When CPD works well it really benefits teachers, pupils and whole-school improvement. It is absolutely at the heart of school culture and practice and in an environment with challenges around budgets, recruitment, retention and, as always, where pupil achievement is vital, ensuring that CPD is done effectively is paramount.
Through my work at the Teacher Development Trust, I have the privilege to visit lots of different schools and see their CPD programmes, as well as take part in lots of conversations around CPD.
A theme that comes up again and again is around choosing one’s own CPD. Many teachers have waxed lyrical about how their CPD used to be very “top-down”, whereas now they have a smorgasbord of options to choose from.
Of course, individuals should have ownership over their own careers, their interests and their priorities in work. Yet when you’re putting together a whole-school CPD programme, it is not easy, nor necessarily value for money, to offer all the options that people have expressed interest in. Particularly in the context of reduced budgets, how do you balance practicalities, school priorities, pupil needs and teacher needs?
Avoiding ‘top-down’ CPD
If a CPD process is ineffective, one of the most common complaints is that it was irrelevant. For a CPD process to have an impact on pupils, it needs to be driven by pupil need and closely linked to the classroom and context of the teacher involved.
Top-down CPD risks not being closely linked enough to the specific needs and pupils within an individual’s classroom.
While whole-school data and leadership can often identify key themes across a school that should inform a CPD programme, it is important that there is an opportunity to break this down and contextualise different aspects of these themes so that an individual’s CPD is relevant and linked to their pupils.
A positive learning culture
In addition to relevant CPD, for someone to learn effectively and to change their practice, it is also important for there to be a positive learning culture. Culture can be hard to define and be a bit of a catch-all term, but there are a number of factors that can help enable a positive learning culture.
Teachers should feel encouraged to innovate in their practice and should feel safe for things to go wrong. In order to change your practice and understanding, there needs to be an element of challenge and new thinking.
Exploring and experimenting with this needs to be a safe process. Even approaches with the strongest of evidence bases will work differently in different contexts and may need to be adapted and refined. This will only happen in an environment where that is understood and celebrated.
Similarly, any assessing or monitoring of teachers should be done in a low-stakes way. We know that lesson observation grades are not an effective way of assessing teachers, but feedback from developmental observations, pupil feedback or reviewing of pupil work can help inform your professional learning, when done in a non-threatening environment.
How CPD is perceived also contributes to a positive learning culture. If your prior experiences of CPD have been negative, you probably don’t appreciate how powerful effective CPD can be. Where there is a vision and an understanding of the power of CPD, teachers are more likely to engage well with the process and there is more likely to be a positive learning culture.
Giving teachers choice can be a positive contributing factor to that culture. It places value on their professional judgement, it can help build trust, as well as helping enable relevant CPD. Avoiding top-down CPD and handing over choice to individuals seems a positive thing, so what are the limitations?
What does the research say about choice?
In 2015, the Teacher Development Trust commissioned the Developing Great Teaching report, a review of international evidence around what makes effective professional learning, conducted by an expert team of Professors Steve Higgins and Rob Coe of Durham University, Philippa Cordingley of CUREE (Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education) and Professor Toby Greany of the UCL Institute of Education.
The report suggests that “whether teachers are obliged to participate or volunteered to be involved mattered less than a number of other factors” in a professional learning process.
For example, whether teachers are “conscripts” or “volunteers” doesn’t matter as much as a positive learning environment, provision of sufficient time, and how the professional learning fitted in with their classroom and school context.
This certainly shows that choice is not an essential to powerful professional learning. We also know that if we were to provide absolute choice, you could end up with an extremely expensive model of offering all things to all people.
So how do we keep the cultural benefits of choice, the relevance that comes with choice, while also balancing school priorities and making a feasible and focused CPD programme?
Facilitating pupil-focused CPD
Probably one of the few things that all staff will have in common across a school is the pupils’ interests. I find it hard to believe that any teacher does not want to see their pupils succeed. If a CPD programme is truly driven by pupil need, then whole-school priorities are met, alongside the issues which teachers are most motivated and driven by.
Identifying pupil needs can be a tricky business, however. While whole-school data can give us a big picture, departments, teams, individual teachers and pupils themselves should feed into the process, to get a full picture of needs. Teachers should be supported to identify specific needs within their classes and pupils, and should be able to feed these into line management conversations.
Similarly, at a department level, there should be discussions around specific needs around the curriculum, so that middle leaders can collate particular needs within their subject.
This should then be collated alongside any key whole-school themes, which are clearly communicated with staff. This full process can help enable a programme that balances all of these, where staff have had input and have driven the process, but are also able to appreciate the different priorities for their pupils and why a few key ones might have been prioritised.
We know that powerful professional learning entails a sustained and iterative focus over time. This inevitably means we can’t cover all that we might like in just one year.
It is therefore likely that a few key themes are selected. From within these, staff should be able to identify and select particular areas that are most pertinent for them and their classrooms.
Of course choice has its place. Professional judgement and variety between different classrooms and experiences has to be appreciated. However, it is most important to enable a positive learning culture, a shared vision and a professional learning programme that is really driven by pupil needs within your own context and classroom.
- Bridget Clay leads the TDT Network at the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for professional learning in schools. She is a former maths teacher and works with schools on developing their CPD processes. Follow her on Twitter @bridget89ec and the charity @TeacherDevTrust.
Developing Great Teachers, Teacher Development Trust, June 2015: http://TDTrust.org/dgt