Planning Professional Learning: One system; three streams.

There’s lots of superb discussion going on at the moment about the nature of professional development in schools and colleges. It’s great to see. In my day-to-day work, I engage with this all the time, encountering a wide range of approaches, attitudes and levels of confidence. Some places have mature systems supporting self-driven teachers embracing research engagement in a deep way; others are strongly driven by a centre-defined set of ‘non-negotiables’ and a firm monitoring culture; others are way down the road towards embedding systems of instructional coaching- a direction of travel I strongly advocate as in this recent post. Others are still firmly stuck in thinking primarily in terms of what to deliver on the next all-too-infrequent INSET day and what the lesson observation proforma should have in it. Nearly always, people want the same things – motivated, knowledgable, confident, reflective teachers – but plenty of school leaders are not sure how to begin or how to keep things going.

My advice to people is that they need to think about this at three levels: Whole School/College; Teams; Individuals. Each level consists of a stream of activity that has a vital role to play and needs different kinds of thinking, different inputs, structures and supports to keep them going – whilst all forming part of an integrated whole.

The key to getting this right is to recognise the role each of these streams of activity plays in teacher development and not to be fazed by the complexity of it. As a school leader or middle leader, it’s important to recognise how teachers’ behaviours are shaped by their interactions in each of these areas, not to take things for granted (things don’t just happen because you’d like them to) or try to micromanage (you just can’t control all the variables).

I have a schema for what ‘CPD’ means whenever I see those three letters; expressed graphically, it looks something like this.

It might look complicated – but that is the nature of the beast. The job of leaders is to make sense of this array and create both the culture and the systems that support a web of interactions that lead teachers to improve their practice leading to improving students’ learning and achievement.

Individuals: It starts by recognising that teachers are individuals with their own combination of motivations, knowledge, skills and confidence levels. All CPD systems ultimately need to lead to teachers’ changing their habits. So – a central feature of any system has to focus on how ideas translate into models and actions for each specific teacher. This has to encompass the range from those teachers who are superbly effective as self-driven autonomous individuals to those who need very close support and guidance, not just at the initial training stage. There are many ways for this to be done, instructional coaching being just one of them.

Teams: The core units of teacher identity and collegiate activity in most institutions are teams: curriculum teams or year-group teams. Team behaviours have a massive bearing on how teachers engage with professional learning, in terms of motivation and culture but also technical expertise, the effectiveness of meetings, the priorities for CPD content and the nature of feedback. It’s often the most neglected area in my experience; even though teams are usually the great drivers of school improvement, the dynamics of CPD processes within team meetings and systems are not always explored and trained-for explicitly.

Whole-School: Finally, whole school processes are essential for keeping all the teams and individuals aligned, with shared language and common purpose – alongside some pragmatic efficiencies around sharing expertise. The trick is to select the nature of inputs that have most impact across the rest of the system. What is the purpose of a one-off session on an aspect of curriculum or teaching? It can’t stand alone; it must feed into the processes for teams and individuals and that can’t be left to chance. If, when people hear ‘CPD’, they immediately think of sitting in the hall for a mandatory presentation that they’ll dread or a pick and mix offering of disconnected sessions – something is wrong. CPD is not an event; it is an ongoing process – or at least it should be. Designing CPD is about setting up and maintaining these processes. One-offs are easy; it’s sustaining focus over time that’s hard.

With the three streams in mind, when you come to plan CPD, you need to plan what happens at each level and it pays to get the calendar out early to lock in the time for things to happen at the appropriate frequency over the year.

Whole School:

  • Shared, evidence-informed framework articulating the elements of effective teaching, curriculum design, behaviour management 
  • Alignment-building processes: shared goals; values; challenges; wider community of practice.  
  • Occasional Expert inputs on common themes

Why and when do we need people together to hear or discuss common ideas? Can this be done asynchronously or does everyone need to be in the hall? What are the themes we need to explore? Do we have the expertise in-house or do we need to secure some external input? (As Sims and Fletcher-Wood suggest, it’s the ideas that matter, not who delivers them). How do we support individuals and teams to engage with these ideas after the sessions themselves?


  • Curriculum-specific focus: curriculum design; assessment; teaching techniques. 
  • Alignment-building processes: team culture; shared language; common understanding of learning and achievement issues; immediate community of practice.  
  • Regular cycle of team processes run as CPD, responding to assessment information. 
  • Informal processes supporting sustained focus on key issues and problem solving 

What does it look like to run team meetings as part of CPD cycles, planned as a process rather than one-off events? Do we have a good rhythm eg fortnightly team meetings for CPD purposes? How do we use the time we have for maximum effect, exploring problems, identifying solutions and pushing ourselves forward as a group of individuals? Some teams have a superb organic culture with lots of ad hoc discussion such that the meetings are barely needed. However, this is hard to mandate or rely on. More often this just needs to be structured and planned. This table, for example, shows a suggested time-plan for a session following ideas from Dylan Wiliam’s Teacher Learning Communities model – and leaders of these sessions need training in how do them.

Like anything else, it takes time and practice and some people need more support than others. Some teams are genuine powerhouses of expertise in a school or college. Their leaders run great sessions; the agendas are well designed to improve learner outcomes and the culture is one of shared endeavour towards common goals, supporting consensus-building around a clear idea of how learning works in that subject or age-range. In others, leaders struggle with all of those things and they need much closer support and guidance. It’s classic territory for tight-loose balancing and it’s a mistake to treat all teams as if they are at the same point.


  • Individual teachers engaged in ongoing responsive process of reflection and practice, identifying problems and precise action steps.  This can be supported by a range of processes:  
    • Self –directed autonomous engagement with research, practice, data
    • Structured system of instructional coaching: each teacher has a coach engaged in cycles of planning and feedback over varying lengths according to needs. 
    • Triads and pairs: teacher groupings supporting reflection, feedback, sustained focus. 

As much of the literature suggests, ultimately teacher expertise rarely improves after the initial learning curve because habits become established and one-off CPD events just don’t penetrate. The work of Bambrick-Santoyo and Deans for Impact – as explored in this post – are must-reads in this area. CPD has to encompass the processes that teachers engage in week to week, between their team meetings, between any whole-school sessions…that drive them on, seeking to improve in the most focused and sustained way they can. For some schools this is pretty laissez-faire, albeit couched in terms of ‘trust’ and ‘autonomy’. In others, it’s basically driven by intensive SLT learning walks and feedback… a top-down approach. In other schools, sophisticated instructional coaching regimes are in place, with individual observations and action steps recorded at very regular intervals – eg using the impressive Powerful Action Steps platform. Other schools use peer driven approaches such as peer observation and triads – with varying levels of reporting back to leaders to keep them focused and rigorous.

One way or another, individual teachers’ professional learning needs attention as part of a wider CPD system. It can be helpful to track it all intensively, provided that the system mechanics don’t crowd out the actions themselves. (The core purpose of a CPD platform is not to allow the Deputy Head in charge to purr with satisfaction at the analysis allowing them to keep tabs on everyone, unless that supports better actions). There also needs to be scope to weave in access to external training – eg subject community courses, exam board sessions or visits to others schools – but it’s very old-school to think that CPD = planning attendance at courses; that’s just one tiny part of it. The in-house programme IS the CPD; that’s how it should feel. That’s how good it should be.

Take a look again at the crazy diagram: visualise those teams; those individual teachers; those whole-school sessions. Does it all fit together in a coherent way, each part reinforcing the other? Where are things going well? Where does it break down? What’s missing? Is there a strong shared language and model for learning that helps people to communicate about the issues? Does everyone understand their roles? Do you have enough internal expertise in each team? Does the accountability culture propel each stream positively, motivating people to move foward purposefully?

There’s a lot to consider and, where I see things going well, it’s where leaders really have taken this all onboard and each level of activity is given the attention it deserves. We often crave simplicity but at times you need to stare complexity in the face and make sense of it. Running a system that supports large numbers of adults to improve their professional practice is one of those times.


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