Crossing the Line

Leadership Challenges for those who embark upon the journey of taking a whole school approach to the Teaching of Thinking.

These key issues and observations really arise out of my own focused reflections centred around the practicalities of starting the journey of taking a whole school approach to the teaching of thinking, together with continuing to develop as a ‘Thinking School’.

For many schools, this will necessitate embarking on a period of breath-taking cultural change in a climate of what can only be described as hyper-accountability. At a time when distributed leadership is rightly held up as a vital characteristic of genuine improvement, the importance of strong and determined team leadership can be inadvertently overlooked. The pursuit of developing as a ‘Thinking School’ is certainly not a ‘soft’ option. Senior Leadership Teams (SLT), ‘Drive Teams’ and leaders at all levels will need courage and resilience in huge quantities in order to secure the successful realisation of this vision.

Please reflect on the contradiction of the role of a leader in this context, almost a paradox! In a sense it’s no different to the challenge of any other form of leadership, be it year team, department, platoon or supermarket but the context is a bit different. It’s this. You are your own school’s biggest fan, supporter, marketer and advertiser, ferociously protecting staff, students and resources from incoming attacks. You are also its biggest critic and not only look for problems but see opportunities to improve when those around you think everything is OK. This drives your attitude and workload and, depending on your ability to influence, that of your close colleagues.

That constant striving for improvement is why these leadership posts exist and primarily why people in them are often unpopular, especially when the rest of the team think everything is fine. The most effective leaders at this level distribute leadership in ways in which other people start asking those same awkward questions (the people you lead should be looked upon as your potential successors when you move on), rather than (just) getting on with ‘their jobs’. You will be under phenomenal pressure to go native and join the rest of the crowd who steer away from this sort of whole school initiative, a real risk for people who are promoted internally to lead on cognitive education. Of course, you will need to handle it all with humour, aplomb, dignity and a marked and dutiful caring-for-others manner but recognise it when it happens. You need to have no higher aim than asking – and acting upon – those difficult questions. No activity is as important, not admin, completing a task, seeing someone or even teaching, important though they all are. In fact if one isn’t careful we can end up doing any of those things, plus a lot more, as displacement activities, avoiding those oh so difficult conversations with someone who isn’t on board!

Of course, what it really means is that, whereas a traditional leader might see their first loyalty as to their team, yours is to the children and that can cause tensions. A huge part of our role, therefore, is to ensure other team leaders think and operate in the same way.

Obviously, every situation is different but there are things to watch.

Unless you have a specific issue to address, the following make a good starting point.

  1. Reputation. How do we present to the public, parents, partners, people who will be quick to detect any weakening or sign of us being ineffective?
  2. Behaviour – children
  3. Behaviour – staff
  4. Teaching and learning.
  5. Wider ethos eg extracurricular
  6. Everything else.

If the low placing of Teaching and Learning surprises you (particularly as taking a whole school approach to the teaching of thinking has this at its core), it’s because, without the other three, it won’t thrive. We need to recruit pupils/students, we need them to be able to learn and we need staff to be focussed, professional and consistent, otherwise just about everything is a waste of time and effort. When we get 1, 2 and 3 in place then we can set about developing Teaching and Learning. Underlying a cognitive approach is the notion of teacher as the ‘Mediator of Learning’. This, too, is not a ‘soft’ option. It differs from being a facilitator who creates a particular environment through the introduction of various tasks and then steps back – this would place the teacher in the role of ‘guide on the side’. Rather, the teacher, as mediator, intervenes directly and skilfully in ‘real time’ at key points where children’s learning falters. In this way, the teacher ‘meddles in the middle’ to bring learning to life. So, Mediated Learning can be described as the art of helping someone to explore their world.

As Parker Palmer once said in the title of his book, you need ‘The Courage to Teach’. Never has this been more the case as when a school develops as a ‘Thinking School’.

Dr Dave Walters
Honorary Fellow, Exeter University Graduate School of Education.

Scroll to Top