Review by Adam Sutton

Headteacher of a community primary school and nursery in Brighton

29 Jun 2019, 5:00


The Thinking School

By Kulvarn Atwal


John Catt


Kulvarn Atwal boasts an impressive history of school improvement that gives his views immediate credibility. In this book he lays out the theories that have shaped the schools he has worked that have used his “dynamic learning communities”.

The research evidence he presents over six chapters is clear and compelling.

The first two chapters set the scene for why the research points to teacher learning as key to school improvement, and outline the basic principles of why he advocates “thinking schools”. His premise of “dynamic learning communities” is based on the idea of an organisation that fosters challenge and trust to enable all teachers to continuously improve their practice together by focusing on improving outcomes for children.

This theory is important, but it isn’t until chapter 3 that Atwal sets out ideas that I can implement to start to make real changes in my school. He also gives a clear explanation of the impact I can expect. This involves a model that encourages every sort of opportunity to support teachers in the classroom and develop their practice: from peer support, mentoring and engagement in research. At that point I began to really feel a sense of what a “thinking school” would be like and the difference it could make.

Atwal goes on to put meat on the bones and gives a sense of the approaches necessary to be successful in the development of the type of community he advocates so passionately. These chapters resonated with me as a practising headteacher working in a challenging context, perhaps because I recognised the pressure to improve pupil outcomes, but also the temptation to find short-cuts or “magic” solutions.

The book echoed my own belief that cultural development takes time and is the only way to achieve sustainable and consistently high outcomes for children. It also provides a framework by which “big ideas” can be pulled together and brought into all classrooms as more than their individual parts or ideas unrelated to other initiatives; the realisation of a dynamic learning community.

The ideas are fresh and carefully conceived to paint a picture of improving teaching to improve learning. That is not to say that “peer observation”, “lesson study” and various forms of “coaching” versus “mentoring” haven’t been mentioned in literature before, because they have. But what may be different in The Thinking School is that it sets out the underlying principles to ensure these potentially transformative professional activities are more than buzzwords or fads.

I was also interested in the importance placed on assessment for learning and talk for learning approaches in successful teacher learning and improvement. These were just two examples of where the ideas in the book feel like common sense and intuitively the types of activities you would like to be better at as a teacher.

I enjoyed this book. It challenged my thinking and I continue to think about its ideas some weeks later. Although a little theory-heavy early on, the later chapters give practical examples and frameworks that current school leaders can use to develop teacher learning systems, and that let them see the impact that continuing professional learning can have on the outcomes of children.

Its real strength is a sense that all this is achievable and simply a case of binding together ideas that immediately feel sensible and familiar. I imagine this is far harder to achieve in reality, but the book makes you sure that the hard work would be transformative.

Like all effective leaders, Atwal succeeds in marrying a strong vision with a set of practical structures that can profoundly affect outcomes for children. He asks, what would happen if all my staff read this book? I might just find out.

More Reviews

Teachers and teaching post-Covid: Seizing opportunities for change

Its account of the profession's pandemic response is unfortunately not matched by its vision for a post-Covid transformation

Find out more

The Conversation – with Fiona Atherton

This week's hot topics include mobile phones in schools, the uses and abuses of labels and elevating Black leaders

Find out more

A practical guide to pupil wellbeing: strategies for classroom teachers

Not the kind of practical guide to skim for quick wins, it's nonetheless a useful read to start important...

Find out more

The Conversation – with Robert Gasson

This week's digital staffroom talks gender-questioning young people, inclusion, behaviour and consistency

Find out more

Smashing glass ceilings: Empowering women in education

A truly practical book on the breadth of career options in education and how women can reach the top...

Find out more

The Conversation – with Sarah Gallagher

A rediscovered maths tool, putting process over outcome, leadership learning from Gareth Southgate, and the school environment

Find out more

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *