The puzzle of how teachers learn best

How do teachers learn best? What is the best way to improve professional practice so that this has a positive effect on student learning outcomes? These questions have been puzzling me for years and here is why.

A newly qualified teacher was having a really tough time at school. He was teaching in a secondary school in a socioeconomically deprived area. The reality was quite bleak, he told me a few years ago: his students were not paying any attention to him. Our conversation happened one evening in Birmingham, during a seminar that my colleagues and I had organised. The next day we visited a school - and it blew his mind. It was the first time he had seen a high performing secondary school that served students in a very challenging context. These boys and girls, despite the challenges of poverty in their community, were learning amazingly well!

About a year later, the same teacher told me that this had been a turning point in his teaching career. He started truly believing that all of his students could succeed in school. He said he just had to continue learning and reflecting how to improve his teaching practice.

Visiting an incredible school in New York a few years ago.

This story inspired me but also made me think. Teachers learn in many different ways. There is no magic formula that works for everyone. Observing excellent teachers may have had a big impact on him, but it appeared to have less impact on many others. So I kept wondering: what are the best ways to support the professional learning of teachers?

About a year ago I was in Shanghai, one of the world’s top performing school systems. I came across a surprising answer as to why their students are doing so well. Teachers spend about a third (!) of their working time learning together and collaborating with their colleagues. This is an interesting decision: class sizes are larger in Shanghai (35 or more students in each class, source) and therefore, teachers have fewer lessons each week. This creates more time for teachers, which they spend preparing lessons together with their colleagues, and participating in various professional learning programmes.

This lesson from Shanghai seems consistent with the results of the most recent international survey of teachers and headteachers (TALIS, 2013). The countries where learning outcomes have improved most rapidly tend to invest more in the professional development of their teachers. For example, in England, most teachers had attended courses and workshops, but relatively few had participated in research, observed teachers in other schools or taken qualification programmes. Overall, these participation figures in England are quite similar to international averages, but well below countries that invest more heavily in teachers’ professional learning (e.g. Estonia and Singapore, no comparable data exists on Shanghai).

Participation in different types of professional development activities (TALIS, 2013)

Investing in professional development is likely to pay off, but what is the best way of spending this time and money? In the same international survey (TALIS, 2013), teachers’ views on the impact of professional development activities were explored. Across all countries and almost all professional development activities, most teachers thought it had a positive impact on their teaching! For example, six out of ten teachers in England had attended professional development activities focused on improving knowledge and understanding of their subject field. Of all these people, nine out of ten thought this training had a moderate or large positive impact on their teaching.

This is interesting, but does it explain what kind of professional development is most effective? Professor Robert Coe: “We do not know a lot about the impact of teachers’ CPD on students’ learning outcomes, but what we do know suggests two things: that the right kind of CPD can produce big benefits for learners, and that most of the CPD undertaken by teachers is not this kind.” The table below summarises research on the criteria of highly effective CPD, as described in two recent reports (by CUREE and by Rob Coe).

Unfortunately, relatively few teachers have access to this sort of professional learning opportunities. According to the TALIS survey, one in three teachers in England had participated in collaborative learning activities or research with other teachers. One in five had taken part in CPD over an extended period of time (taking place on several occasions spread out over several weeks or months).

These questions were explored further in a survey of teachers conducted in England by V. Darleen Opfer and David Pedder of the University of Cambridge in 2010 (source). They asked teachers about the features of the professional development activities they had participated in over the previous 12 months. Here is what they found.

Features of CPD that teachers have access to in England (Opfer and Pedder, 2010)

It appears that most teachers have attended lectures or presentations, but relatively few have actively practised using pupil materials or engaged in extended problem solving. Opfer and Pedder conclude: “There is little indication that current CPD is seen as having an impact on raising standards or narrowing the achievement gap. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of teachers thought that CPD would have a positive impact on pupils’ learning and achievement.”

There is little indication that current CPD is seen as having an impact on raising standards or narrowing the achievement gap.
— V. Darleen Opfer and David Pedder

And so we are left with this fundamental challenge. Significant improvements in learning outcomes cannot be mandated by policymakers, they will happen only if teachers are able to improve their teaching practice in a meaningful way. This takes time and effort – there is no other way. Teachers are most likely to learn best when learning is sustained so that they can try out new practices and explore evidence of trying new things. Learning is likely to be more effective when it is collaborative, active, informed by research and supported by external networks.

This is not an easy recipe for success, but it is worth trying.

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