Being the 1% – what does it take to make CPD effective?

Barely 1% of training [CUREE] looked at was effectively transforming classroom practice.”
Teacher Development Trust

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It’s not often I lay claim to membership of ‘The 1%.’  On CPD, however, I’m optimistic – I believe our school’s programme of teacher development has overcome some of the flaws found in many schools and is helping teachers to transform their practice.

What’s wrong with CPD?

Doug Lemov has argued persuasively there are three main ways schools can better the standard of teaching: labour market strategies to attract and retain good teachers; incentives and performance management to reward good practice (or punish bad); and helping existing teachers improve.  He notes that most schools concentrate on the first two, yet the first is a zero-sum game – one school’s gain is another’s loss – while the second achieves little unless teachers’ improvement is supported.  As for the third:

Endeavors in the development category are often especially challenging, which may explain why they are less prevalent in the current conversation about improving schools.  Development strategies must overcome an established historical precedent of low-quality professional development offerings and resulting teacher skepticism.  They must win over teachers who are often suspicious when asked or required to attend development sessions.  (“I must be here because people question my work.”)

“Plus there’s the plain fact that we continue to have limited insight into what works — either in the classroom or in the training sessions — and how to support teachers in applying what they’ve learned in the training sessions to their classrooms. As a result, professional development often becomes an afterthought, with insufficient investment or consideration resulting in ineffective approaches. Thus, the most powerful management tools go unused and remain underleveraged.”

This goes some way to explain the phenomenon of teacher improvement plateauing, surprisingly early in most teachers’ careers (elegantly summarised by Alex Quigley).  Continuing Professional Development could, and should, help us to overcome this effect, but, as Professor Robert Coe observes:

We do not know a lot about the impact of teachers’ CPD on students’ learning outcomes, but what we do know suggests two important things: that the right kinds of CPD can produce big benefits for learners, and that most of the CPD undertaken by teachers is not of this kind.”

This post’s epigraph comes from the Teacher Development Trust and derives from a CUREE study examining CPD provision.  The majority was described as ‘informing, influencing or embedding’ ideas – rather than transforming practice, for which providers had to offer tools to support and sustain collaborative implementation of improvements.*

I suspect every teacher has endured Inset of dubious utility (and validity) and that most have had weeks in which they felt they lacked even a moment for professional development.  Likewise, many will have endured meetings or briefings whose hallowed forms obscure their irrelevance to teacher improvement.  This is too well-known to be worth much discussion; more interesting, I hope, is my optimism about CPD at my own school.

Why am I optimistic about CPD?

I would say this, wouldn’t I: I’m responsible for CPD.  I hope to offer evidence suggesting this is more than just wishful thinking, but this is only our second year and the programme remains a work in progress; I hope that describing our approach may offer others useful ideas, while eliciting criticism from which we can learn.

What we do:

Our school day runs until 5.30; on Mondays, the last hour and a half is devote to ‘staff enrichment,’ following a monthly cycle:

1) Whole school Inset – sessions dedicated to matters of importance to everyone; this year this has included: differentiation, working with TAs and stretch and challenge – many of which topics are likely to be covered each year.

2) Departmental CPD – time planned and executed by heads of department (and sometimes collaboratively between departments).

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One department breaks down what success in their subject is…

3) Teacher Learning Communities – implementing Assessment for Learning based on Dylan Wiliam’s model.  We have renamed the five strategies thus (to be sung to the tune of ‘London Bridge is Falling Down:’)

Tasks to find out what they know
Help each other
Help themselves
Feedback to help them grow
Share intentions”

Otherwise, we are pretty faithful to the structure Wiliam advocates, mindful of his point that it derives from extensive experimentation.  We reflect on peer-observations and attempted changes since the last session, examine new ideas, plan how they can be used and schedule observations to see this happen.

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Examining the science department’s use of AfL strategies during a TLC

4) Menu – a choice of sessions allowing staff to pursue their interests and needs.  This year, there have been two choices each month, such as  leadership, behaviour management, difficult conversations, literacy and cloud computing; as we grow, more options will be viable.

How we do it:

We focus on teaching and learning
If it doesn’t help improve teaching, I try to ensure it doesn’t happen.  As the only time all staff are together, there are an impressive number of calls on this time; many have merit, not all are developmental.  I haven’t won every battle (a dismal afternoon on fire safety was my worst loss), but collegial recalcitrance has helped ensure I’m doing fairly well in the war to focus on what matters.

We distribute leadership
Running sessions
Almost all CPD is run by classroom teachers and heads of department: by the end of this year, every teacher will have led at least part of a session.  We aren’t particularly hierarchical and our SLT is small and busy, but it’s more than expediency: this ensures teachers hear a range of perspectives and everyone has the chance to undergo the transformative experience of synthesising their practice – (a challenge which often helps catalyse their own improvement).

Choosing topics
Our choice of sessions is partly informed by the SDP and SLT’s perception of key areas for development, but the staff wish list is an equally important influence in our planning.

Doing it ourselves
My colleagues can usually do a more useful job of sharing best practice, tailored to our needs, than external providers; I’m determined, wherever possible, to base our CPD on our own teachers’ learning.

We seek to learn what is best practice
Some sessions are based on research – I often return to the studies on which AfL is based in preparing TLCs, for example, while the Assistant Head shared what he’d learned on NPQSL.  Equally, we synthesise what we learn about from great teachers: I based a behaviour session on Doug Lemov while the head of maths introduced us to DIRT time based on the blogs of David Didau and Alex Quigley.

How do we know it works?

The most powerful evidence has been seeing ideas pass through the conduit of CPD sessions and flourish around the school.  To give three examples:
– almost every teacher has tried hinge questions
– many departments have adopted process sheets and preflight checklists
– all departments employ SCWEAC time (Scholarly Contemplation With Extension and Consolidation – like DIRT but better!)

Seeing this happen is hugely satisfying – but I’m always wary of deluding myself through positive anecdotes.  I take feedback on individual sessions, but our most grounded source of evidence is an end-of-term survey, which provides information as to what teachers have actually implemented (not just the ideas they liked); and goes some way to overcoming the weaknesses of self-report by asking line managers about the improvements they have seen in those they manage.  From last Christmas, some headlines include:

  • All teachers agreed ‘CPD has helped me become a better teacher this term’
  • Everyone was able to provide examples of changes they made – to share three: putting exit tickets and hinge questions into action; changing marking to create a more effective dialogue and improving students’ understanding through DIRT time.
  • All line managers agreed ‘CPD has helped those I manage become better teachers this term’
  • All heads of department provided examples; one said he had seen members of his department implement and lead on marking strategies, had shared best practice on hinge questions and worked together to create new ideas.

Naturally, there were criticisms too – as Kev Bartle has noted, your first good CPD sessions will receive glowing feedback from teachers unused to useful development work – as they become accustomed to it, their demands rightly grow; none, however, suggested massive flaws in the programme.

What still needs improving?

Measuring, supporting, monitoring
We recruit strongly; my colleagues are brilliant at what they do; I want teachers to retain considerable autonomy over their development.  So I have sought to avoid extensive monitoring for its own sake (or for Ofsted’s) particularly that tailored to the lowest common denominator: teachers unwilling to improve.  I’m still struggling to find unintrusive, meaningful ways to know how teachers are improving: a tough call when these changes are, by their nature, individual, gradual and often hesitant.

Living CPD
The other side of this coin is how we ensure we live CPD, not just do it.  In many ways this happens already – CPD ideas often crop up in conversations and lessons unbidden.  However, I’m looking for more ways to keep teachers talking about improvement – creating a culture of contagious pedagogy, to steal Kev Bartle’s phrase – which will endure when our school is three times its current size.

Defending CPD time
I am still learning how to do this: I have fallen into traps and hijacks in allocating time – some predictable, others less so.  Leaders wish, quite rightly, to further departmental agendas which support the school’s improvement; I have to balance these competing interests while maintaining as much teacher autonomy as possible.  Assessing the likely impact on students’ learning is the lodestone in decision-making, complemented by my judgment and teachers’ feedback – but this will remain a struggle.

Cutting out the good
The CPD programme is good; it can be better.  To add more great stuff, some good things will need to be cut.  This term, for example, at some teachers’ request, I reduced the amount covered in sessions to leave more time for teachers and departments to work on implementing what they learn.  I would like to see more practice in sessions and a closer, clearer visible link between teachers’ learning and their actions.  Moreover, we are still introducing new ideas: staff book club this term, piloting lesson study, I hope, next term.  Both of these require cuts elsewhere…  I’m still not clear where.

Conclusion

Professional development is critical to teachers’ success and satisfaction.  Some schools are wisely cutting a little teaching time to provide scope for more CPD.  I think this is an inescapable first step to improving teacher development, but it is only a beginning.  The challenge remains how we then use that time to design programmes which are not only interesting and well-evidenced, but help teachers transform their practice.

Further reading

Doug Lemov’s paper on professional development and practice
Robert Coe’s address on CPD
The CUREE report on CPD provision
My quoting Kev Bartle, from Canons High, twice in the post above, may serve to demonstrate how helpful and influential I have found his ideas – these two posts, on cultivating contagious pedagogy and surplus models of teaching, may help to show why.

* It could be argued that this is an unfair condemnation of current CPD: many courses do not aim to achieve this goal.  On the other hand, I do believe sustained change in teacher practice should be the aim of professional development.