Somewhere around the start of every new year, I like to gather together book recommendations that I’ve read or heard about that may be of interest to learning professionals. This list includes a wide range of books within and outside the industry. Many of these books were published in 2016 but at least one was published a few years ago. Feel free to add other recommendations in the Comments section below.
1. Comedy Writing Secrets: The Best-Selling Guide to Writing Funny and Getting Paid for It, 3rd Edition by Mark Shatz and Mel Helitzer
They say that humor has a positive correlation with attention and learning. But how many of us have been trained to write comedy? Authors Schatz and Helitzer believe that comedy writing is a technique that can be learned. This book provides some of the tools for improving your humor-writing skills.
The book covers how to inject humor into articles and speeches and how to brainstorm new material. It also provides exercises for honing your exaggeration and word play skills. The authors discuss why we laugh, show you how to target different audiences and give you one-liners, stories and bits from well-known comedians.
From the title, you can see that this book was not written for learning professionals. But if you are good at integrating tips and tricks from unusual sources, you should be able to take away some pointers that will make your learning products more entertaining.
Creative careers rely on the free flow of thoughts and sparks of inspiration. There are times, though, that even the best of us experience idea gridlock. Product designer and creativity expert, Tanner Christensen, wrote this book to help readers get their creative flow on.
He shares 150 challenges ranging from ordinary to unique, to help us overcome those temporary mental shutdowns. Organized into five thinking categories—convergent, divergent, lateral, aesthetic, and emergent—these challenges are aimed at getting us over any creative slump.
Challenges include mundane activities like going for a walk, taking a shower, getting some sun, or waking up thirty minutes early. But they also include the amusing, such as “Time Travel,” “Sticking your Head in Something Wacky,” “Acting Like You’re Three Again,” and “Speaking only in Rhyme.” It’s not necessary to read this book from cover to cover. Just flip open a page, find a brain tickling activity and get started. Keep it around to give your creative juices (and those of team mates who are stuck) a jump start.
3. Designing your Life: How to Build a Well-lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
One of the most intriguing books in this list is Designing Your Life, a NY Times best seller. Written by two design professors from Stanford it grew out of a class they teach of the same name.
Just as they apply design thinking concepts to products, they show how you can use these same methods to build a meaningful and fulfilling life. Burnett and Evans take you through strategies and mindsets that put you in charge of designing your life: experimentation, wayfinding, prototyping and constant iteration. Sound familiar?
According to their teachings, it is essential to realize that there are many solutions to living your optimal life. And that if you make the wrong choice, you can go back and correct. For example, if you’re thinking of a career change, you can “prototype” it. In plain speak this means talk to others in the career to find out what it’s really like. See if you can shadow someone for a day. Try the career out on weekends. If the new career doesn’t inspire you, move on.
Interestingly, this book is as relevant to college students as it is to those in mid-life careers or people heading to retirement. The authors say they provide ideas and tools. But the most important strategy is to take action.
4. Discussing Design: Improving Communication and Collaboration through Critique by Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry
Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry both understand what it is like to work with design teams. They know how a company’s culture affects the capacity of a team to work together creatively.
The problem they see is that many people are not effective at giving and receiving criticism. This neglected skill is a cause of rifts within and between teams, with members mostly perceiving critiques as an activity of ‘attack and defend.’ Without effective feedback and critique, however, communication and collaboration dwindle and products then suffer.
This is the situation the authors are hoping to fix. The authors provide practical advice on how instill a team culture that values, rather than resents, criticism. The book also presents an account of the three elements of a good critique: identification of the specific aspect for critique, its relation to an objective, and why that aspect does or does not support the given objective. Connor and Irizarry want you to know the value of receiving and giving constructive feedback during the design process. If this is a problem where you work, leave a few copies around the office.
5. Learning Environments by Design by Catherine Lombardozzi
In this book, Catherine Lombardozzi makes the case that in an unpredictable and rapidly changing world, formal training is often unable to meet the varying demands of the workforce. The solution is for learning professionals to pivot our focus to a broader and more holistic learning environment. She defines a learning environment as a “collection of resources and practices that enables the development of knowledge and skill.” But it is much richer than it sounds.
Lombardozzi explains that a learning environment can include: all of the resources that build knowledge and skills; the network of people who exhibit or are pursuing this knowledge; training and education in any form; development practices that support learning; experiences that enable learning; and learner motivation and self-directedness.
The book explores her thesis in six chapters that will help you understand how to create and support effective learning environments. It covers the learning environment landscape; the process of designing learning environments; motivation and self-directed learning; supporting a learning community; learning environments in an academic context and the future of learning. You can hear the author discuss her ideas in this interview.
6. Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design, 2nd Edition by Scott Rogers
Game designer Scott Rogers gives us a sneak peek into professional video game design. My interest in this book is to see what we can borrow from professional game designers and bring to the learning industry. This book will take you on a comprehensive tour of everything that is video game design-related.
Not only does Rogers present the details on how to design fun, interactive, and audience-capturing games, he also shares tips and insights on how to make them better and more challenging.
The book is thorough in its analysis of what it takes to design a game. It covers coming up with a game idea, writing the story, documentation, camera, character, controls and other video game design elements, such as the subtleties of music and sound cues and their effect on moving the game’s action forward. Is this more than you need? Probably. But getting to know the broad terrain is helpful. If you want to create learning games that are more challenging and entertaining that what you’ve done before, this book probably has the answers and inspiration you need.
7. Michael Allen’s Guide to eLearning by Michael Allen
This 2016 second edition is a well-needed update of the 2003 original. A few things have changed since then, right? We all know that eLearning has a bad reputation in some organizations and Allen is bent on changing that. Meaningful, memorable, motivational—these are Michael Allen’s pillars of effective eLearning. He believes that you can never have a relevant and effective eLearning experience when one of the three is missing.
This book, ideal for the less experienced learning professional, examines how to come up with an eLearning strategy, seven success strategies for engaging learning design, motivation, interactivity paradigms and other best practices, some of which you will find in his other books.
What may be of most interest to more experienced designers is the third part of the book. It includes three chapters that discuss serious learning games. Less experienced instructional designers will get the most from this book, though there are gems for everyone.
Stella Collins’ Neuroscience for Learning and Development provides a look at what goes on under the hood (so to speak) every time we learn. The author presents some of the latest developments in neuroscience and psychology paired with how the research can be used for effective training and learning.
The book covers brain science basics, sizing up the credibility of research, a neuroscience model of learning, optimizing motivation and attention, making learning meaningful and memorable and much more. Most important, the author connects the dots from research to practice.
Collins writes for the lay person. Her goal in exploring the scientific aspects of learning is to help learning professionals create motivational experiences that lead to retention and improved performance.
9. The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
You can get a glimpse of the future by reading The Second Machine Age. It explores humanity’s exponential development of digital technologies, how they are transforming the economy and how to thrive from the coming revolution of intelligent machines. Both authors are from the MIT Center for Digital Business.
The Second Machine Age has a somewhat optimistic perspective with a bit of cautionary concern. The authors believe we are on the verge of a bountiful era where the global economy will benefit and grow from a combination of powerful computer processing, artificial intelligence, and networked communications. Yet these transformations will dramatically impact many jobs, professions and organizations in ways that can be disruptive and difficult.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee take a cold hard look at both the astonishing digital technologies that will be most beneficial to us as well as the challenges that they bring. They make recommendations for policies and sustainable strategies that will allow us “to race with (and not against) the machines.”
10. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Many of you have already read or heard of this award-winning book by Daniel Kahneman, a renowned psychologist known for his decades of work on human judgement and decision-making. This best seller explores the human nature of being systematically irrational. It provides insights into the way we think, our biases, our overconfidence, and our decision-making.
The author explains that our thinking occurs into two separate modes—System 1 (automatic, fast and prone to biases) and System 2 (slow, controlled and requiring more energy). His thesis is that we tend to avoid thinking slow as much as possible and this is the reason humanity does not solve the right problems but instead, solves the easy ones.
Kahneman’s research with Amos Tversky (who died in 1996) disputed the common belief that humans were rational. They found over twenty cognitive biases that distort our judgment. Kaheneman’s findings into human irrationality brought him the 2002 Nobel prize in economic science.
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