Recent research suggests that school leaders can design high-impact CPD that helps improve outcomes. However, the report, Developing Great Teaching, goes on to suggest that this needs staff buy-in and needs to focus explicitly on student learning.
The most common criticism of professional learning in school is that it is “irrelevant” or a “waste of time”. Equally, leaders of CPD often struggle with wanting to “personalise” professional learning, while also trying to meet whole-school needs.
We know that professional development for all staff is one of the most effective ways to improve outcomes for all students (Robinson et al, 2008). In a New Zealand study, classes where the teachers had taken part in high-quality professional development were improving twice as fast as those in other classes.
Even more startlingly, the 20 per cent of pupils who were deemed the “least able” made improvements four to six times as fast as their peers in other classes. We also know that effective professional learning has also been shown to build teacher morale.
So how can something that is so important feel like a waste of time to staff?
Teachers are almost always going to be pushed for time and schools are almost always going to be feeling pressure to improve. However, these two things should not be in conflict; teachers’ work, teachers’ motivation and schools’ performance are all linked in with pupils and their outcomes. Pupil outcomes should be the driver behind all teacher development, meeting both the needs of the teachers and the needs of the school.
Improving the focus
Research clearly shows that the most effective professional development focuses on specific areas of pupil learning or behaviour, rather than simply aiming to change the way the teacher practises.
For example, “improving history essay structure for English as an additional language pupils through targeted use of formative feedback” rather than simply “improving assessment for learning” leads to more focused professional learning which makes it easier for the participant to evaluate and refine their approach.
It is important to try and help teachers and staff see the link between the CPD they are taking part in and the impact it will have on their pupils.
However, when we look at the Teacher Development Trust’s (TDT) national “trip advisor for CPD” database, TDT Advisor, we see a large number of courses that are based around practices for teachers.
This is mirrored in the approaches we see in schools, where CPD programmes tend to focus on techniques that teachers use, or the way they perform. This is at odds with the strong research base on professional development which shows that, if you want students to benefit, you need to link each activity to specific learning goals (ideally subject-based) for a defined cohort of students.
The trend to judge teachers’ practice as generically “good” or “outstanding” has compounded this issue and led to a proliferation of “How to be Outstanding”-type training along with generic lectures on “feedback” and “questioning”.
Our best schools have ditched these labels and are designing professional learning that starts with clear identification of learning issues and spends time diagnosing the underlying causes. They then proceed to identify techniques that may help to deal with these issues.
So what are schools doing to ensure that professional learning is driven by pupil need?
Addressing students’ needs
First, it is important to communicate clearly the school priorities to staff. For example, Blatchington Mill School and Sixth Form, after going through our TDT Network CPD Audit process, now clearly communicates their target groups of pupils and all staff now identify which group of pupils will benefit from the CPD in which they engage.
In addition to communicating general pupil trends, it is also important that colleagues can identify the needs of individual pupils and feel that their professional learning is relevant and pertinent to the specific pupils they teach.
Many school leaders will already be using aggregated student data to inform decisions around the focus for professional development – but is this always done in the most useful way?
Whole-school, headline, quantitative data only tells part of the story for students’ learning needs and can only give a high-level overview of the areas that would benefit most from additional resource
If a cohort of pupils appears to be underperforming against chosen targets, on average, then we realise that action must be taken. However, this analysis reveals vanishingly little information about the specific issues and needs for individual pupils that teachers need to address.
Similarly, it seems tempting to use observations of teachers as a key data-gathering technique to inform professional development plans. Not only is this, on the face of it, a logical approach but it is also very common across the sector.
However, research is increasingly calling this into question. It seems that observation is very helpful as a developmental tool, for dialogue and discussion, but much less so at gathering reliable information about how successful the teaching is at improving learning.
Indeed, our review findings would suggest that if professional development is explicitly focused on improving an observed teacher practice instead of being focused explicitly on addressing a pupil need, then it is less likely to be effective at improving outcomes for students.
Instead, why not consider how you can use richer, more granular data from closer to the ground. As a result each member of staff and their line manager will have an in-depth, contextualised understanding of their professional development needs, which can then be fed upwards to identify trends and ensure a balance between whole-school and individual development needs – all the while maintaining a focus on the specific and varied needs of students across the school.
This is best met through very focused and sustained development, such as through teacher enquiry or Lesson Study.
Lesson Study and teacher enquiry
Fawbert and Barnard’s Primary School in Essex engaged in the TDT Network to implement Lesson Study within their school. With our training and resources they have enabled staff to collaborate on a very specific pupil issue, to research around it and to evaluate the impact of their approach.
The basis of Lesson Study is to observe pupils and their learning, rather than teacher practice, ensuring that professional learning is driven by a real pupil need. This also can allow staff to be focused on specific case study pupils in their class and their specific needs, but also to balance with school priorities.
For example, teachers may be focused specifically on the vocabulary used by students in their class, which also ties in with a broader school focus on literacy, reading and writing.
In addition, schools are taking it a step further to include pupils in identifying their needs and how staff may meet them. For example, TDT Network member Skipton Girls’ High School in Yorkshire carried out enquiry into their practices and ensured that pupil input and feedback was a strong driver for their professional learning.
As a school leader, it is possible to identify overall trends in pupil outcomes, and for this to inform any planning of professional learning. However, as a leadership team it is not possible to identify pupils’ specific needs in specific classes.
It is crucial that staff can and do identify these for themselves, and are supported in using these pupil needs to direct their own professional learning. The big question for colleagues engaging in CPD should be: “If I improve my skill and understanding in this area, which pupils will benefit and how will I check to see how well this is happening?”
- Bridget Clay is the network programme manager of the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for professional learning in schools. Visit http://tdtrust.org/