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28 June 2022
By Mary Priestley - Senior Improvement Adviser (South Kent)

Professional Development - Isn't Good, Good Enough?

Estimated Reading Time - 8 minutes

As a young, passionate and perhaps naïve leader at the start of her first headship, I whole heartedly threw myself into the role. Nothing was too much trouble, no job too big and every part of the school was observed, evaluated and tweaked. As part of this root and branch review, the weekly ‘staff meeting’ came fairly and squarely under the microscope. No longer staff meetings, they were to become continuous, focussed sessions of intense weekly professional development and, driven by an invisible force, initiatives were introduced in fast succession. I hoped that by the end of the year everything would be ‘fixed’. Finally, after an arduous six months two members of the staff team came to see me. They were clearly exhausted and complained of ‘initiative fatigue’. "Mary", they said, "isn’t good, good enough?"

Although simple, this is a powerful question and, at the time, one that I found very hard to answer. In fact, I quickly realised that I didn’t have a good answer (apart from, "No!"). Fundamentally, I believed that we should all be intrinsically motivated to improve, to strive towards excellence. What I suddenly realised in that moment, was that not everybody shared this world view and, in my blind determination to make everything better, the way that I was going about staff professional development could be having the opposite and very detrimental effect.

That question was actually a turning point in my career and I knew that I had to strive to understand their perspective and unpick two key elements if I was to be able to answer their question with any degree of professional certainty.

  • Why do I believe professional development matters?
  • What are the key elements of professional development which actually make a difference to teacher development?

Why Professional Development Matters...

The Department for Education View

If we desire governmental (DfE) backing for professional development, we should look no further than the Headteachers’ standards and the Teachers’ standards.

Indeed, in the Headteachers’ standards, as well as identifying that headteachers should take responsibility for their own continued professional development, there is an entire section highlighting the importance of ongoing and sustained professional development opportunities for staff.

These link clearly through to the Teachers’ standards which highlight taking responsibility for improving teaching through professional development and responding to advice and feedback.

The Ofsted View

Ofsted wrote a fair amount about this in their 2019 paper which presents the research evidence underpinning the latest inspection framework - Education inspection framework – overview of research and essentially concluded that there was clear evidence 'that both the quantity and quality of professional development are related to school effectiveness.'
They also evidence found that whilst,

"...well designed CPD programmes can have a positive impact on pupils' outcomes... a lot of professional development has no effect, or at least none that influences pupils' learning and attainment."
So, What Do Teachers Say?

Zoe Enser has written extensively about professional development and in a recent blog, CPD Matters, identified a raft of reasons why teachers don’t see the point of or value professional development such as:

  • poor past experiences including irrelevant and fragmented CPD
  • no support with the classroom practicalities of implementation
  • a view that, I had to find my own way and I’ve managed
  • a belief that teaching is an art form – it can’t be learnt as teachers are ‘born’
  • teaching is habitual – it’s hard to change.

One of the biggest barriers is tiredness and exhaustion. People need the mental space to engage. As Zoe puts it in her blog – by Friday night, "I’ve used up my word quota". Busy people need support and incentive to engage.

However, this is only one side of the coin. Teachers I have met have also been excited and motivated by professional development. They have talked about the way ‘the scales fallen from their eyes’ when something they have learned has made such a difference to the children’s learning in their class and the control they have when they understand why.

The Wider View

Dylan Wiliams, in his presentation to researchEd Durrington speaks powerfully about how crucial the skill of the teacher is. Research shows that this has more bearing on pupil achievement than all the following: quality of the curriculum, size of the class, time spent on planning and quality of resources. Crucially, teacher effectiveness has the most impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds (Hamre and Pinata, 2005).
Wiliams links this powerfully to teacher development:

"the only way to improve student achievement at scale is to invest in the teachers we already have."

Dylan Williams calls this the "love the one you're with strategy."

In the words of Anders Ericsson:

"ten years of deliberate practice makes practically everybody into an elite performer."

Clearly, professional development does matter. Wiliams, the DfE, Ofsted and teachers themselves can’t all be wrong. Good professional development should enable us to become more effective teachers and therefore increase the life chances of more children. If we agree that professional development matters, it is crucial that we have a shared understanding of the elements that make it effective.

What Key Elements That Make Professional Development Effective?

In essence, as the Education Endowment Foundation says professional development should be, "a structured and facilitated activity for teachers intended to increase their teaching ability." But what does this mean in practice?

School Culture - Creating the Conditions for Improvement

This is vital. If we believe that professional development is so important, we need to give time and space to our staff teams to engage properly. Squeezed, poorly planned professional development with no time for effective implementation clearly sends the wrong message. As that new and passionate headteacher, I needed to consider this more than anything.

Wiliams also suggests that we reconsider the work of Carol Dweck and relate this to staff as well as children– our schools should be places where every single member of the team believes that they can improve - not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.

Teachers as Learners

Something which only occurred to me relatively recently is that if we believe that effective teaching can be learnt (and it can), then we need to apply our knowledge of cognitive science to the design and implementation of professional development cycles. If learning is at least part defined as a change in long-term memory, professional development cycles need to consider these approaches to help teachers integrate new knowledge and understanding (of effective teaching) and apply these in the classroom. Spaced or distributed practice, retrieval practice and elaboration should all form part of our thinking when designing our professional development cycles. Have we considered how are we applying cognitive load theory to our professional development cycles? Do we break teacher learning down into small chunks just as we would in the classroom?

The Wider Research Base

Two useful summaries have also supported my thinking in this area – the Review of reviews (Cordingley et al) and the EEF research guidance published last year.

Cordingley et al’s ‘Review of reviews’ for the Teacher Development Trust identified a number of factors which characterised effective CPD programmes. As well as the elements identified above, they also identified that programmes should:

  • be relevant
  • be differentiated by teachers’ starting points
  • allow teachers to engage in peer learning and collaboration
  • have equal weighting to subject knowledge and pedagogy
  • have clear goals and progression
  • have some external input
  • build in classroom practice and experimentation, to ensure that transfer of learning to the classroom occurs
  • include the underlying theory of or rationale for what is being taught.

The EEF guidance report published in October 2021 brings some of these ideas together and is designed to support schools in designing and delivering their own professional development. It focuses on four key areas which need to be considered when designing professional development:

  • building knowledge
  • motivating staff
  • developing teaching techniques
  • embedding practice.

It supports schools to ensure that professional development aligns with the need of the school and recognises the time constraints teachers and professionals face .

In Summary...Is Good, Good Enough?

My answer would still be a resounding, "No!"

Over time I have been much more able to articulate why professional development is so important. But the biggest lesson for me has been to understand fully and appreciate the importance of creating the right culture, including giving enough space and time for appropriate professional development. Our fellow professionals deserve this considered approach. If we believe that the most important element in improving a child’s life chance is the skill of their teacher then we have a duty to give professional development the thought, care, time and priority it deserves.

Following on from this article, this training (taking place on 9 November 2022) looks in more detail at the research underpinning effective professional development cycles and how this can be used successfully within your school context. Click in the box for full details >>

About the Author

Mary is a Senior Improvement Adviser (South Kent) and Primary Lead for Training and Development with the Primary School Improvement team.  
Before joining The Education People, Mary has had 13 years of headship and two executive headteacher roles as well as extensive leadership in primary education.

Mary passionately believes that every child deserves an outstanding level of education and this fuels her motivation for success. Mary has worked with a wide variety of partner organisations strengthening and supporting school improvement through the development of self-sustaining collaborative school groups.

Mary has many specialisms, including system leadership, curriculum development and nurture-based provision to name a few.