In this head-to-head, Tessa Matthews argues that CPD isn’t sufficiently subject-specific. You can read Alex Quigley’s counter-argument in defence of cross-curricular work here. This is one of the articles in our National Teacher Enquiry Network Easter 2013 newsletter (sign up here).

Tessa is an English Teacher in a UK secondary school. This article originally appeared on her own blog page

Having read so many blogs this week on evidence based teaching and the abundance of ‘snake oil’ in the profession; I thought it would be an opportune moment to discuss CPD. CPD has the potential to make effective teachers even better, to expand our ideas and to move us forward in the profession. However, if CPD sessions are laced with ideas that are not evidence-based, we run the risk of embedding bad ideas further into our teaching methods. This blog will be split into three parts. Currently, the ethos of CPD at my school surrounds student centred learning. I want to argue that the move away from a teacher-led approach at my school is moving our attention away from practices that enable all students to obtain a deep understanding of concepts. Instead, emphasis is being placed heavily on how to engage students in lessons, which can often be to the detriment of the learning. From my experience, this approach is preventing CPD from having impact for the following reasons:

  1. It is not subject specific.
  2. It does not promote teacher-led instruction.
  3. It assumes that learning skills are more important than knowledge.

It is not subject specific

Often, school CPD sessions are targeted at those pesky members of staff who continually get “requires improvement” ratings in lesson observations. The school I work at was in special measures until last October, the quality of teaching being Ofsted’s biggest bug bear. Our Head believes that good teaching is the key to school improvement and has the biggest impact on results, meaning that a huge amount of time and resources are spent on improving it.  The approach, however, is grounded in the idea that what works for one teacher in a given subject can be adapted so that it works for another teacher in a different subject.  

What does this look like?

A typical CPD session at my school would be run by an outstanding teacher, who had been given a particular focus (last week’s was on ‘active learning’, for example). A number of members of staff are asked to go, but anyone can attend. The session on active learning was run by an outstanding drama teacher, and in it he shared a number of active learning techniques he uses, and we shared our own. This was followed by a general discussion about how we could adapt these starters in our own subjects, and why they might be effective. The objective of the session was to give people ‘easy to use’ ideas that they could take away and use in their own classrooms the next day. The ideas are all supposedly good because they help ‘kick start’ the lesson and engage learners, allowing more progress and deeper learning to happen.

Why is this ineffective?

I don’t teach drama, nor did anyone else that was in the room other than the leader of the session. His ideas were fine, but they were only fine for teaching drama. An example was to use drama warm up activities, such as ‘hot seating’ to allow students to explore the feelings of the characters in the play they are studying. This is well suited to a drama lesson, where the objective is to get students to put themselves in the shoes of a character. This is less useful for a maths lesson, where the objective is to teach students how to rearrange equations. And yet, we spent about twenty minutes discussing how we could shoe horn this activity into our own lessons and subjects, regardless of whether or not it would actually deepen understanding. One suggestion, from a science teacher, was that he could ask a student to ‘pretend to be Pluto’ and ask the other students to question him about how he felt now that he was no longer considered to be a planet. Surprisingly, I was the only person who laughed when she said this. She was entirely serious.

If we avoid thinking about the objective of the lesson, and instead try to think of ways to put the pupil at the centre of the lesson, we are not training our teachers to teach better, we are merely training them to teach in a particular way. The focus on pupil centred pedagogy rather than teachers delivering content moves the emphasis away from what to teach, meaning that teachers dedicate more energy than necessary to activities that aren’t useful in helping students to meet the objectives of the lesson.

At the planning stage, the teacher needs to be considering what they want the students to be thinking about during the lesson. After all, if Willingham is right and ‘memory is the residue of thought’, that ought to be our priority when planning. Discussing activities whose sole purpose is to engage students in learning and to ‘get them curious’ may detract from this key idea. Let’s go back to that science lesson idea, what was the rationale behind using such an activity? The science teacher wants to learn from the drama teacher, and the reason he is consistently graded ‘Outstanding’ is because he regularly uses activities that put the students at the centre of the lesson, leaving him on the side lines, watching the learning happening. Any observer could be forgiven for thinking that this is an example of deep understanding because the students are able to work independently. The science teacher wanted to be able to implant this activity straight into his lesson, so that he too can step back and allow the students to ‘do the learning themselves’, rather than stand at the front of the room lecturing them for an hour.

Now, the activity I mentioned, that of asking a student to pretend to be Pluto, certainly does put the pupil at the centre and requires the teacher to step back and allow the learning to happen organically. But what would the students be thinking about during that activity? They would more than likely be thinking about Pluto as a character, a being with feelings and a consciousness. This does not match the intentions of the lesson and prevents students from achieving the actual objective, which I assume is to learn something about planets, but what would I know?

As a consequence of this type of CPD, lots of teachers that ‘require improvement’ (Ofsted’s words, not mine) are being told to do the wrong things, because they desperately want to be ‘Outstanding’. We are spending far too much time obsessing over ways to take the teacher out of the position of ‘instructor’ and to put the pupil at the centre, working under the belief that this will enable deeper understanding to occur. The kinds of activities I describe above, that are often discussed at CPD sessions at my school, are not engaging students in learning at all. Rather, they are engaging students for engagements sake.

The teacher is an expert in the content of the lesson, and would be able to impart lots of wisdom about Pluto. However, in the example I have given above, the students are at the centre, and are not thinking about what the teacher wants them to be thinking about. The inexperienced teacher does not know this, and needs better guidance as to how to make real, rigorous learning occur. What does deep understanding in science look like? What would an A* student know about Pluto? How can I make sure that my year 10 class leave this room with that deep understanding? How can I communicate it to them effectively?

These are the questions we should be asking when we plan lessons, and when we train others to plan lessons. I don’t think a non-science specialist would be able to answer these questions, hence the need for subject specific CPD. By using ideas from other subjects, we are focusing too much on how to make the teacher more of an ‘enabler’ than an ‘instructor’, meaning that less time is spent trying to ascertain what deep understanding of a particular topic looks like.

Tessa has continued to blog on the theme of CPD here and here.