Musings: The Thinking School by Dr K Atwal

The book

Dr. Kulvan Atwal. The Thinking School: Developing a dynamic learning community. 2019. John Catt Educational. 

My reading viewpoint

I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of this book from John Catt. As someone involved in developing teachers learning and ongoing development opportunities, I was intrigued by the title and blurb of the book.

Summary

The Thinking School is a concise text laid out into clear and cumulative chapters. I particularly enjoyed the writing style of the book which is clear, unfussy and easy to read, blending research with Atwal’s own extensive understanding and experience. Terms which may be less familiar to readers are explained. Each chapter ends with reflection questions and further reading suggestions which, for me, allowed me to gain a clear understanding of the chapter and its key points.

The premise of The Thinking School is to share Atwal’s vision of and success in developing a ‘learning community’ in a school which stretches beyond its pupils and to every adult in the workplace. Atwal reframes CPD as CPL – continued professional learning (p.11) and lays out his vision of this as encompassing both formal and informal activities which result in teachers learning about their profession. Much of this is ‘situated learning’ (p.16) bringing the focus back to the individual nature of the school setting. This seemingly semantic change actually has far-reaching repercussions, as explained in the chapters, and really resonated with me.

The Thinking School sets out a number of tried-and-tested ways to support this idea of CPL, including developing the concept of all teachers as leaders (p.46). Across the whole text there is a focus on communal learning, of all experiences being something everyone can learn from and, again, this social construct struck me as sensible and though provoking.

Ultimately, Atwal’s school presents almost a pinnacle of the learning community – teachers completing Masters and engaging in action research. Chapter 4 explores the importance of action research to really focus on the learning of the pupils in front of you. Peer observations and lesson studies are also discussed in this chapter, including some really good questioning strategies I feel all observers could learn from (p.92-93).

While this is amazing, my work in schools has led me to understand that this is an unattainable goal for some schools. Schools face increasing challenges and while The Thinking School presents a clear argument for developing teachers in this way and the positive impact on the school, I recognise this approach wouldn’t suit everyone. For example, I recognise that investing in further education for teachers is a luxury budgets often cannot afford. What I cannot stress enough, however, is that I believe aspects of this approach can be applied to all schools. Whatever the school, I think that all leaders can learn from this approach to professional development / learning. From recognising the importance of continued learning, to promoting action research or developing a system of observations which develops all teachers, there is something to be taken from The Thinking School.

My key takeaways

1. The Thinking School made me think. It made me think about the CPD I was offered in school and the ongoing training and development offered through my current organisation. While I have said above that I find it challenging to accept that all schools have the capacity to be fully ‘thinking school’ I do think there are aspects and elements that can be replicated in practically any setting. I suppose my takeaway would be twofold – as a leader, I’d want to promote opportunities such as those presented in the book; as a teacher, I’d want to seek out a school whose learning community included me.

2. Assessment for Learning and Talk for Learning are important factors all teachers can learn more about. Chapter 4 talks explicitly about both of these. I am already an advocate of both but the chapter made me think more deeply about these. The chapter also contains really detailed guidance and suggestions for these, based on research and experience, which I found particularly powerful.

I think you should read this book if… 

  • You are a leader / aspiring leader keen to develop your teachers as learners and wanting ideas on how to make this happen.

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