Four steps to organic CPD


The call for a reshaping of CPD in Scotland has been getting steadily stronger. Former national CPD co-ordinator Margaret Alcorn gives her four strategies for success in developing the right learning culture in your school.

How has your CPD been recently?

Over the years, I have grown weary of spending too many hot afternoons at CPD sessions in dusty rooms being told things that it seems I need to know by “experts”. 

Often the expert has some really interesting ideas, and a very engaging manner of delivery, but I have usually forgotten the key messages within a few days as routine and the day job takes over. It can sometimes feel a bit like a visit to the local supermarket, where there are lots of choices on display but it is not always easy to find just the ingredients that will make your next meal memorable.

I think it would be great if all our CPD could be more like visiting a farmers’ market – lots of fresh organic quality products grown locally by people you know who will respond to direct questions about how to use the product to best effect.

Our engagement with professional learning has come a very long way in Scottish education. We have benefited from major investment in lots of different aspects of professional development, from Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), through probationer induction, Chartered Teacher, modern languages in the primary school, leadership development programmes, and so much more.

By now we should be reaping the benefits of all of these significant investments, but it seems we continue to fail to shine internationally and the gap between those who perform well and those who do not stubbornly persists, and indeed on some evidence is growing. 

Teaching Scotland’s Future

We are making progress, just not enough and at too slow a speed. Our teachers have never worked harder, but could it be that we have persisted with cultures of learning and models of development that have failed to bring about the transformational change we need as a nation? A close reading of Teaching Scotland’s Future, the report published last year setting out the findings of the review of teacher education, suggests that new ways of going about our CPD might be overdue. 

Teaching Scotland’s Future recommends that we need to learn smarter. For example our national bodies regularly invite teachers to large-scale events where educators are given information and examples of “best practice”, even though there is little evidence that such events improve educator practice. It is a bit like a sheep-dip – teachers are rounded up, told what they need to know/do/change, and then sent back to school to get on with it.

Reshaping our CPD

We need, says Teaching Scotland’s Future, to reshape our models of CPD and to focus on the impact it has on the learning of children and young people, rather than on any other “satisfaction” rating. By this standard, “organic” CPD, developed locally, using team approaches to learning, is far more likely to be successful. 

The best CPD starts with informed self-evaluation as a basis for learning collaboratively with colleagues. It supports teachers to “own” their CPD and to develop personalised and tailored individual development programmes in the context of their school and authority improvement plans. And the good news is that good CPD does not always equate with expensive CPD. It seems we are just at the start of a period of austerity in terms school and authority education budgets, and we must develop ways of learning that are affordable and sustainable and that still have the necessary impact on pupil learning. 

Successful learning schools already know there is wealth of knowledge and skill in every staffroom in Scotland, and the challenge is to celebrate, harness and develop this. 

The key to success lies in developing a culture of shared learning across and between schools, with teachers sharing responsibility for outcomes for all pupils. Teachers of mathematics learn with and from teachers of PE and vice versa. A pupil who is doing badly in English is understood to be the concern of colleagues in science. The S5 teacher is supported, guided, coached by the S1 classroom assistant, and the French teacher learns from the strategies used by the S4 teacher.

And so – here are my four suggestions for strategies for success in developing this kind of learning culture in your school community or centre.

Step one

Within your school, or within your local neighbourhood or cluster, create opportunities for educators to watch each other teach, as often and in as many contexts as possible. 

Where you can, make it possible for the observation to take place in groups of two or more, as the discussion on practice that follows will be so much richer, focused and more professional. Remember that really great discussions do not need more than short observations, ideally in two or more subject or stage areas.

Step two

Strip out the hierarchies and ban the use of judgement or of evaluative language. Disallow statements that comment on the quality of the learning episode, and instead ask teachers to consider what the learner was doing and saying that demonstrated learning, and what the teacher was doing and saying to support learning.

One of the benefits of this approach is that educators quickly develop a shared understanding of effective practice and build a language to describe and discuss this; another is that it builds a genuine sense of collegiality as teachers see the quality of what is being offered just a few classrooms away from their own.

Step three

Get the professional review and development (PRD – or whatever name you know it by!) process really working in your school. Make PRD into a year-long coaching relationship in which colleagues collaborate to find ways to improve the learning experience of pupils. 

Prepare by reflecting on what aspects of your learning in the previous year has really made a difference to the pupils you teach, and produce evidence to show the gains that have been made. Discuss with your reviewer how you can use this to build your professional capacity and skill, and be clear what support you require to achieve this. 

As a reviewer look carefully at the evidence you are given and be prepared to use coaching strategies to support your colleague in a relationship that lasts throughout the year.

Step four

Get yourself into the exciting world of technology. There are resources, support, learning opportunities and exciting and interesting challenges on Glow. Use Glow’s CPDFind to identify opportunities to learn in a way reflects your individual needs.

Use Twitter to contact like-minded colleagues in other parts of Scotland who may have solutions to the issues that are challenging you. Our pupils are skilled users of social networking; as 21st century educators we really do need to keep up.


If we are to emerge stronger from the severe financial restraints that lie ahead, we all need to hold fast to a strong and unrelenting focus on the quality of teaching, with the very best CPD. We may have to say goodbye to the days of big conferences with “expert” speakers, but I am pretty sure that new and innovative home-grown, organic development opportunities are more likely to lead to the transformational change we all seek.

  • Margaret Alcorn was a teacher for many years and was the first ever Scottish national CPD co-ordinator in 2004. She is now the convenor of SELMAS (Scottish Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society) and is working with colleagues as a consultant to support leadership development in schools and authorities.

Further information
Teaching Scotland’s Future:


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