Great leaders grow great teams. It’s a self‑evident fact of effective leadership and also one that is supported by research. Professor Viviane Robinson’s seminal review identified five key leadership activities that are most likely to improve outcomes in schools; leading teacher learning and development was, by some way, the highest impact leadership focus.
Ensuring staff have opportunities to develop in their practice and career also has an important impact on levels of staff confidence, motivation and job satisfaction. It makes sense: if 70-80 per cent of your budget will be spent on staff salaries, ensuring those same staff are supported to do their best and develop, is a simple way of ensuring a good return on that overall investment.
But what are the best strategies to take when arranging both external and internal professional development opportunities for your staff? Earlier this year the Teacher Development Trust, with support from TES Global, commissioned a review of the international research into effective professional development for teachers. We wanted to know: what is the focus and content of the professional development that has the biggest impact on pupils?
The review’s findings explore not only what schools can do internally to best support staff, but also the types of external support that schools should be commissioning. Taking time to understand these principles and embed them into your decision making processes and management of CPD, will ensure that you avoid wasting valuable time and financial resource on opportunities that are unlikely to improve student outcomes, and focus instead on providing effective, sustainable support to all staff.
Student focus The key finding from the report was that carefully-designed professional development activities with a strong focus on student outcomes have a significant positive impact on pupils’ learning. This is an important principle: if we want teacher development to have an impact back in the classroom then our review shows that trainers, facilitators and participants must all be explicitly focused on making a difference for students.
The big question for every participant is: “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?”
Many school leaders will already be using aggregated student data to inform decisions around the foci 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 or support. 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. Support teaching staff and teaching assistants to strengthen their understanding of the needs of certain students and groups of students in their classrooms using both quantitative and qualitative data, and to map this onto areas for development in their own practice. 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.
External support Part of effective learning is being exposed to expertise that is greater than yours. Our review showed that some form of external expertise played a key role in the most effective professional development programmes.
Key knowledge and understanding: helping teachers to understand the professional knowledge base in the chosen area, giving information both about theoretical underpinnings and practical application, linking theory and practice together to help participants develop their understanding of why and how various practices work, and linking the chosen practices to an understanding of how students learn.
Modelling and coaching: demonstrating practices and underlying thinking, helping teachers to plan and implement these in their own practice, observing this and providing feedback, and using a coaching approach to ensure that teachers are always encouraged to be autonomous, confident users of techniques and ideas.
Building relationships: developing a trusted relationship with teachers which allows openness and risk-taking with sufficient constructive challenge, acknowledging that professional learning and changing practices may be hard and even emotional at times, and creating safe and constructive collaborative discussion between peers.
Challenging orthodoxies within the school: demonstrating what has been achieved elsewhere in similar contexts with similar pupils, suggesting new ways of tackling problems, inspiring and challenging staff to raise expectations and confidence levels.
Strategic decisions must be made around the types of external support that you commission. Just as with internal processes, engaging with external support requires an investment of time, materials and financial resource. Some schools perceive this as a barrier to engaging with external expertise and therefore limit such opportunities for staff.
The commissioning process should begin with a clear idea of the benefit that is sought. Our research review suggests that if you are looking for sustained impact on teaching and learning, you should be looking at a more sustained and long-term engagement with expertise. This could perhaps be through engaging an external consultant or booking on a multi-part course which extends over a number of months.
Once the focus, scale and scope of the provision has been determined, schools should conduct a search of the available provision, comparing providers by: how effectively they can tailor any provision to participants’ needs and provide follow-up support; how they can support the school to evaluate the impact of their support and how they support participants to improve their formative assessment skills in order to evaluate their own impact; how their content and expertise aligns with the research evidence base; The evidence they have of impact at other schools, reviews of customer satisfaction.
Schools can make this search easier by using a CPD database such as http://GoodCPDGuide.com. This can also help to compare provision, cost and impact of different providers in order to maximise value for money.
Internal processes Successful professional development is a marriage of the right expert input with the right internal processes. External support (e.g. a course) without the right investment in appropriate internal time and process is a waste of time, as is a great internal process without good external support and challenge. Our review showed the following aspects are crucial to effective CPD: Time, collaboration, leadership, ownership and formative assessment.
Time: for any expert input, teachers need time to diagnose and identify a clear area of focus before-hand, and time to plan, teach, observe and reflect upon lessons that implement the ideas afterwards.
Collaboration: the most effective professional development involved teachers working together to solve pedagogical/learning problems. Do not underestimate the challenge of successful collaborative professional working. In the same way that students require scaffolding and training in order to conduct effective group work, teachers need clear support and guidance in order to avoid wasting their time in a well-meaning talking shop.
Leadership: effective teacher development requires leaders who actively champion and prioritise it. Leaders should be constantly seeking ways to remove other burdens and barriers which may get in the way of successful professional learning, examining any new and existing initiatives critically for its impact on CPD. Successful leaders talk about their own learning and create a trusting, professional culture where learning is celebrated, expected, and championed.
Ownership and formative assessment: the most effective professional development gives responsibility to participants for improving themselves. In particular, teachers need to be supported to improve their formative assessment skills, through asking ‘what tools/questions/activities can I use to explore whether this approach is having the required, sustained impact on learning?’ This is a markedly different approach to training teachers to use an approach and then using high-stakes observation to check whether they are doing it right.