Why following them may still fall short of teachers’ needs

Five teachers sat in red armchairs collaborating. Shot from above. Parquet floor

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Is collaboration essential to effective professional development?

A consensus is emerging from numerous research studies about what makes teacher professional development (PD) effective. The Department for Education used the characteristics of effective PD, according to these studies, as the basis for its Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development. Many organisations now use similar sets of characteristics to design and evaluate PD activities.

A consensus is emerging from numerous research studies about what makes teacher professional development (PD) effective[1],[2]. The Department for Education used the characteristics of effective PD, according to these studies, as the basis for its Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development[3]. Many organisations now use similar sets of characteristics to design and evaluate PD activities.

However, we should be wary of turning these characteristics into a checklist. Many PD programmes have these characteristics of effective PD, but don’t lead to positive change. We should remind ourselves that PD is more likely to be effective if it has these characteristics, but we can’t be certain that any of them is essential in improving teachers’ practice, nor that combining them leads to greater impact.

Here are six characteristics that studies agree make for effective PD, what they really tell us, and what they don’t.

1. Collaborative

It appears that teachers working together makes PD effective. Through collaboration, teachers share ideas and challenge each other. But it isn’t always the case that PD must be collaborative to be effective. Many teachers experience PD as individuals, through reading or online resources.

In a recent critique of the evidence used in many studies of PD, Sam Sims and Harry Fletcher-Wood applied a helpful analogy: toothpaste is often flavoured with mint, and toothpaste is shown to reduce tooth decay. Does mint-flavouring therefore reduce tooth decay? No: the mint flavour makes the toothpaste more palatable so that people are more likely to use it. Similarly, collaborative PD may be more enjoyable and engaging, but this doesn’t mean that collaboration is a cause of effectiveness. A similar uncertainty about cause and effect might be applied to the other characteristics.

In a recent critique of the evidence used in many studies of PD[4]Sam Sims and Harry Fletcher-Wood applied a helpful analogy: toothpaste is often flavoured with mint, and toothpaste is shown to reduce tooth decay. Does mint-flavouring therefore reduce tooth decay? No: the mint flavour makes the toothpaste more palatable so that people are more likely to use it. Similarly, collaborative PD may be more enjoyable and engaging, but this doesn’t mean that collaboration is a cause of effectiveness. A similar uncertainty about cause and effect might be applied to the other characteristics.

2. Challenging through input from outside expertise

Outside expertise often brings fresh ideas, challenges existing practices and broadens teachers’ perspectives. However, input from outside experts varies in quality. In my own research I’m exploring how these PD facilitators develop and learn their practice. Facilitators combine their teaching expertise with other, less tangible, skills, such as building positive working relationships with teachers and modelling new classroom practices. My aim is to understand how we can support facilitators to learn and improve these skills, so that their input can be more consistently beneficial.

Outside expertise often brings fresh ideas, challenges existing practices and broadens teachers’ perspectives. However, input from outside experts varies in quality. In my own research I’m exploring how these PD facilitators develop and learn their practice[5][6]. Facilitators combine their teaching expertise with other, less tangible, skills, such as building positive working relationships with teachers and modelling new classroom practices. My aim is to understand how we can support facilitators to learn and improve these skills, so that their input can be more consistently beneficial.

3. Subject-specific

Subject-specific is more likely to be effective than generic PD, presumably because it relates more closely to teachers’ classroom practice. However, defining ‘subject’ is not always straightforward. For primary teachers and teachers who work in special schools, ‘subject’ covers multiple areas of practice. Instead of thinking in terms of subject, PD must be contextualised in each teacher’s own classroom practice. For example, while all teachers in a school might attend PD focused on metacognition, each teacher should then be supported to implement new strategies in their own classroom practice.

A teacher in a classroom with bookshelves in the background

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Focus on the individual to ensure better PD outcomes.

4. Supported by school leaders

Teachers and school leaders need to buy-in to the intended outcomes of any PD activity. School leaders sometimes use generic, whole-school PD as a way of meeting school development aims. One reason why this is less likely to be effective is it lacks contextualisation, as mentioned above. Another is that teachers may not support the intended outcomes. It may not be the development that those teachers need at that time. Teachers have different learning needs at different stages of their careers; we should develop better systems for identifying individual learning needs and matching them with appropriate PD.

5. Active

PD is more likely to lead to changes in practice if teachers are able to experience new techniques and apply them in their classrooms. But only if an input leads directly to a change in practice, and learning is more complex than this. Many inputs from PD don’t lead to changes in practice while some changes in practice occur without any formalised input. So, rather than focusing on changing practice, PD could aim to change teachers’ beliefs about teaching. This is a more useful way of thinking about ‘active’ PD, since changes in teachers’ beliefs are more likely where teachers apply their learning, trial activities and evaluate evidence of changes in pupil outcomes.

6. Sustained

Sustained PD is more effective than a single event. However, teachers often change their practice following a single conversation with a colleague or a resource picked from an online resource bank. We shouldn’t insist, therefore, that all PD activities involve multiple sessions; this is not always necessary. Remember that each professional activity teachers engage with, from their own reflections on their lessons to long-term programmes of PD, forms part of their ongoing learning. PD should be seen as a sustained process, made up of multiple activities, not as a single event.

Ditch the checklist

Teachers have varied development needs that change throughout their career. We could improve our approaches to PD by focusing on the teacher, rather than on the process. If we can build effective systems, which help teachers to identify their individual learning needs and support them to respond to these, we may find we have significantly more impact on the profession. In teaching, we don’t reduce classroom activity to a checklist of ‘what works’; instead we draw on our deep understanding, knowledge and skills of subject knowledge, pedagogy, communication and our relationships with individual students. In professional development we should do the same.

Emily Perry is deputy head of the Centre for Development and Research in Education, and head of the Funded Knowledge Exchange for Sheffield Institute of Education

References

[1]J H van Driel, A J Meirink, K van Veen and C R Zwart, Studies in Science Education, 2012, 48, 129 (DOI: 10.1080/03057267.2012.738020)

[2]P Cordingley et alDeveloping Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development, 2015: tdtrust.org/about/dgt

[3]Department for Education, Standard for teachers’ professional development, 2016: /bit.ly/2RCfKMv (Accessed 1 December 2018)

[4]S Sims and H Fletcher-Wood, Characteristics of effective teacher professional development: what we know, what we don’t, how we can find out, https://improvingteaching.co.uk/characteristics-cpd/, 2018

[5]E Perry and S Bevins, Professional Development in Education, 2018, DOI: 10.1080/19415257.2018.1474489

[6]E Perry and M Boylan, Professional Development in Education, 2017, 44, 254 (DOI: 10.1080/19415257.2017.1287767)