The Thinking Teacher

'The Thinking Teacher' Book

Two years ago I was asked to to a lecture for the ‘Vision & Values’ course for Primary Education students at Plymouth University. What I was asked for was a ‘soapbox’ presentation of what I thought the purpose of education should be, what it is all about.

I had done this before when I was a school teacher as part of the Purpose/Ed campaign. Then I happily did so, confidently stating what I thought it should all be about. The second time the whole notion of the exercise didn’t sit with me quite so well. In the time between between I had moved from teaching in a school to a University, been exposed to a vast number of different people’s views of what education should be about, and myself questioned many of the assumptions I once held about it, many of which I had never even considered could be questioned.

This time I didn’t feel it was appropriate to tell the students what education should be, but I certainly had some experience of asking questions about the assumptions many of us hold in this area. The more I considered these, the more I realised I had questioned and examined over the previous few years, and the more I realised how important it is for teachers to do this kind of thinking.

Many years ago Postman and Wiengartner asserted that teaching should be ‘a subversive activity’; that teachers should encourage young people to question everything, to weigh up the assumptions that are explicitly or implicitly communicated to them about the world. Only then, they argued, could young people construct a world they wished to inhabit, by deciding whether aspects of what exists stand up to scrutiny, and for those that do not making the changes needed to subvert and improve them.

This has resonated with me since first reading their book, but as a teacher educator I was becoming increasingly aware of the numbers of assumptions about school and about learning that many students I worked with had never questioned. For the aims of ‘Teaching as a subversive activity’ to be realised, we first need teachers who are empowered and accustomed to ask these difficult questions, to uncover any unhelpful assumptions held about teaching, learning and society itself, and to construct rather than merely inhabit the field in which they work.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, reflecting on the experiences I have had as a teacher and as a learner that have made me question such assumptions. I’ve sought out models from other fields such as business, computer science and design and contrasted them with my experiences of learning and of teaching. These ideas have fed into the work I’ve been doing with student teachers since 2011, and my writing on this blog.

Some time ago I was asked to put these ideas together into a book, and last week ‘The Thinking Teacher‘ was published. It explores the importance of deep thinking for teaching and learning, provides some food for thought on various assumptions that are often held about education, and provides some contrasts and examples to think on.

Its aim is not to tell people how they should teach, but to encourage them to think really deeply about how they might teach.

The book expands on some topics I’ve blogged about before and includes many new ones. I was keen to not just publish a book of blog posts, and it was an interesting experience moving from short, fast moving pieces to a more developed stance that I felt fully explored my position on things without the affordances of real time publishing and instantaneous comments. That said, I’m keen for feedback, so keep the comments coming…

Thanks to those of you who have been reading this blog for some time, and especially those who have fed back and shaped the thinking that I’ve put together in this book. I hope it provides some food for thought…


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  1. Hi Oliver,

    I much enjoyed the book which was beautifully clear despite being informed by much scholarship and, of course, thought. :)

    There are many things one could discuss but I was particularly struck by the simple differentiation between ‘progressives’ and ‘traditionalists’ in education which arises from your discussion of Freire. Perhaps progressives are simply those whose aim is to educate people so that they can ‘shape the world rather than just survive in it’ and perhaps conservatives are simply those whose aim is to educate to preserve what we have.

    Of course, this still leaves open the question of how to achieve these aims and it is not clear that what has come to be called ‘progressive education’ is successful in achieving the progressive vision above – but that is a longer conversation!

    BTW, in trying to find the passage on Freire just now, I noticed that there is no index in the book. Possiblity of including one in the 2nd edition? ;)

    All best,


    • Hi Carl. Thanks for your kind words, I’m glad you found it an enjoyable read. I guess it’s all to easy to draw clear distinctions between such positions without acknowledging that ideological positions aren’t necessarily people. I was struck by the way Paul Ernest does this with his five ideologies- characterising them clearly allows for some interesting discussion, but ultimately real people’s opinions and beliefs can often be more complex.

      I don’t have a copy with me now, I am pretty sure the Freire section is in ‘Best practice or next practice’. Thanks for the index idea, I wasn’t sure it was needed for this type of book but you have just proved me wrong so I will look into it.

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