This article first appeared in SMT Magazine on May 11th, 2012.
In these days of tight budgets and external pressures to improve, it is more important than ever for schools to get the most out of their continuing professional development budgets.
When professional learning is carried out well, it is the most effective tool for raising pupil attainment, closing gaps, and improving morale. Every member of senior leadership should see it as a priority, not just the CPD coordinator, because research shows that leadership time spent encouraging and participating in professional development is the most effective at improving pupil outcomes. Here at the Teacher Development Trust we’ve been scouring the international research and best-practice to identify the key features of the most effective CPD.
The overarching principle is that good teacher learning is similar to good pupil learning. We know that for children to learn effectively we shouldn’t lecture at them, make them blindly follow rules without any understanding, or assume that they’ll understand everything first time. We know that instead we should carefully assess what they already know in order to build on it, give them plenty of chances to practice with opportunities for peer and expert feedback, and ensure they have a clear understanding of the overall direction of learning. The same is absolutely true for teachers. Here a some examples of ways to build a culture of professional learning within your school.
1. Identify the needs and offer choices
Use your school and departmental development plans and a synthesis of performance review data to identify a few areas for development. Keep the focus on pupils’ learning needs at all times. Identify specific groups of pupils and specific learning goals rather than teacher behaviours. For example, ‘develop ability of year 6 to self-assess and improve written work’ is better than ‘improve quality of marking and feedback given to year 6’ as it is a more open-ended and engaging task that allows teachers develop their own ideas and approaches. Let staff work with a peer to decide which aspect of the goal they want to tackle first.
2. Identify the expertise
Once the aims are clear, you can now identify sources of knowledge and expert feedback. Staff may wish to locate research papers, books, videos, expert colleagues in other schools in your partnership or other departments, consultants or courses, or perhaps explore the excellent sources of information and support available on Twitter. It’s vitally important to find one or more people who can provide coaching, observation and detailed feedback – this is often the missing piece of the puzzle that turns mediocre CPD into something highly effective. You could find an experienced teacher within your school (or a nearby school) and/or search our free online database http://GoodCPDGuide.com/ for consultancy and courses. GoodCPDGuide has teacher reviews of courses and will soon feature official quality ratings from CUREE.
3. Encourage collaboration
If you can encourage teachers to work together in pairs to support each other through the learning process then it becomes much more powerful. Two people who both risk looking silly because they are trying new things and providing each other with a listening ear and moral support speed up the process of building trust and create an effective environment for taking risks. They might, or might not be working on the same goal – what matters is that they are both committed to sustaining efforts to make new approaches work, adapting them to their context and working out why things do and don’t work. Small groups of teachers can agree to discuss ideas, jointly plan lessons and assess work, and be another pair of eyes in a room when someone is trying out a new approach and wants to evaluate its effect on the pupils.
In such a group, members can take different approaches to gather knowledge, one might go on a course, another read some books, another might find a TeachMeet or use Twitter. Some staff may find it helpful to talk to a coach first so they can more accurately reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses. Group members can share ideas and build their understanding together, while referring back occasionally to the expert who can keep them on the right track, provide encouragement and head off any misconceptions.
4. Sustain it
In order to effectively address pupils’ learning needs teachers need to keep practising, adapting and refining their new ideas regularly, for at least two terms and ideally longer. As a rough guide, the time spent identifying needs, training, discussing, experimenting, observing, reflecting and adapting should be at least 30 hours per participant. Any less than this and you risk the ideas being adopted only superficially, and any improvements in learning being lost when the focus shifts. This may sound like a large amount, but it underscores how effective CPD isn’t a set of tricks and rules but is a deep-rooted long-term learning process.
5. Lead it
Leading CPD means establishing the conditions for staff learning to flourish and providing the resources and encouragement for staff to continue the difficult process of change while under the endless pressure of everyday teaching. It absolutely doesn’t mean imposing fixed structures or methods. One of the best things you can do is to encourage staff to question everything and to collaboratively solve problems. Demonstrate that the school leadership values learning and experimenting just as much as ‘outstanding practice’. Ensure that senior managers involve themselves in collaborative enquiry and learning with all other staff, as equals, and that they take a lead on inviting others into their classrooms to help them adapt and improve their practice.
An effective culture of professional development values flexibility and creativity, fostering a belief that it takes persistence and courage to work through the hard process of changing established practice but that everyone will do it their own way. If staff are going to take the necessary risks needed to challenge their own beliefs then the culture of empathy and support must permeate from the very top of the school right down to every member of staff.
Fundamentally this is a very different way to view a school than the target-driven, top-down approach of creating mandatory approaches to teaching, but it is one that even Ofsted is looking for. As Sir Michael Wilshaw recently said, “good management is secondary to good leadership of teaching, [and] leadership of teaching cannot be done by remote control. […] There should be no compulsion, one size rarely fits all.”