Reinvent teachers' professional development

New and more effective models of teachers’ professional learning are needed. These have to take into account the challenging reality, including long working hours, the pressure of inspections and exams. Creative Generation is an organisation trying to reinvent teachers’ continuing professional development. We hope that our efforts contribute to teachers regaining a sense of professionalism and experiencing the beauty of learning in their classrooms more often.

Imagine for a minute that you are Andy Murray. You are a top player and a real professional. Your strength is in returning the serve really well and your backhand strike is great. But maybe you’re thinking you need to improve your forehand shot. What sort of training or professional development will enable you to achieve this? It’s probably a combination of focused practice, being attentive to your mistakes, and trying to get feedback from an expert coach. You might spend time analysing videos of tennis legends with the best forehand shot, as well as recordings of your own shots, to identify small steps for improvement.

Admittedly tennis and teaching are not exactly the same. However, both are complex skills. So why is professional learning for teachers so different? In a recent survey, 77% of teachers in England reported that they had attended in-school workshops or seminars. Most frequently, this involved listening to lectures or presentations (67%). Less than one in five teachers have been involved in more active forms of CPD such as practising the use of pupil materials (17%), extended problem-solving (9%) or demonstrating a lesson, unit or skill (6%, Opfer, 2010). Wouldn’t it be odd to ask Andy Murray to attend a lecture on forehand technique that involves little or no practice?

Teacher CPD needs to be reinvented, because most existing programmes have clear limitations. One off trainings or workshops are simply too short to have an impact on teacher practice. Whole school CPD sessions are often not relevant enough for many teachers. In order to be relevant and helpful, sessions should be active and ideally, subject-related. General sessions for all teachers are useful up to a point. It is important, for example, to know the main principles of formative assessment – the need to be specific and clear with feedback messages, or the importance of providing helpful feedback in manageable units, in order to avoid cognitive overload etc (Shute, 2007). These ideas are necessary but not sufficient to improve one’s teaching. What would be even more valuable is the opportunity for teachers to improve their knowledge of how pupils learn their subject best. For example, if a student is struggling to compare and simplify fractions, how do you provide useful suggestions that will move the learner forward? Unfortunately, surveys suggest that few teachers currently have access to practical and subject-specific professional development opportunities.

At Creative Generation, we’re trying to reinvent teacher CPD and make sure that more primary teachers have access to high-quality, affordable professional learning opportunities. What do we mean by high quality? Evidence suggests that CPD is likely to help teachers improve their practice and have a real impact on learning outcomes when the following criteria are met:

  • Intense – at least 15 hours (preferably 50) of professional learning
  • Sustained – over at least two terms
  • Content focused – allowing teachers to improve their knowledge of subject content and how students learn it
  • Active – teachers have opportunities to try new practices and discuss how they work
  • Supported – external feedback and networks are required to improve and sustain one’s practice
  • Evidence-based – promotes strategies supported by robust evaluation evidence (Coe, 2013)

Even if programmes are built upon a solid understanding of what makes teacher CPD effective, two challenges remain: time and motivation. Given the current climate of high-stakes testing and inspections, as well as the huge workload that primary teachers are experiencing, how will anyone find the time and motivation to engage with this?

Lack of time is the most important constraint. As the recent DFE survey indicated, primary classroom teachers work, on average, 59 hours per week (DfE, 2014). If teachers feel that CPD is irrelevant, it will be considered a waste of time. Any successful programme needs to be practical and relevant enough so that teachers feel they’re winning back time. One solution is to ask teachers to bring their lesson planning to the CPD sessions. This would enable teachers to collaborate on their planning and immediately implement the ideas they’ve learned during the trainings.

Motivation is the other major constraint. Without motivation, there cannot be effective learning. This is true for students as well as adults. Is there a solution to this? Unfortunately, there is no easy fix. Motivation depends on many complex factors. In case of teachers and their CPD, however, one big idea emerges. Teachers in England were asked a few years ago about the most important reasons for taking part in CPD. What were the two most crucial factors? Positive impact on pupils’ learning and improved achievement for pupils (Opfer, 2010). Therefore, teachers need the opportunity to learn relevant knowledge, practise the new skills, and ultimately improve their impact on pupils’ learning outcomes.

A couple of years ago I was in an English lesson taught by a friend of mine. In front of the classroom, a six-year-old boy was giving a speech. He could pick any topic, and the only requirement was that he had to speak, as loudly and clearly as possible, for one minute. By the way, English was not his first language and he had been learning it for less than a year. After about 30 seconds, he ran out of words. So he just stood there, arms crossed, until the minute was up. When he was done, his classmates began giving him feedback. They said a few things he had done well and some things he could perhaps improve. Finally, the teacher shared his comments. He reminded everyone that a couple of weeks before the same boy had been too scared to say anything in front of the class. He had just stood there and started crying. Now, even though this time he could not speak for the full minute, he had made huge progress. It was obvious that the teacher was immensely proud of the boy. The boy was still standing in front of the classroom, smiling.

Experiencing these moments when students have visibly learned and grown – this is the beauty of learning. We need to reinvent teachers’ professional learning and ensure that high-quality, affordable CPD enables more teachers to experience the beauty of learning more often.

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The professional development programmes of Creative Generation are focused on improving learning outcomes in primary English and mathematics, especially problem solving, comprehension and critical thinking. If you’re interested in finding out more, please email Artur Taevere (artur@creativegeneration.org).

This article was originally published in 'Primary Voice'.