What does the research and evidence tell us about high-quality professional development in education and how can we ensure we are providing the best quality development for the teachers in our schools?
Why is Professional Development essential in education? High quality professional development for teachers is essential if we are to give our students the best education possible. Schools should ensure the development they are providing is sustained and ongoing. It should be linked to the school’s mission statement. One-offs do not work as they lack structure or purpose.
Why is Continuing Professional Development Important for Teachers?
The best way to ensure students learn best and achieve their potential is to give them high-quality teaching (Sutton Trust, 2011).
High-quality teaching can be facilitated and supported through a program of professional development that increases the effectiveness of teachers (Cordingley et al 2015) and also acknowledges that the main aim of every teacher should be to improve.
To quote Dylan Wiliam:
“All teachers need to improve their practice—not because they are not good enough, but because they can be better”– Dylan Wiliam Center
So, that being said, how can schools ensure that they have in place the best possible programs for professional learning and development for their staff?
There is a wealth of research and evidence as to ‘what works’ (or at least ‘what has worked somewhere’ – we must be critical consumers of research at all times) and also how evidence-informed approaches help change our gut instincts to ‘best bets’.
The prime starting point for many schools in the present education climate is the EEF Toolkit – teaching & learning strategies detailed with evidence of their impact–cost-effectiveness, progress opportunity and validity.
As an arm of the aforementioned Sutton Trust, the EEF do great work in pulling together evidence from the widest range of available sources and making it accessible for teachers and school leaders.
However, professional development is more than just a list of possible interventions that could take place on a microcosmic or classroom level – it requires structure, intent and clarity, as well as being a tool for driving up standards of teaching in schools.
All schools have a program of professional development but what do we know about what works best?
How can we ensure such programs are designed and implemented effectively, synthesizing the wealth of information into sensible and manageable chunks for staff to devour?
As David Weston and Bridget Clay detail in their excellent work Unleashing Great Teaching, saying a conference or session is ‘great professional development’ is the same as saying that a shopping trip is a ‘great meal’; it’s what you do with what you are given that counts.
Here we can explore some of the main evidence and how this can be implemented.
As Mary Kennedy reminds us in her 2019 paper:
‘An important reason for conducting research is to be able to identify effective practices so that others can adopt them’.– Sage Journals
Firstly, let’s address the issue of terminology and naming – when is CPD different from INSET? (in the UK, INSET is what we call teacher training days, schools have five of these per year)
Why is it called Professional Learning in some areas and Professional Development in others?
Often this is simply down to choice by the provider or the institution – what perception do they wish to foster from their audience?
Names aside, we are looking at the concept of programs of instruction aimed at teachers with a vision for improving their practice and developing them as excellent practitioners.
However, beware Mastery – if we ‘master’ something there is an implication that we have no more to learn, and that is never the case!
Now, why do we have programs of professional development? What does the evidence tell us about the effects of a good program?
There has been a large body of research into the effectiveness of a range of professional development approaches. As Kennedy again states, ‘‘The central premise underlying all PD is that there is something the researcher knows about teaching that teachers do not know’.
Setting up a Professional Development Program
All schools have programs (or should have!) of professional development, often linked directly to their own aims and vision.
However, as time is such a limited resource and the focus has naturally been on productivity and output from the classroom, the focus has often fallen on the students and not the teachers.
Very often Professional Development is an after-thought, a ‘tick-box’ exercise, a means to an end to fill calendared training days.
However, as I will look at later, there is a strong body of evidence to support the fact that high quality professional development has massive impacts on the effectiveness and retention of teachers.
There are national standards for professional development as detailed by the Government:
- 1. Professional development should have a focus on improving and evaluating pupil outcomes.
- 2. Professional development should be underpinned by robust evidence and expertise.
- 3. Professional development should include collaboration and expert challenge.
- 4. Professional development programs should be sustained over time.
And all this is underpinned by, and requires that:
- 5. Professional development must be prioritized by school leadership.
The final standard is key – the need to prioritize professional development so it is at the forefront of school vision and thinking; not reactive to identified need necessarily (although this is also important) but proactive, outward- facing and designed with impact in mind.
However, it is important to remember that there is no statutory entitlement for schools to offer professional development; this can often be the cause of a lack of drive or rigour in the process.
The Department for Education in the UK (DfE) also state that:
‘High-quality professional development requires workplaces to be steeped in rigorous scholarship, with professionals continually developing and supporting each other so that pupils benefit from the best possible teaching’,
‘the design of high-quality professional development is as complex a discipline as the design of high-quality teaching. It requires the planning of programs of connected activities with clarity about intended outcomes, and evaluation’.
Such an expectation comes rich with workload implications as well as balancing time – school leaders need to find time to invest in PD to maximize its effect and its potential, but finding that time is difficult.
This is why an increasing evidence-base of ‘what has worked’ is most useful!
In their ‘Developing Great Teaching Report’ from 2015 the TDT tell us that the most effective professional learning programs ‘which aim to bring about significant organizational and cultural change need to last at least 2 terms’, ensuring that the offer ‘features multiple, iterative activities following the initial input’; sequenced professional learning curricular planned to have impact.
They focus on the following as essential aspects to be considered:
- The duration and rhythm of effective support.
- The consideration of participants’ needs.
- Alignment of professional development processes, content and activities.
- The content of effective professional development.
- Activities associated with effective professional development.
- The role of external providers and specialists.
- Collaboration and peer learning.
- Leadership around professional development.
In their Schools Guide to Implementation the EEF also investigate professional development from an evidence-informed perspective and offer the following suggestions:
- Treat professional development as one part of a package of implementation strategies.
- Effective professional development includes both initial training as well as high-quality follow-on coaching.
- Introduce new skills, knowledge and strategies with explicit up-front training.
- Reinforce initial training with expert follow-on support within school.
- Use highly skilled coaches.
- Carefully structure and monitor peer-to-peer collaboration.
- Professional development activities should be appropriately spaced and aligned—avoid one-off inputs.
- Ensure a tight focus on pupil outcomes by supporting staff to apply general pedagogy to specific subject domains.
Back in 2008 Helen Timperley stated that:
‘Professional learning is strongly shaped by the context in which the teacher practises. This is usually the classroom, which, in turn, is strongly influenced by the wider school culture and the community and society in which the school is situated. Teachers’ daily experiences in their practice context shape their understandings, and their understandings shape their experiences.’
She went on to remind us of the need for iterative, supported and sustained programs:
‘teachers need extended time in which to learn and change’, ‘to understand how existing beliefs and practices are different from those being promoted, to build the required pedagogical content knowledge, and to change practice‘.
‘Time, however, is not a sufficient condition for change: teachers also need to have their current practice challenged and to be supported as they make changes’.– Educational Leaders
For me the iterative nature of the input is key to its success – staff must see professional development as a valuable and essential part of their work; they are receiving high-quality, expert instruction designed to help them improve over time.
In a bid to invest more in to their PD offer, some schools have taken the step of altering the timings of their academic day to allow for dedicated PD time, usually in an afternoon slot.
Schools have also begun to appoint Research Leads to act as a gateway, a filter for the wealth of information out there with regard to improving Teaching & Learning.
Schools must not forget, however, that there are more than just classroom teachers on their books – the best school environments will ensure there are development and training opportunities for all, including support and pastoral staff.
A recent report published by the Education Policy Institute examined the effects of PD on both teachers and students and reached the following key conclusions:
- High-quality PD for teachers is as effective for improving pupil outcomes as having a teacher with a decade’s experience in the classroom.
- Quality PD programs have a greater impact on pupil outcomes than other measures such as performance- related teacher pay or increasing the length of the school day.
- Increasing the availability of high-quality PD is likely to improve acute teacher retention problems, particularly for early-career teachers (we will look at retention in a moment).
- PD programs are more effective if they receive sustained support from school leaders and can adapt to high staff turnover and teacher workload.
Again the key message appears to be one of sustained support and iterative input; one-offs do not work as they lack structure or purpose.
In the same way that we teach a curriculum of carefully planned content to students so must we for adult learners; interleaved, regularly retrieved ideas that are cohesive and relevant, designed with a clear goal in mind.
In order to achieve success, one must know what success in a venture actually looks like – this is at the heart of the design of high-quality PD programs.
To go back to the EEF and their advice:
- ‘Overall, the evidence suggests that professional development should be viewed as an ongoing process rather than a single event’.
- ‘The content of professional development activities should also be aligned and purposeful, so that individual learning activities collectively reinforce one another and revisit the same messages’.
- ‘The aim is to build a system of professional development that encourages ongoing learning and application to practice’.
The Impact of Professional Development on Teacher Practice.
Once established, high quality PD can be a clear advantage with reference to rates of staff retention.
In a study in 2014 Kraft & Papay found that ‘In supportive schools, teachers not only tend to say and be more effective in their classrooms, but they also improve at much greater rates over time‘.
The quality and consistency of teaching therefore improves as there is less staff fluctuation – patterns can be developed, interventions can be implemented and followed through, students can rely on consistent quality in their lessons.
Kraft & Papay also found that ‘over ten years, teachers working in schools with stronger professional environment improved 30 percent more than teachers in schools with weak professional environments’.
Now, of course, there is always the issue of how ‘effectiveness’ and ‘improvement’ are quantifiably measured.
They are largely subjective and qualitative, but the concept stands firm.
Better teachers stem from supportive environments, and those environments are better fostered where there is a rich and informative program of iterative PD clearly tethered to school aims and improvement goals.
Those responsible for designing PD should also consider the need for the explicit connection between theory and practice; staff must have an opportunity to practice what is being ‘preached’, as cited from Weston & Clay earlier in the piece.
A significant amount of this comes from the opportunity to translate generic theory and research into subject / domain-specific areas; staff value the support given to them by their colleagues in their subject and support areas, and enabling this can also be hugely effective.
A good model is one of Learning Groups or Professional Learning Communities, where staff collaborate in small, non- hierarchical clusters to work on a particular focus, supporting each other through coaching and non-threatening peer observation.
Schools must avoid growing a culture where PD is perceived as something that staff have ‘done to them’ – it needs to be inclusive, focused and responsive to all staff needs.
The curriculum for PD needs to be as carefully thought out and planned as the curriculum for subject areas and key stages to ensure that the approaches are effective, streamlined and full of impact.
To go back to the TDT report, ‘All the reviews found that an essential element of successful [PD] is overt relevance of content to its participants and their day-to-day experiences and aspirations for pupils.’
To return too to Mary Kennedy:
‘As we have become more aware of the many contingencies involved in teaching, we have shifted our focus away from telling teachers what to do and toward deepening their understanding of their students so that they can make better in-the-moment judgments about how to respond to students.’.
It is evident that one of the key facets is that empathetic awareness of the end-user – expert input linked directly to the daily needs of the professional in their own context and domain.
Evaluating Professional Development Programs
The final key facet of successful PD design is the on-going evaluation – a cycle of implementation regularly interspersed with opportunities for reflection, feedback and formative decision-making based on identified areas of need or improvement.
Evaluation needs to be appropriate, systematic and, like any form of assessment, needs to provide information that can be used to make positive decisions in the future.
Qualitative information can always be gathered through staff and student voice approaches but a popular model and framework is that refined by Thomas Guskey.
Guskey proposed five levels of evaluation, each increasing in complexity and depth and building on the previous to create a sense of unity and cohesiveness.
Guskey’s Five Levels
- 1. Participants’ reactions.
- 2. Participants’ learning.
- 3. Organization support and change.
- 4. Participants’ use of new knowledge and skills.
- 5. Student outcomes.
The last one is key and linked intrinsically to success – How did the professional development activity affect students?
Did it benefit them in any way?
This is of course framed within the original goals set out for the program and whether or not they have been fully, partially or not achieved.
Guskey states that ‘good evaluations of professional development do not have to be costly […] nor do they require sophisticated technical skills’.
He goes on to remind us that they ‘require the ability to ask good questions and a basic understanding of how to find valid answers’ Essentially, all PD programs need to withstand critical assault to justify their worth – more damage can be done with a poor or misguided program than no program at all.
Guskey continues by saying that good evaluations ‘provide information that is appropriate, sound, and sufficiently to use in making thoughtful and responsible decisions about professional development’.
Caveats and Conclusions
As Harry Fletcher-Wood cites in ‘Designing Professional Development for Teacher Change’ (2018), ‘the consensus is rarely specific enough to be useful’ and that ‘a list of best practices may not help make design choices’.
Fletcher-Wood concludes that ‘no recipe for effective professional development exists’.
The EPI report also draws out attention to the fact that ‘many teachers cannot currently access high-quality professional development’.
This needs to change, and an increased focus on the quality and availability of provision to meet the ever-increasing demands of workload balance and staff wellbeing, alongside the improved outcomes, is helping make that change a foreseeable reality.
Key Suggestions for Good Professional Development Programs
- Ensure they are iterative and planned efficiently to support the delivery of curricula.
- Ensure they are focused, supportive and supported.
- Remove the hierarchy from any aspect that simply aims to improve the effectiveness of teaching.
- Align them to the over-arching vision and ethos of the school.
- Create a positive and enriching culture of support for all staff – culture is what happens when no-one else is watching!
- Support development in teacher quality with non-judgemental quality assurance and peer support; sometimes the best professional development is conversations with colleagues.
- Anticipate changes in climate – staff turnover, time, leadership support; be proactive.
- Give space and time for the exploration and implementation of learning theories and strategies in domain- specific areas.
- Use and synthesize the latest in pedagogical research.
- Take advantage of the expertise in your school to help deliver meaningful content.
- Beware of ‘magpie’ approaches or surface-level initiatives – ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’/ ‘all that glisters is not gold’.
To return to the Teacher Development Trust – they have 8 ideas that underpin their work in making teachers and teacher educators better:
- 1. Impact.
- 2. Challenge.
- 3. Environment.
- 4. Evidence.
- 5. Collaboration.
- 6. Coaching.
- 7. Subject-specific application.
- 8. Leadership support.
What we must not do is assume that teachers are capable of managing their own training needs and development when considering all other aspects of their role also.
Schools have a responsibility to support their staff.
As Timperley et al state:
‘The first [myth] is that teachers should be treated as self-regulating professionals who, if given sufficient time and resources, are able to construct their own learning experiences and develop a more effective reality for their students through their collective expertise’.
There is no evidence to support this and the assumption should not be made.
PD is not PPA!
Kennedy gives us an alternative view that a strategic approach ‘enables teachers to continue to improve their own practice independently after the formal PD is finished. I suspect that the reason for this delayed success has to do with its emphasis on purpose, which in turn helps teachers function autonomously after the PD providers are gone’.
This leads us back to the phase of planning and implementation – identifying a need, assessing the options for solving that need and then putting in place appropriate support.
Students need good teachers. Teachers get better with support, investment and belief at ALL career stages.
Providing teachers with the opportunity to develop is the best way to ensure students get the best education, allowing them to achieve their potential.
The key to a successful professional development program is that it should be one of sustained support and iterative input; one-offs do not work as they lack structure or purpose.
Your professional development program should take into account the following suggestions.
1. Ensure they are iterative and planned efficiently to support the delivery of curricula.
2. Ensure they are focused, supportive and supported.
3. Remove the hierarchy from any aspect that simply aims to improve the effectiveness of teaching.
4. Align them to the over-arching vision and ethos of the school.
5. Create a positive and enriching culture of support for all staff – culture is what happens when no-one else is watching!
6. Support development in teacher quality with non-judgemental quality assurance and peer support; sometimes the best professional development is conversations with colleagues.
7. Anticipate changes in climate – staff turnover, time, leadership support; be proactive.
8. Give space and time for the exploration and implementation of learning theories and strategies in domain- specific areas.
9. Use and synthesize the latest in pedagogical research.
10. Take advantage of the expertise in your school to help deliver meaningful content.
11. Beware of ‘magpie’ approaches or surface-level initiatives – ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’/ ‘all that glisters is not gold’.
Once established, high quality professional development can be a clear advantage with reference to rates of staff retention. The quality and consistency of teaching therefore improves as there is less staff fluctuation – patterns can be developed, interventions can be implemented and followed through, students can rely on consistent quality in their lessons. What we must not do is assume that teachers are capable of managing their own training needs and development when considering all other aspects of their role also.
Evaluation needs to be appropriate, systematic and, like any form of assessment, needs to provide information that can be used to make positive decisions in the future.
Qualitative information can be gathered through staff and student voice approaches. Thomas Guskey proposed five levels of evaluation, each increasing in complexity and depth and building on the previous to create a sense of unity and cohesiveness.
1. Participants’ reactions.
2. Participants’ learning.
3. Organization support and change.
4. Participants’ use of new knowledge and skills.
5. Student outcomes.
- Fletcher-Wood, H (2018); Designing Professional Development for Teacher Change; IfT.
- Sutton Trust (2011) Improving the impact of teachers on pupil achievement in the UK.
- Kennedy, Mary. (2019). How We Learn About Teacher Learning. Review of Research in Education. 43. 138-162.
- Cordingley, P., Higgins, S., Greany, T., Buckler, N., Coles-Jordan, D., Crisp, B., Saunders, L., Coe, R. Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Teacher Development Trust. 2015.
- H. Timperley, A. Wilson, H. Barrar & I. Fung (2007) Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best EvidenceSynt hesis Iteration Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.
- Fletcher-Wood, H and Zuccollo, J (2020); The effects of high quality professional development on teachers and students; EPI.
- Timperley, H; (2008); Teacher Professional Learning and Development; International Academy of Education.
- Guskey, T; (2000); Evaluating Professional Development; Corwin Press.
- Weston, D and Clay, B; (2018); Unleashing Great Teaching; Routledge (Taylor Francis).