Rethinking professional development

The work of a teacher is both challenging and complex and requires high standards of professional competence and commitment. However, research shows that formal professional development may not be the optimum means by which such high standards of professional competence can be achieved. The principal reason for this is that traditional CPD tends to be based on one-off events1 that can often be a solitary activity and can seem remote from colleagues, students and classroom practice in general2.

Many teachers have begun to diverge from only using traditional CPD provision and started to address their individual and collective professional learning needs – which can often be perceived as being different by management – effectively by seeking informal professional development opportunities. An alternative model of regular peer-to-peer professional learning meetings – sometimes referred to as TeachMeets or Show and Tell sessions – is beginning to emerge as a more successful, supportive and motivating way of sharing best teaching practice with the aim of improving overall teaching and learning. Such bottom-up professional learning is more likely to be followed up and to result in innovative practices that are successfully embedded and sustained3.

We are all fortunate to teach alongside excellent teachers whose expert practice could benefit the wider school but often remains confined to their classrooms due to the relative inefficacy and limited opportunities offered by lesson observations. Thus, we would benefit from exploring ways to share highly relevant expertise amongst our colleagues that are not tinged with the negative connotations often associated with lesson observations and other “institutionalised” means of professional development.

Proposed methodology

Having established that staff may have both needs and wants for development, and that the nature of the professional development needs as identified by individual teachers may differ from those identified by their management teams, it becomes important to be able offer our teachers the means through which their individually identified needs can be met. This can take many forms: making presentations to colleagues; observing other teachers; finding out what is happening in other schools; establishing networks and, just as important, casual conversations with colleagues4.

Therefore, creating an environment in which such bottom-up, teacher-led, peer-to-peer professional development can thrive would become the main objective of this rethinking of the professional development that takes place in our schools, which could be achieved at different levels in the following ways:

  • At departmental level – organisers would work with individual Departments or groups of subject-related Departments to identify existing best practice and help facilitate its dissemination within or across Departments, as appropriate, through especially adapted Departmental meetings, which I will refer to as Show and Tell sessions (although I could just as easily refer to them as TeachMeets). Such meetings would take place at intervals established by the Departments themselves (though holding them on a half-termly basis appears to be working well in my own setting). This would enhance the quality of departmental meetings, developing a clear learning rather than administrative focus.
  • At school level – organisers would work with teaching staff would to identify perceived professional development needs and group them thematically so that themed school-wide Show and Tell meetings can be organised to meet individually identified professional development needs and to disseminate best practice across the wider school. Such meetings would be envisaged to take place termly, perhaps, though not necessarily, during INSET, and would be supporting the discussions of existing teaching and learning groups and committees in our schools.
  • Beyond the school – organisers would work to bring together colleagues from different schools (perhaps schools belonging to the same group of schools or academies, or schools with the same specialisms) on an annual basis with a view to exchange teaching practices and thus explore ways in which familiar problems can be tackled in innovative ways, essentially applying the successful TeachMeet and Show and Tell format to each of our settings and thus expanding the successful circuit of contextually relevant and participant-driven conferences that actually tackles the issues our colleagues care most about.

Organisers would work to facilitate teacher-led, peer-to-peer professional development opportunities in which teachers take centre stage to share their own practice, experience and expertise with one another. These organisers need not be members of the management or leadership team, especially at departmental level (in fact, it might be wise of management to steer clear at this level so as to avoid the negative implications to which I referred above).

However, I do think that, if we want this kind of truly continuing professional development to take root and flourish as a culture both at whole school level and beyond the school, senior leadership would need to adopt this model of professional development as a strategic aim of the school and would need to oversee its school-wide implementation (perhaps at Assistant Head or Director of Teaching and Learning level).

It is important to emphasise once more the difference between formal (as identified by Line Managers and SMT) and informal (as identified by individual teachers) professional development needs. One would not substitute the other, but rather they would compliment each other. Although it is possible that there may be a coinciding of formal and informal developmental needs, we ought to be cautious about enforcing a link to formal professional review or performance management, though we should not discount or discourage the obvious connection between the two models, should colleagues wish to link them.

These thoughts are very much still in the making and I would very much welcome your views and advice.

If the subject of CPD (and how it could be done better) interests you, I recommend you read David Noble’s Technologies for Career Long CPD, which I used as my starting point for this research.

Photogragh by Ian Usher

  1. Lock, J. V. (2006). A new image: online communities to facilitate teacher professional development. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education.14(4), pp663-678
  2. Harris, A., Day, C., Goodall, J., Lindsay, G., and Muijs, D. (2006). What difference does it make? Evaluating the impact of continuing professional development in schools. Scottish Educational Review. 37, pp91-99
  3. Sherrington, T (2010) Headguruteacher Blog, Planning Effective CPD: What could be more important
  4. Carslow, M (2008) Leading and managing your staff. Chapter in Heads of Department: Essays in leadership for changing times. pp 39-49. John Catt Educational, Glasgow
  • Farid Charidine

    Our school has changed CPD this year to allow us to create our own projects based on an aspect that we are interested in. We go away do some research, find out what works, what doesn’t and then report back to small focus groups of teachers that share similar interests.

    Much more motivational and interesting rather than training sessions delivered at big expense to school and little follow up or actual change afterwards.

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  • http://twitter.com/bootleian John Connor

    Cogent and thoughtful as ever, José. There is a growing sense that CPD should become JPD – Joint Practice Development, with teachers working in pairs or learning triads with a view to transferring and embedding practice. You’re right in that the traditional CPD model is proving to be less effective, and with the advent of teaching schools and SLEs, the landscape is certainly shifting, even if we’re not entirely sure where it’s leading! Have a look at David Hargreaves’ paper for the NCSL “Leading the self-improving school”, in particular his thoughts on building social capital.

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  • http://twitter.com/IRIS_Connect IRIS Connect, CPD

    Really great article, I agree with John Connor that the landscape is shifting…hopefully towards professional development that’s based around research into what works to improve T&L. Hargreaves is a great place to start, his recent book “Professional Capital” makes a huge ammount of sense, our recent White Paper “Going Beyond CPD” draws on the notion of moving past looking purely at human capital but at social capital. It’s on our website if anyone’s interested in having a read.

  • Alexis Shea

    I completely agree with this approach towards CPD. Last year I carried out my masters research examining the effectiveness of a Professional Learning Community based on Dillon William’s Teacher Learner Communities which aimed to change teachers’ classroom habits relating to Assessment for Learning.

    My research found that it was very difficult to change a specific habit that a teacher had developed; however, over a year long involvement in the TLC, with meetings and peer observations each term, teacher’s thinking about teaching and learning changed, which filtered into all aspects of their classroom practice in more subtle ways.

    Key to these changes in thinking were that the CPD was teacher lead (not top down); it involved regular meetings and reflections over a long-term, e.g. a full academic year; it involved collaboration of peers. I found Wenger’s studies into Communities of Practice useful to explore in terms of collaboration and Maurice Holt’s Slow School Movement links closely to the idea of real change occurring over the long-term.

    Alexis Shea

  • http://twitter.com/kesmfl Rob Courtney

    Interesting post on an important topic. Made me realise that we are pretty fortunate at KEVI Southampton to have a lot of this going on in the form of teacher-led twilight INSET, the work of our Learning Circle and our Teaching & Learning Committee which feeds down into a lot of show& tell in departmental INSET.