Embracing thinking schools

Written by: Dr Dave Walters | Published:

Palliative care won’t do – the cure for education’s ills could well lie with the thinking schools movement, says Dr Dave Walters

Teacher unions are rightly championing a reduction in teacher workload and flagging up the negative impact of the audit culture on recruitment and retention in the profession.

The audit culture also receives attention from Ofsted’s new framework proposals which look set to place assessment and evaluation firmly in the frame.

But some schools have already morphed into micro-inspection machines, where teachers spend more time assessing than teaching, and leaders spend more time monitoring and evaluating than leading and modelling good practice.

I once heard a deputy head refer to his “AIR folder” as he proudly showed me around his office, which was littered with charts, graphs and spreadsheets. AIR stood for “Always Inspection Ready”!

But there is another way: thinking schools.

At the centre of their approach is the use of a common “thinking language”, which is used in each subject, by each teacher and by each pupil, irrespective of age.

Thinking schools use visual tools (specifically designed diagrams) that help transform information into knowledge. By “seeing” their thinking structured and clarified, students become aware of the different thinking processes involved. The theory is that this leads to deeper learning and the development of higher order thinking skills, such as analysing, evaluating and creating.

Thinking skills are not an education programme, they are about an attitude to learning as much as they are about the tools and strategies of developing thinking.

Becoming a thinking school demands the creation of a whole-school culture that constantly strives to develop independent learners through thinking and self-improving behaviours.

A thinking school skilfully weaves assessment into its practice so that it becomes the servant of the curriculum rather than the master.

Too often, the curriculum is perceived as being about timetabling and exam subject choices. In fact, we should be examining the pedagogy of how best to encourage youngsters to embark on a journey of lifelong learning with a thirst for developing new knowledge, skills and understanding.

It is this love of learning that surely is our ultimate aim for our children and lies at the heart of a whole-school approach to the teaching of thinking.

Take the issue of closing the gap for disadvantaged students, a goal I fully endorse and support. I am horrified to see many of them being withdrawn from lessons to get “hot-housed” in subjects where they are perceived to be underachieving. Worse still, many students feel labelled as disadvantaged.

Renowned education academic Professor John Hattie has identified that there aren’t many things we do to children in schools that don’t impact positively on their achievement (although some things yield more impact than others).

But labelling, he points out, “is a killer”! Conversely, Prof Hattie places cognitive (or thinking) approaches in the high impact category for achievement and engagement in learning.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the mental health of children and school staff is causing concern. The government’s recent move towards placing mental health specialists in schools merely manages the issue rather than striking at the cause (like a painkiller that alleviates symptoms, rather than a skilful surgical procedure).

Surely, it would be better to develop a culture in our education system in which psychological wellbeing flourishes. Clearly, we need to support staff facing challenging circumstances and we must hold inadequate performance to account.

However, if this serves merely to overload those who are left, we have an unjust system. Consider the practice of not timetabling certain teachers with difficult groups in an effort to achieve “damage limitation” by deploying more effective staff to the more challenging groups.

And in too many schools, an already overworked middle leader or deputy takes on the responsibilities of abdication rather than delegation from their line-manager by picking up issues outside their remit in order to keep things running smoothly.

In both cases there is a fine line between getting the job done and over-relying on the stalwarts to the detriment of their mental health. A thinking school is where the whole school community looks after one another.

Embedding authentic change through influential, humane leadership devoid of ego and embracing of trust, collaboration and a resolute belief that all children can achieve as a result of passionate and creative teaching must surely feature.

The power of the few in the form of “drive teams” can really make a difference when it seems as if everything is insurmountable, and their composition should permeate into recruitment and succession planning. The right people matter.

If we are to truly move from what is best described as a palliative approach to curing education’s ills, then we need to empower those who teach and lead our children.

Only when we make this shift will we move educational development from the palliative to the curative by actually getting underneath the issues outlined here.
In a thinking school, leaders and teachers take on the role of researching professionals in order to drive change for the benefit of all students by evaluating what works best for their own unique context.

By adopting a whole-school approach to the teaching of thinking, perhaps we can transform our schools into the ones that really address the issues raised here.

After all, the definition of a thinking school is one that is an educational community with core values and purpose, where people think deeply about what they are doing, where there is lots of collaboration, where practice is evidence and research-informed, where high achievement in the widest sense is evident, and where the psychological wellbeing of the whole school community flourishes.

  • Dr Dave Walters is a former secondary school deputy head and is research director of Thinking Matters, an organisation that supports schools to use a pedagogy which enables students to master a range of thinking skills and intelligent learning behaviours. Visit www.thinkingmatters.com

Thinking Schools

The Thinking Schools accreditation is run by the University of Exeter. For more details, visit http://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/education/thinkingschools/


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