Review by Adam Sutton

Headteacher of a community primary school and nursery in Brighton

29 Jun 2019, 5:00

Book

The Thinking School

By Kulvarn Atwal

Publisher

John Catt

ISBN 10

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.

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