Professional development: Thinking schools and thinking teachers

Written by: Dr Kulvarn Atwal | Published:
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The learning environment for your staff really matters. Dr Kulvarn Atwal introduces his recipe for creating thinking schools and developing thinking teachers – offering us five concrete strategies

I have been working in schools for more than 20 years and have been a headteacher for more than 10. Throughout my career, I have been fascinated about the power of staff professional learning and its impact upon student outcomes.

I believe it to be the greatest untapped resource in our schools – by focusing our energies as leaders on staff learning, we can have the greatest possible impact on our students’ learning.

In this article, I will share some strategies to enable you to develop your teachers to become thinking teachers and your school to become a thinking school.

My doctoral research enabled me to investigate the quality of staff learning in a range of different workplaces, including factories, building sites and hairdressing salons. I found that in the very institutions where the core business is learning (schools), the actual quality of teacher learning is often relatively poor.

I investigated specifically all the factors that have an impact upon teacher engagement in professional learning in schools. I concluded that schools differ in the extent to which they offer an expansive learning environment for staff and that leaders are crucial in determining the quality of professional learning.

We can create a really effective learning environment for the adults by promoting a specific range of professional learning activities. By empowering our teachers to engage in these formal learning activities, we create a mindset among our teachers and a culture in our school that supports informal learning among the staff team.

The Thinking School

In 2019, I published the findings from my research in a book entitled The Thinking School. I argue that more learning takes place informally in schools than can ever take place during formally designated times, e.g. staff meetings after school and the five training days per-year.

I argue that we can purposefully create an environment in our schools which will encourage the development of informal learning. By doing so we can create a truly dynamic learning community. A community in which teacher thinking and learning is as valued as student thinking and learning.

I designed a conceptual framework in which I argue that through the implementation of a series of formal learning activities, we generate an environment that actively encourages informal professional learning. As a consequence, we develop thinking teachers – and this makes the job of school leadership a lot easier.

The Thinking Teacher

I believe that the greatest factor that impacts on the quality of children’s learning in schools is the quality of teaching and that the greatest influence on the quality of teaching is the quality of teacher learning.

The key then for school leaders is to create an environment in which teachers have regular opportunities to learn and reflect in order to develop their practice.

Engagement in research is a crucial activity that enables teachers to think deeply and become empowered, critical decision-makers in the classroom. What I am arguing for in this article is for the development of a culture in schools in which there is an expectation that teachers engage in an on-going cycle of improvement.

I believe that the traditional forms of CPD on offer to teachers are relatively poor. Too much CPD is short-term and not contextualised in practice.

How effective are the courses and conferences that your teachers go on? Teachers may value the opportunity to have a day out of school but what is the actual impact on their own and their colleagues’ practice in school? As effective as they may currently be, we can be much more productive in leading opportunities for staff learning.

Below, I introduce and provide a brief description of five key strategies that we can implement to develop thinking teachers.

1, Research-based practice

Take as many opportunities as possible to enable your teachers to engage in research. In the thinking school, all teachers are engaged in research, sometimes individually but mostly collaboratively. They investigate their own and each other’s practice in a continual cycle of research.

We pay 60% towards every teacher undertaking a Master’s. This enables our teachers to access cutting edge research from across the world that promotes thinking and reflection upon practice. But you don’t have to do a Master’s to engage in research. We support every teacher to understand that the reflective practice cycle and research-based practice can be as simple as trialling changes to your practice and evaluating the impact. The key as a leader is to make it as easy as possible for your teachers.

2, Teacher choice in learning

How often do teachers engage in CPD that is not relevant to their current practice? When teachers engage in learning activities they don’t see as personally relevant to their needs, they seldom persevere.

Once your teachers are engaging in reflective practice, you are encouraging them to be more self-reflective and open about their practice and their own learning needs. You want them to be both reflecting and driving their own learning – to actively seek-out opportunities for professional learning and development rather than playing safe with their practice.

Therefore, encourage your teachers to select their own focus for professional learning, matched to their own learning needs. They will become more self-motivated and develop a personal drive for continual professional learning.

3, Collaborative planning

Ensure that your teachers have as many opportunities as possible to engage in collaborative learning activities. This begins with encouraging your teaching teams to reflect collaboratively upon the teaching, learning and planning cycle.

Support your teachers to engage in professional dialogue to discuss the “what” and “how” of their teaching. By enabling your teachers to plan together, you are encouraging them to reflect upon what they have taught and its effectiveness and how this will inform your next steps as a team. By engaging in collaborative planning, this will serve to build trust within the team and support informal collaborative learning.

4, Peer learning and lesson study

Through engagement in peer learning and lesson study opportunities, trust will be built even further. I would argue that teachers have insufficient opportunities to observe and learn from each other in a non-judgemental, non-hierarchical, supportive way.

My first action as a headteacher was to stop the use of graded, judgemental, lesson observations. Once a teacher thinks that they may be judged, they will play safe and avoid risks, so the observation has little value as a learning experience.

You want your teachers to be comfortable in opening up and discussing their own and each other’s practice as peers, regardless of their levels of experience.

After three years of regular engagement in peer learning, our teachers were ready to move on to an authentic model of lesson study – something that Japanese teachers have engaged in for more than 100 years.

This will involve a group of teachers planning a “research lesson” that is then taught by one of the group, with the remaining members observing and evaluating.

As leaders your key investment is to give your teachers regular opportunities to plan and engage in these types of collaborative learning activities.

5, Coaching

We enable every teacher to have a deep understanding of coaching, through regular opportunities to coach and be coached. Coaching is the glue that binds us all together as thinking teachers in a thinking school. Within a culture of high challenge and high trust, teachers will present the key challenges they face in their current role and be coached to reflect on them so they arrive at key actions that will work towards a solution. Through regular coaching opportunities, your teachers will become more self-reflective and solution-focused.

So what?

As a school leader, you are only as effective as the staff you lead. The introduction of these strategies is designed to enable you to encourage deep teacher learning as well as their engagement in wider social learning across the school.

Through their continual engagement in these activities, we create a community of learners who are committed to their own professional learning. As a leader, it is not difficult to lead a team of empowered, self-motivated, self-reflective, critical thinking teachers and leaders.

In each school I have led (three different schools) I have implemented these strategies to support school improvement. The first school I led had been graded “requires improvement” and was one of the lowest performing schools in the local authority.

However, the same teachers that had been told they “required improvement” were the same teachers that led the school to be graded “outstanding” and to be awarded the Mayor of London’s Schools for Success Award for five consecutive years. They had become thinking teachers.

  • Dr Kulvarn Atwal is the head learning leader at Highlands Primary School in Ilford and Uphall Primary School in Barking. He is the author of the books The Thinking Teacher and The Thinking School (John Catt Educational). Find Kulvarn @thinkingschool2

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