently exist in, our ability to transform experiences dwindles! So, consider this a primer for some associative thinking from experts that are not necessarily within your immediate context. Enjoy.

Best Books for Educators

There really is an art and science to teaching. Find out more with these excellent works.

For readers interested in:


Brain Rules, by John Medina

While this book does have a chapter on education specifically, Medina does a masterful job illustrating how the human brain works in pragmatic terms. As the brain is arguably the most important underpinning for learning, it seems incumbent on every educator to have a working knowledge!

Learning research

How People Learn, edited by John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking

Approaching learning largely from a STEM point of view, educators will start to see that the process is almost never a transaction, students (like all humans) struggle mightily with transference, and that active learning measurably changes the learning equation for all.


Mindset, by Carol S. Dweck; Grit, by Angela Duckworth)

Non-cognitive signals are measured as two-thirds of the student success stool, yet education has myopically focused on one third (cognition) for a century. These books should help you start to change focus to a more holistic approach to the learner.

Interdependent teaching practices

How Learning Happens, by Paul A. Kirschner, Carl Hendrick

The great thing about this book is that it’s more like 24 mini-books. Each chapter synthesizes an important teaching and learning context, again making it quite applicable.

Practical teaching application

Make It Stick, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, III, and Mark A. McDaniel

Did you know that highlighting a book or notes leads to almost no learning whatsoever? This book is packed with old, “common sense” myths that need to go, while demonstrating practical strategies to actually help students learn (in the truest sense of that term).

Best Books for Academic Administrators

From Principals to Provosts, Deans to Chairs, the experience of education is much more than classroom based.

For readers interested in:

Connectedness and social learning

Social, by Matthew D. Lieberman; It’s Complicated, by Danah Boyd)

Similar to the non-cognitive aspects mentioned above, these books showcase the crucial underpinnings of connectedness in all humans, but especially in students.

Effectively using big data

The End of Average, by Todd Rose

Did you know that creating an average student type is mathematically incorrect? Yet this clustering is the basis for almost all of education today. See why we’ve been doing it wrong for decades and note how to fix it.

Understanding both sides of the equation

The Case Against Education, by Bryan Caplan

In the spirit of “know thine enemy” a read of these meta studies explaining just how little learning takes place in the K-20 classroom should inspire any educator to do better.

Best Books for Chief Innovation Officers

I have to give a nod to my favorite academic titles. Here are two you might like:

How to Get Ideas, by Jack Foster

This is a quick read that can show you how to not only operationalize creativity / innovation, but also how to enculturate it.

Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon

I’m a huge believer in the CASE method (Copy And Steal Everything). This book gives example after example of how to do exactly that. It’s my favorite holiday gift for employees.

Happy holidays to all. Good luck and good learning.

Written by:

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Table of Contents

  1. Innovation vs. Invention
  2. Associative Thinking
  3. The Best Books for Exploring Associative Thinking