When I visit schools in my consultancy work or teacher-trainer role, I usually pick up on signals that indicate to me something about the school’s attitude to professional learning. Sometimes I’m blown away by the energy and commitment to it and I feel my input has a chance of feeding into something with impact; sometimes I leave feeling that staff have a relatively rough deal and that my input might not go very far. It’s an important thing to get right and yet often doesn’t quite get the top-line focus it warrants.
There’s a huge evidence base around effective CPD – whether from Deans for Impact, CUREE, Teacher Development Trust. There’s a lot of material out there from David Weston, Harry Fletcher-Wood, Philippa Cordingley, Ambition Institute and many others – but schools often have a long way to go to implementing key findings in a sustained way.
There are various complexities and competing tensions and only so much time:
- Alignment with whole school priorities vs specific needs and interests of individual teachers.
- Short-term improvement vs longer-term development
- Generic common practice vs specific curriculum issues
- Experienced/expert teachers vs teachers needing structure and support
- Building on internal expertise vs drawing on external expertise.
- Finding time for each area: curriculum, teaching, assessment, behaviour and safeguarding
Schools providing what I would regard as ‘great CPD’ seem to manage to weave these things together, recognising that professional teachers can’t and won’t improve their practice unless they themselves are driving the process; enabling every teacher to assimilate ideas and evidence about teaching and learning with their existing values and sense of self in order to construct a plan of action that they then follow.
What are the signs? Great CPD might have some of the following elements:
- A process that introduces and supports a commonly understood model or framework for effective teaching and learning, with a language everyone recognises, rooted in evidence about how learning works across different subject domains.
- A calendared structure with a rhythm: teams meet at regular points across the year, within the directed time limits, and everyone knows when the next meeting is where professional learning will take place. This places an emphasis on a sustained focus on key areas of practice, not one-off tricks and tips to take or leave.
- Most CPD time is given to people working in their core teams – year or phase teams or subject teams. Most issues in CPD have a curriculum basis and this is recognised. Whole-school processes are kept lean, to reinforce the common purpose, common agenda and shared understanding – but the major leg-work is done in teams.
- Each individual teacher, if asked, could articulate what their personal improvement agenda is whilst also recognising the school and team agendas and the links between them. Teachers have a sense of ownership of their own CPD whilst understanding the wider context of collaborative whole-school improvement.
- CPD content focuses on students’ experience and outcomes and not just teacher activity. It’s about how the things that teachers do support learning and provide a great curriculum experience.
- Teams are asked to devise their own versions of whole-school policy frameworks – assessment regimes, feedback policies, teaching and learning protocols – moving away from rigid whole-school genericism or the default of cascading from the top down.
- Structures support on-going collaborative review and development: triads, quads, pairs – nimble groups that meet regularly to discuss a common set of ideas, generate feedback, offer mutual support and a sounding board informed by details of the context.
- CPD outcomes are celebrated and shared explicitly – a journal, a conference, a market-place style showcase, a carousel of presentations – some form of dissemination to raise awareness of the ideas colleagues are engaging with.
- The expertise of staff is harnessed to deliver CPD sessions, to provide models of effective practice, to coach and mentor others, to disseminate important ideas filtered through a lens that recognises the school/college/curriculum context.
- There’s a process of developing deeper expertise whereby all staff or even a small nucleus of staff are engaged in reading research or books, attending external conferences and subject events, visiting other schools – any number of activities that allow them to improve their understanding of what is happening in the profession beyond their immediate context.
What are the signs that CPD might be weak?
- Time frustrations are evident: people don’t know when the next meeting is – or if they have one; time is begged and borrowed at inappropriate times of the week in short bits without time for follow-up or reflection.
- Too much meeting time is wasted in procedural matters; most official CPD time is whole-school or is determined centrally – perhaps via pre-set generic workshops – not owned and driven by teams. People associate CPD with being given instructions.
- Ideas about effective teaching and assessment are elevated from principles to ‘non-negotiables’ and teachers feel constrained and imposed upon, breeding cynicism and building resistance.
- There’s too much of the ‘tricks and tips’ show-and-tell stuff with 3 minute briefings or tips of the week – relative to sustained focus on a few core areas that teachers work on week on week.
- The reality of accountability processes or appraisal/performance review is at odds with the language suggested by the CPD leaders. Teachers adopt ‘speed camera’ attitudes rather than seek to change their habits – because that’s how the structures and culture motivate them to behave.
The models of great CPD are out there. It seems to me that the first step is to decide that it matters enough – then it’s easy to make the case that you need to do whatever it takes to put a great model in place.