The Thinking School, by Dr Kulvarn Atwal

Why I read it – during the staff wellbeing research project I ran last year, my colleague Rachel and I were interested in Self Determination Theory, and one of its three pillars in particular: autonomy. We wanted to explore how, in professions with high accountability measures, you could still enable staff to thrive by giving them autonomy. I then heard about Dr Kulvarn Atwal on Twitter, and he kindly invited us to his school. We posted a blog about that visit here, a wonderful day hosted by Kulvarn and the fantastic Sandy Kaur. But the book is a must-read, too, for anyone who wants to consider how to help their staff thrive with trust, autonomy, and a commitment to learning.

In summary

Dr Atwal observes that to have a ‘thinking school’, everyone must be doing just that. Thinking, contributing, and learning. But often, a lack of learning culture, collaboration or autonomy means that staff don’t feel empowered or enabled to contribute to the whole-school journey, or to develop their learning. He suggests that the thinking school is one in which everyone is responsible for learning and teaching.

Much of the book focuses on how schools can move away from traditional approaches to CPD, and to make ‘teacher learning’ part of everyday culture. I’ll do my best to capture the ideas and enthusiasm, but keeping up with Kulvarn’s charisma and energy is tough!

Key takeaways

Most of my takeaways arise from the 8 activities that are suggested to create a dynamic learning community. That section of the book is wonderful and I really recommend you read it.

  1. Collaborative learning and working – Atwal cites research (including his own doctoral work) and interviews which suggest that teachers value working together in groups, as an effective and empowering form of development. In his school, Atwal’s staff gave me many examples of how they had split off into groups to work on research projects, joint planning, and similar, with trust and autonomy being the wind in their sails. It has made me rethink how schools can foster collaborative work across different teams, focused on curriculum planning, research projects, extra-curricular activities, student learning… the list could go on, but as Atwal says, it will develop a positive culture and high investment from staff.
  2. Coaching – one of my favourites ideas from the book, and the school itself, is that every staff member (not just teachers!) are given the opportunity to be coached, and to become a coach. The evidence behind coaching is exhaustive, but when the whole school is committed to the reflective and non-hierarchal nature of coaching as a form of development, it really can be something special.  
  3. Development: choice and time – the traditional model in school CPD (apologies for the generalisation) has been a CPD/INSET session one afternoon a week, where a member of staff has planned a programme for staff. There may be sign up sessions to offer some diversity, and in recent years, more evidence-informed practice. And CPD seems to be genuinely improving. But, The Thinking School asserts that we need to give teachers more time to learn, and we need to stop providing one-off sessions, which are often unrelated to the previous. Atwal gives teachers choice over what they learn about, the time, tools and encouragement to engage with research and conduct their own research, and even funding to execute these ideas or complete a masters; his staff are passionate about their development, and usually plump for learning centred around their classroom practice, which they then feedback to the whole staff, to have an impact on the learning of other children. Again, I met teachers at his school who had an idea about something they wanted to improve or learn about, let’s say reading assessments for example; they then had the autonomy and time to research and learn, test out their ideas, collaborate with other staff in the school, and then feedback. There was a tangible buzz in the air because the staff knew they were in control of their development, and in turn, how they could impact the children’s learning. I could say so much more, but I really suggest you read the book or speak to Kulvarn!

Favourite quote

‘Without autonomy you leave your brain at home’

Okay, I’ve cheated here. This quote (unless I’ve missed it) isn’t in the book itself. Rather, it was one of the opening quotes from Atwal when he presented to Rachel and me at his school. In our high pressure, high accountability-culture workplaces, sometimes we work relentlessly to do a good job in the systems that exist around us, without navigating beyond those. But when you work somewhere that encourages autonomy and empowers you to learn and work with your own ideas, it can foster a deep sense of purpose towards what you do. I may be wrong, but I think everyone wants to go to work, the work that they believe in, and use their experience, ideas and knowledge to make a big impact; they want to use their unique gifts to contribute in their own way. That’s what The Thinking School encourages, and I found that both challenging and inspirational.

Of course, when we are given autonomy, there is no guarantee of success, and no tried and tested route map if you pursue an original idea. But if you work in an environment that trusts, supports, encourages, empowers, and collaborates, it brings out the best in everyone to face challenges with togetherness and solutions.

Favourite moment

In the Leadership chapter, Atwal discusses a phrase that he uses throughout the book: ‘high challenge, high trust’. His vision is that the thinking school will be an environment where the staff work relentlessly hard to make sure the children get the best deal, but the mutual trust between them means that open dialogue is part of everyday life. Staff collaborate with leaders when writing new policies, leaders invite staff to contribute to ideas and initiatives. Some might comment that this seems like a boat without a rudder, but they would be mistaken. The leaders in a thinking school lead with integrity and trust; inviting staff to contribute isn’t a form of weakness, it encourages diverse thinking, loyalty, and greater staff buy in. Again, having witnessed this in Kulvarn’s school, it is thoroughly refreshing. Staff are encouraged to burst in with an idea, knowing that Kulvarn will talk it through with them (always asking first how it will benefit the children) and give them the chance to try it out and then evaluate.

Question and reflect

  • Do we commit enough time, energy, resources and autonomy to staff development? How can we encourage staff to embrace and love their pursuit of learning?
  • Schools are busy places, but we can give a much larger role to collaboration across departments, year groups, etc. – collaborative projects and CPD can build trust and positivity, and also unite diversely thinking groups.

Read this if…

You want to embrace autonomy within your workplace

You are looking to explore new ways of fostering long-term development of staff

Find the book here

Further reading:

Last year’s blog post on the NFER report on Teacher Autonomy

The Teacher Autonomy report itself from the NFER

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