Andrew Day, the CPD Director of The Philosophy Foundation, discusses what does and doesn’t make effective CPD. This is one of the articles in the National Teacher Enquiry Network May Half Term Newsletter (sign up here).

I’d like to start with a question:

How can we become better teachers?

Some of the answers that have been suggested (not always by teachers) are: performance targets and rewards; teaching from a centrally-designed curriculum; higher qualifications and study; INSET sessions; plain old experience.  While all of these have their place, I am interested is something else, and I would like you now to answer a second question – as a way of getting an answer to the first:

How have I become a better teacher up until now?

One thing that I predict features highly on most people’s list is: help from colleagues.  So often a chance comment or lament in the staffroom is picked up on by someone else and sparks a helpful conversation, some tips, and some guidance.  We then put our friend’s ideas into practice and the next time she sees us, she says ‘How did it go?’.  We tell her what went well or badly and she responds again, suggesting further material or an alternative.  And what’s more, a year later we in turn will be helping another colleague, passing on that same advice, perhaps with a twist of our own, and perhaps not even remembering where we got the idea in the first place – so much is it embedded in our daily practice.

This informal process goes on in all workplaces, and most of us have gained a lot this way.  A culture and network forms around us through which we exchange our ideas.  True, there will be some people around you that are bosom buddies while others you learn from simply by determining never to be like them.  But the network is vital, and if people are cut off from it – because they have become isolated in their location or alienated from the group, for example – they feel the lack.

When I first became interested in the idea of professional development, and started to investigate some of the research, I found that the experience I described above is more or less a template for excellence in the transfer of skills.

One piece of research I found, Lieberman and Wood (2002), explored the connection between teachers’participation in networks and the transfer of practice between the teachers’ learning environment (eg a course they went on) and their classrooms.  One of the students in the study gave this description of why they had managed to implement what they had been taught:

“I found that the experience and support passed on by other teachers was much more valuable to me than any workbook [or] step-by-step method that had promised to be the quick fix.”

A problem then arises for someone like me, who is regularly asked to contribute to the CPD of teachers in the form of INSET.  Don’t get me wrong: I love doing them, because I like meeting teachers, sharing what I do, planting intellectual seeds, and… well, yes… because I do rather like the sound of my own voice.  No, the problem is that I am not sure what good they do for the participants.

I really try to make it relevant, to mix some theory with some anecdotes, to have discussion as well as instruction and I always include a few practical tips that teachers can take into the classroom the next day.  I hope this makes me one of the good guys.  But where the system falls down is that, however informed or inspired teachers might be when they walk out of the training room, there is no mechanism to continue these ideas into their daily professional lives.

Where INSET does work is to make people familiar with new ideas or get them up to date with statutory rules/best practice.  However, it doesn’t change what you do in the classroom.  Or to be fair: it doesn’t change it very much very often.

So does that mean we can all go home – or get back to our lesson prep – 90 minutes earlier on a Tuesday evening, forget about INSET and just leave it all to our wonderful internal network?  Unfortunately, one problem with the network is that the ideas that you are exposed to depend on the ones that exist in your own narrow circle of teaching colleagues.  And that would leave the direction of your development down to luck.

For this reason, we do need a CPD programme that makes use of external providers and ideas from other schools, industries and traditions.  But it needs to mimic our informal network as closely as possible.  Here are some of the features that make the informal network effective:

Access – we can find our colleagues quite easily

Two-way communication – we talk to our mentor as much as we listen

Time lapse – there are gaps between the stages of our learning, allowing us to process ideas

Flexible – your colleague/mentor will respond to your ongoing feedback, constantly altering their advice

Open – there is no pre-determined solution or agenda; let’s see what works!

Familiarity – your colleague knows you, your working environment – and often your class!

Here are two ways that we can incorporate these features into a CPD plan:

1.  Send one teacher out for full training in a new approach and then get that person to disseminate the ideas across the school.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that you get them to do one INSET for the others and it’s ‘job done’.  What it means is that after an INSET to introduce the main ideas, the teacher in the know needs to have a series of meetings with interested colleagues.  The meetings can be short – 20 mins of PPA time – and irregular but they need to happen.  Inevitably a lot of the progress will be made outside of this framework, as the people involved exchange thoughts over coffee and in the corridor, but – and this bit is important – the informal stuff will happen a lot more if there is an official process going on.

2.  Demand that CPD providers abandon the fire-and-forget model of descending on the school for a few hours and then disappearing in a cloud of exhaust; get them to put some thought into continuity.  No teacher or training professional worth their salt will claim that parking a group of people in front of a power point and ending with a few questions is a proven way of getting people to learn.  We wouldn’t teach our children that way.  With online communication so simple now, the least they can offer is a blog or forum for teachers to ask questions once they’ve tried to implement the new ideas.  What other lead-in and follow-up can they provide?  Can they visit the school again a few weeks later?

3.  Don’t insist that all teachers do all the new stuff.  When ‘development’ part of CPD refers to the organic growth process and so we should be considering what is right for each teacher to do next.  One teacher might be inspired and invigorated by story-telling or brain gym but those same techniques can end up being just one more club to beat another with.  That doesn’t mean that those other teachers get left behind; they can’t keep on opting out.  They need to find things that they want to explore – and hopefully share.

If you are the sort of person who makes these decisions, you may have a nasty feeling that some of these projects might cost more.  They will, if you compare them to the cost of doing something that doesn’t work.  Perhaps consider having fewer initiatives and CPD objectives than you have now but for the same budget that you have now.

If you are reading this as a teacher, you may not be the main decision-maker on some of these issues, but remember that headteachers need people like you, reading articles like this, and telling them which CPD providers you want next term.  After all, they have to get their ideas from someone too.

Andrew Day is CPD Director of The Philosophy Foundation, which delivers weekly philosophy sessions in schools and trains teachers in the classroom. He is co-author of Thoughtings, a book of thinking poetry for children. He has a degree in philosophy and social anthropology, which has been invaluable in teaching various things to people of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds – from inner-city nurseries to international banks. His next book, The Numberverse: How numbers are bursting out of everything and just want to have fun, is due for publication in 2014.

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