I enjoy reading ELT blogs because it’s really interesting to find out what those working in different teaching contexts think, and one of the websites I find thought-provoking is EDCrocks. Its author André Hedlund deals with topics such as neuromyths and questionable marketing strategies, which is great to see; I think it’s very important to draw attention to such issues in the industry. When this prolific blogger announced his first book, I knew that it would be worth reading, so I decided to get the ebook version from Amazon.
The Owl Factor: Reframing your Teaching Philosophy is not your typical ELT book. Hedlund goes beyond this area and writes about education in general, so I believe that even those who don’t teach English at all may find it relevant. I’ve read quite a few books in the past few years as part of my professional development and it wasn’t always an entertaining experience, but I’m happy to say that this one was enjoyable to read thanks to the fact that it doesn’t focus on just one specialised area.
The author makes a strong start in the prologue when he demonstrates how the book was influenced by Greek philosophy. I have a soft spot for Greece, a country in which I lived for four years, and reading about it brought back some nice memories. He also invites the reader to imagine Anthony Hopkins playing Socrates, which would undoubtedly be a great casting decision. More importantly, the prologues stresses the importance of dialogue and emphasises that progress can be achieved without expensive gadgets. When I read that passage, I immediately thought of the Dogme approach, and it was nice to see it mentioned in one of the subsequent chapters.
Even though The Owl Factor includes a lot of references to philosophy, it’s not necessary to be an expert in this field because everything is presented in an accessible way. There are a lot of ideas related to the nature of teaching and learning, and I’d like to comment on a few key points that caught my attention.
I completely agree with the author when he talks about the role of knowledge. Common sense dictates that English teachers should be proficient English users who know how to teach. Unfortunately, some schools are happy to employ unqualified teachers who comply only with the first requirement. Of course, everybody has to start somewhere and it is perfectly normal not to feel confident in your first teaching role even after obtaining a relevant foundation-level qualification. What I really like is that Hedlund warns against getting stuck at that stage and not progressing beyond the initial training, which is a pitfall that new teachers need to be aware of. He recommends that teachers should continue learning instead of just relying on intuition.
A lot has been written on teaching methods, and I was happy to note that The Owl Factor doesn’t promote a particular way of teaching. Something that works in one teaching context may completely fail in another one. The author highlights a few advantages of student-centred approaches and at the same time says that teachers should be more than entertainers whose main goal is to make sure that their students have fun in the classroom.
Hedlund keeps referring to science and includes a lot of examples; my favourite one is this amazing experiment testing Galileo Galilei’s theory related to gravity. I absolutely love watching TV shows featuring Brian Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sir David Attenborough, and other presenters who try to popularise science. Again, it’s not necessary to have an expert knowledge of natural sciences when teaching English, but being aware of the most prominent theories about the universe may certainly help you prepare engaging lessons and participate in conversations on topics that may come up.
In addition, The Owl Factor includes a few fables used to support the author’s ideas. He is a very good storyteller and his book is easy to read. There were just a few issues with the tables accompanying the text; some of them were a bit confusing due to their formatting. I have no idea how converting books to the digital format works, and I’m sure everything looks perfectly fine in the physical book, but I used Amazon’s web-based Kindle Cloud Reader with its default settings and found some of the tables a little untidy.
When it comes to content, I feel that Carol Dweck receives too much space in the last section of the book. There is nothing wrong with mentioning her work, but I thought the author chose a one-sided approach. He talks about negative consequences of Socrates’ work and the idea that he might not have been a real person, and even points out that owls may not be as wise as we think, but Dweck’s growth mindset is accepted uncritically. Angela Lee Duckworth’s ideas are promoted in The Owl Factor as well.
To be honest, I prefer to err on the side of caution and at the moment I’m not ready to introduce terms such as fixed mindset or grit to my teaching practice. Even though they appeared in successful books and TED talks, there are some serious doubts about their classroom application. I hold a more sceptical position than the author, but I’m open to changing my mind once more relevant evidence emerges.
It’s important to emphasise that The Owl Factor isn’t a run-of-the-mill academic text full of hedging and passive voice constructions. The author explicitly expresses his thoughts, and there are a lot of personal anecdotes and references to pop culture. I find that refreshing because the book provides insight into his beliefs on education, which in turn makes the readers think about their own teaching philosophy. It provides plenty of food for thought, and that’s exactly what one expects from this kind of book.
As much as I like ELT literature, I have no problem admitting that I decided to read most of it mainly because I wanted to get my Delta. The Owl Factor: Reframing your Teaching Philosophy is a title that can be read for pleasure, and educators interested in philosophy and science will most likely enjoy reading it. I think that self-publishing a book is a pretty cool move, so if you like André Hedlund’s blog and other activities, this is a nice opportunity to support his work.
2 thoughts on “Review: The Owl Factor”
Martin, thank you so much for this lovely review. I’m quite happy to know you read my book and found most of it interesting and refreshing. I’m sorry about the experience with the tables. I confess it’s quite hard to make them fit in the Kindle version and I ended up beating their purpose I suppose. They were meant for clarity. I think they do look great in the paperback edition.
As for Dweck’s work, I partially agree with the criticism you present and I thought I had made myself clear in the book that I don’t believe in the dichotomy fixed VS growth. I think of it more like a continuum. I mention that IQ is still the best predictor but psychology does discuss other “non-cognitive” aspects that I put under the umbrella of Beliefs and Attitudes that influence learning. I also say that Dweck herself has said on occasion that many people have created a false growth mindset by oversimplifying things. You’re right about the concerns over this concept and how we can test it. Some recent studies have shown little evidence to support the idea that “teaching students how to have a growth mindset” can actually have an impact on their performance. And that goes back to the idea that only telling students about how it should work and not working on their repertoire (as I mention in the book) will likely fail. I say that “our mindsets can change quite often and sometimes there’s very little we can do to help promote a growth mindset” and add the idea discussed by Socrates of “foolish endurance”. I also mention that “one of the major failures of the modern educational systems is selling the idea that all students need is to be committed and persist to be able to accomplish the goals set out for them”.
But I should’ve connected these things better. I do have some ideas now that you pointed this out and if there’s a second edition, I’ll make sure I add them. Thank you again for your valuable feedback
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Thank you for the comment, André.
I don’t usually read ebooks but now I’ve realised their formatting represents a challenge for the author because the pages get automatically resized according to the reader’s screen size and resolution. I suppose Amazon uses the same source file for both versions of the book, so choosing the right formatting that suits both of them must be very tricky. I’m happy to hear everything looks good in the paperback edition!
When it comes to Dweck and Duckworth, I’m a bit concerned by the lack of solid evidence to support their ideas. The pessimist in me thinks that growth mindset and grit might end up on the scrapheap as empty words with no practical use. I’m sure their intentions are good, and of course we all want to help our students improve, but I’m afraid the authors resort to wishful thinking. I’m also worried that using the terms in the classroom may lead to labelling students, especially those with a low socioeconomic background. I just feel that there are too many question marks at the moment, so that’s why I’m reluctant to make it part of my teaching practice. I hope there will be more studies conducted in the next few years so we can get a clearer idea. Actually, this is a good opportunity to ask other ELT professionals if they use Dweck’s and Duckworth’s ideas with their students. I’d be interested in reading their thoughts on that.
I really appreciate your replying to my blog post and I’m looking forward to your next book!
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