Skip to content

Blog post

The thinking school: Why we need teachers and children who can think

Kulvarn Atwal, Head Teacher at Highlands Primary School Kulvarn Atwal


The thinking school is one in which staff learning is seen to be as significant as pupil learning. The simple premise for the development of this dynamic learning community is my belief that the greatest influence upon the quality of pupil learning experiences in schools is the quality of teaching, and that the greatest single influence on the quality of teaching is the quality of teacher learning. The promotion of a thinking school is based upon the development of a learning environment within our schools that maximises opportunities for both formal and informal teacher learning.

‘The promotion of a thinking school is based upon the development of a learning environment within our schools that maximises opportunities for both formal and informal teacher learning.’

We need thinking schools because we need to reconceptualise the roles of both teachers and school leaders. When I visit a classroom, I am interested in the extent to which the children and teachers are engaging in deeper thinking about their own and others’ learning.

Communities of practice

During my career in teaching, I have always had the belief that there is a significant anomaly in schools: in the very institutions that have learning as their core business (schools), staff learning is undervalued and underutilised. I took the opportunity to study the quality of learning environments in other institutions and industries, and I was introduced to workplace learning literature. This introduction changed my perceptions. I developed an understanding of the value of informal learning, and decided that I wanted the learning environment for staff in our school to be more expansive. I looked at the example of a hairdressing salon, in which all members of staff are continually reflecting and evaluating their practice – they have the potential to be creative, work collaboratively and engage in informal and formal dialogue about their practice.

The dominant model of theorising about learning in workplace learning literature is centred on a social and participatory perspective. Central to Lave and Wenger’s (1991) work is the social community, and the processes, relationship and experiences that underpin participants’ feelings of belonging and how these influence their workplace learning. Some school environments are more supportive and conducive to teacher learning than others. Higher-achieving schools have a greater capacity to support teacher professional learning because of a greater emphasis on the development of conditions that promote social capital, such as trust, opportunities for collaboration, and networking.

Leaders within a school are in a position to make decisions that can have a positive or negative impact, both in terms of conscious decisions to provide formal learning opportunities and of unconscious decisions that promote a positive learning environment. Examples of these activities include opportunities for observing others, mentoring and coaching, collaborative working, and opportunities to take risks and make mistakes (Marsick, 2009; Evans, Hodkinson, Rainbird, & Unwin, 2006).

The dynamic learning community

Through my research, I identified key factors that potentially impact upon the provision and implementation of teacher learning activities in schools. I detail these key factors within an overarching definition of a ‘dynamic learning community’. Key features of this model include specific teacher learning activities that can be implemented in schools to support both formal learning opportunities and encourage informal learning activities within the promotion of a positive and expansive learning environment. Examples of activities include: opportunities and time made available for teachers to undertake research; teachers selecting their own focus for professional learning that is related to pupil needs and their own practice; collaborative working in pairs and teams; and non-judgemental lesson observations. To enable this model to work successfully, it is imperative that teacher learning is led by learning-focussed leaders who are able to work in partnership with teachers and contribute to learning activities.


A recent international study on the teaching profession (Schleicher, 2015) has discussed how teacher learning approaches have remained the same despite constant changes to conceptions of pupil learning and the skills required for students to contribute effectively to society. Schleicher (2015, p9) argues that the following three key ingredients are required to create a responsive 21st century school.

  1. Teachers confident in their ability to teach.
  2. A willingness to innovate.
  3. Strong school leaders who establish the conditions in their school that enables the former two ingredients to flourish.

At a time of significant change and challenge in schools, particularly in terms of the recruitment and retention of staff and expectations for pupil outcomes, we need to think differently about what teachers need. By truly developing our teachers within an expansive and collaborative learning environment, our teachers will have the confidence to innovate and develop their practice. The aim is to develop a dynamic community of lifelong learners, staff and children within a ‘thinking school’.


Evans, K., Hodkinson, P., Rainbird, H, & Unwin, L. (2006). Improving Workplace Learning. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marsick, V. J. (2009). Toward a unifying framework to support informal learning theory, research and practice. Journal of Workplace Learning, 21(4), pp. 265–275.

Schleicher, A. (2015). Schools for 21st Century Leaders: Strong Leaders, Confident Teachers, Innovative Approaches. International Summit on the Teaching Profession. Paris: OECD Publishing.