The Thinking Teacher

By: Oliver Quinlan


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Size: 182 x 222mm
Pages : 160
ISBN : 9781781351086
Format: Paperback
Published: January 2014

Whilst good teaching is widely reported as the number one key to raising achievement in any classroom, educating teachers in the art and science of teaching is an expensive business. Simply training them to deliver a curriculum, on the other hand, is a whole lot less troublesome. But we need teachers who can think - who can reflect on the process of learning, on pedagogy, on the nature of children and on the role of the professional 21st century educator and, in doing so, seek to improve their profession on a daily basis.

When we genuinely help our teachers develop into being better thinkers we help our children to become better thinkers too.

For teachers in primary or secondary schools who want to think deeply and question the way they do things.

Picture for author Oliver Quinlan

Oliver Quinlan

Oliver Quinlan is an educator with experience from Early Years and Primary to Higher Education. His background has involved developing the use of new technologies and pedagogical approaches based on authentic communication with children and new and existing teachers. Since being a school teacher, Oliver has been a Lecturer in Education at Plymouth University and Programme Manager for Digital Education at Nesta, working on innovation projects in Education. He is currently Research Manager at The Raspberry Pi Foundation.

Listen to Oliver's US interview with Mr Dad (the interview starts at around 12.27 mins in).

Click here to read Oliver Quinlan’s blog.



  1. “Education is a field built from principles,” writes Quinlan in the first chapter to this refreshing and readable text.

    This 150-page book offers a largely theoretical discussion that, as the title suggests, aims to get educators thinking about the principles that inform and underpin their professional teaching practices and that improve learning outcomes.

    Early on, Quinlan argues for professionally qualified teachers. He writes: “Ask yourself whether, if you had something important that needed to be done, would you rather a professional or an amateur undertook it?”
  2. When I think back over the last ten years or so and some of the excellent training I have had the privilege to have received in that time I realise that the people who had the biggest impact on my own practice were not those who imparted great chinks of knowledge but those who made me think about things in a different way. And thinking about things in a different way is a stimulating and motivating learning experience.

    In a time when there is much debate (and indeed much heated debate!) about what makes an effective national curriculum and what makes an outstanding teacher Oliver Quinlan's book is a timely reminder that one of the most effective things we can do as a teacher is not only to develop the thinking skills of our pupils but develop and apply our own thinking skills. If you are looking for a book which gives you ready to use lesson plans and worksheets then this is not the book for you, as whilst those books have their place, they do not ask us to stop and reflect on what we do and why we do it. If however, you are looking for a book which is thought provoking and gently challenges you to re-evaluate your own practice then look no further.

    Quinlan leads us through various aspects of the whole complex business of education. Why do we ask students the questions we do and do those questions make them things about things differently? How important is memory in the learning process? Why are you a teacher? What kind of a teacher are you? What are the ideologies that influence and inform your teaching? Are we using technology in a way which enhances learning or are we using it -˜just because it is there?' What do we mean by the term -˜best practice' and is one person's -˜best practice' the same as another's? How can the world of finance and business inform the world of teaching? And what is the purpose of education anyway?

    If I was a headteacher I would ask all my teachers to read this book and then use a staff meeting or inset to debate some of the questions and points that Quinlan makes. It's only by doing that we are ever going to progress as educationalists and further enrich the learning experiences of our students. As Quinlan says -˜Thinking matters' and we all need to strive not just for -˜best practice' but -˜next practice'

    Quinlan writes in a very easy to read style (I read a chapter a night and then reflected on what he had written and how it related to my practice as an educationalist) and coming in at less than 150 pages it is an easily digestible book. A small book but an important one. Go on, give it a go. You might just end up thinking about something in a different way. And that might cause you to do something in a different way. And who knows, maybe your students will start thinking about things differently too! Changing educational paradigms begin right here.
  3. Oliver Quinlan makes an impassioned plea in this manifesto for teachers and school leaders everywhere: don't stop thinking. He makes a convincing case that making time to think is not just the key ingredient of great learning, it's also in the makeup of our top teachers.
  4. I was recently sat at the back of a Secondary School classroom in a middle-Eastern country waiting for the lesson to start. Why was I there? I was on a fact-finding mission to inform me of what might be needed for a curriculum development project I had been commissioned to undertake. I had asked to meet key stakeholders: education ministers, funders, teacher-education college lecturers, school teachers and students. The ministry was suspicious of me wanting to go into a school -” they had asked me to write curriculum materials to a brief for teachers to -˜deliver', why would I want to consult with teachers, more so students? They relented as I had argued that it would help me create better materials if I understood the audience. So here I was and the teacher walked in to start the lesson, powered up the EWB and started by going through his intended learning out comes point by point. My heart sank, I could well have been in any classroom in England. The lesson was good in many respects, but formulaic and predictable. There isn't anything wrong with learning objectives, learning outcomes and success criteria per se, just their mechanical use often leads to uninspiring teaching and passive learning. Let's have some more thought from teachers beyond the obvious. I was thus intrigued to receive -˜The Thinking Teacher' to review.

    -˜The Thinking Teacher' is not a -˜how to' book, indeed Quinlan notes that “there is no one model of a highly effective teacher, no one set of things that these people do to make things happen”. There are many good teachers who achieve good results by following a tried and tested repertoire of teaching approaches. Quinlan argues that what separates the truly great teachers from the good ones is that they truly understand learning and the different forms it can take; they spot opportunities for encouraging it in ways that they were never taught to do. These are the individuals who can adapt their teaching to the changing world that young people are in; these are the individuals that move teaching forward. These teachers think for themselves and get their pupils to think for themselves too. I could not agree more.

    The book is divided into twelve chapters each exploring an aspect of schooling with intriguing titles such as “All you need is love”; “Technology as a mirror” and “Learning as becoming” but with a consistent argument: teachers should reflect on their own practice and students should think for themselves if their learning is to be deep and meaningful. In chapter two, Quinlan asks “What kind of teacher are you?” and explains that how you define yourself as a teacher is one of the most powerful areas to think through. Rehearsed are the typical tensions between progressives (characterised by Dewey as being more interested in expression, the cultivation of individuality and interacting with the world in a way that prepares young people for participation in a changing world) and traditionalists (who see education as the transmission of a body of knowledge and skills formulated in the past). Quinlan argues in his book that asking questions that we already know the answers to simply reproduces the world as it is, or was, but by asking questions that we do not know the answers to can lead to change -” either a change in how we interact with the world or about how we think about the way it works. Indeed the argument of chapter six is that replicating “best practice” is not good enough as this is a retrospective exercise, rather we should strive for “next practice” i.e. the best practice of tomorrow.

    There is a thoughtful section on reflection and references to Donald Schon's concepts of -˜reflection on action' and -˜reflection in action' which are now standard as part of the curriculum in many teacher-education institutions, and most teachers are encouraged to continue learning from their practice by reflecting on it afterwards and considering how they could move forward in terms of developing students'. I also like the discussion of how much information we should supply learners to help them formulate problems and come up with solutions. There is a strong argument to give learners -˜spaces to think' and the use of silence; Quinlan writes: “Imagine what would happen if when you asked a question you met the answer with silence. The result could be similar to providing thinking time before choosing a member of the class to answer”. 

    Following Mick Waters' excellent book “Thinking Allowed on Schooling” (2013) we now have another -˜must buy' book for the thinking teacher: “The Thinking Teacher”. Following the same theme, Quinlan gets the reader to move on from thinking of “learning as acquiring to learning as becoming”, in other words he is advocating a classroom based around students becoming participants in the subject rather than possessors of certain, closely defined slices of it. This shift in thinking transforms a subject from a collection of knowledge or skills to be gained, to a field of discussion, a community and a space.
  5. This is not a teaching manual. It's not a guide to help you impress your SLT, or Ofsted. There are no checklists or worksheets. And you'd struggle to place it one side or the other of any of the either/or debates about education that are the current focus of so many pedagogues and politicians.

    Quinlan doesn't have an axe to grind, nor a method to sell -” he simply wants all of us involved in education to pause and take some time to think, properly, about what we're doing and, perhaps more importantly, why. Through a series of gently challenging essays, he questions ingrained assumptions, suggests avenues of mental exploration, and encourages honest, open reflection. There are some practical ideas you could try out in your own classroom, but the main aim of this book is to inspire you to develop yourself as a -˜thinking teacher', who will naturally help to nurture thinking children, with the skills and aspirations to shape a truly successful and fulfilled future.
  6. -˜If we want thinking children, we need thinking teachers,' says Oliver Quinlan at the start of his book. He's dead right - and systematically and skillfully he shows us what that means. The result is a book of considerable depth, yet written with a lightness of touch that makes it eminently readable. For me, now approaching my thirtieth year as a teacher, I learnt a huge amount that was new and was nudged to rethink ideas that I have for too long taken for granted as the only way of doing things. Like all the best education books, this one left me genuinely excited about my work as a teacher and thoroughly refreshed in my own thinking.

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