I spent an interesting day in London on Monday at a conference that managed to be about something other than that advertised. Doesn’t happen often – usually they pull a conference if this happens, or at least Osiris, the provider, do. The conference was held in the basement of 1 Drummond Gate in Pimlico, which houses all sorts of other worthy institutions in its upper floors (this is the cream building in the picture).
In the basement, we were learning about why the new Teacher Development Standards, the topic of the day, had not yet been published, and therefore why we couldn’t really have a conference about them. This was not as off-beat as it sounds, because along the way, we learnt about Teach First (from Sam Freedman), about the new College of Teaching (from Sonia Blandford) and about how we work with trainee teachers (from Andrew Carter). The two really interesting sessions were from David Weston from the Teacher Development Trust (who told us as much about the Teacher Development Standards as he could without breaking the required confidentiality) and Rob Coe from Univ Durham, whose input on how we evaluate what we do in schools, with particular reference to CPD, was outstanding, and provided an excellent model for ensuring that what we mean to get embedded in school actually gets embedded.
There were a number of messages that came from the day that did not resonate immediately. In fact, a lot of it was just hard to listen to and be challenged by. This is all good, and as we were all reminded by Rob Coe – just because you don’t enjoy it, doesn’t mean you learnt nothing, and just because you really had a good time, that doesn’t mean that it was worthwhile. People find all sorts of rubbish perfectly palatable and enjoy it.
The Teacher Development Standards are important because there has been a lot of research that has gone into making them a set of standards for school leadership, for teachers and for CPD providers/universities, and render each of these three groups able to hold each other to account for their professional learning. David Weston began his introduction by urging us to read the most recent paper from the Teacher Development Trust – Developing Great Teaching, which was launched about a year ago. It is subtitled “lessons from international reviews into effective professional development”. The summary document is here.
Like every other contribution to the day, it viewed “great teaching” as defined by one thing only – improved pupil outcomes. This is a highly mechanistic model, but it is so prevalent that it is hard to think of defining “great teaching” in any other way. This view has some merit in it (otherwise a lot of school leaders would feel themselves seriously misguided in their efforts), but we are on shaky ground historically, if we think that the present indicators of success (end of Key Stage testing, GCSEs and A-Levels) are adequate metrics for the whole-life effort made by teachers. Rob Coe, in a Sutton Trust report from 2014, writes:
Great teaching is defined as that which leads to improved student progress. We define effective teaching as that which leads to improved student achievement using outcomes that matter to their future success. Defining effective teaching is not easy. The research keeps coming back to this critical point: student progress is the yardstick by which teacher quality should be assessed. Ultimately, for a judgement about whether teaching is effective, to be seen as trustworthy, it must be checked against the progress being made by students. Schools currently use a number of frameworks that describe the core elements of effective teaching. The problem is that these attributes are so broadly defined that they can be open to wide and different interpretation whether high quality teaching has been observed in the classroom. It is important to understand these limitations when making assessments about teaching quality. Below we list the six common components suggested by research that teachers should consider when assessing teaching quality. We list these approaches, skills and knowledge in order of how strong the evidence is in showing that focusing on them can improve student outcomes. This should be seen as offering a ‘starter kit’ for thinking about effective pedagogy. Good quality teaching will likely involve a combination of these attributes manifested at different times; the very best teachers are those that demonstrate all of these features.
- (Pedagogical) content knowledge (Strong evidence of impact on student outcomes): The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.
- Quality of instruction (Strong evidence of impact on student outcomes): Includes elements such as effective questioning and use of assessment by teachers. Specific practices, like reviewing previous learning, providing model responses for students, giving adequate time for practice to embed skills securely and progressively introducing new learning (scaffolding) are also elements of high quality instruction.
- Classroom climate (Moderate evidence of impact on student outcomes): Covers quality of interactions between teachers and students, and teacher expectations: the need to create a classroom that is constantly demanding more, but still recognising students’ self-worth. It also involves attributing student success to effort rather than ability and valuing resilience to failure (grit).
- Classroom management (Moderate evidence of impact on student outcomes): A teacher’s abilities to make efficient use of lesson time, to coordinate classroom resources and space, and to manage students’ behaviour with clear rules that are consistently enforced, are all relevant to maximising the learning that can take place. These environmental factors are necessary for good learning rather than its direct components.
- Teacher beliefs (Some evidence of impact on student outcomes): Why teachers adopt particular practices, the purposes they aim to achieve, their theories about what learning is and how it happens and their conceptual models of the nature and role of teaching in the learning process all seem to be important.
- Professional behaviours (Some evidence of impact on student outcomes): Behaviours exhibited by teachers such as reflecting on and developing professional practice, participation in professional development, supporting colleagues, and liaising and communicating with parents.
This is perhaps the best we can hope for in a climate where the “professional” view dominates. But whilst these attributes represent a starting point, they are also terribly droll and uninspiring. The summary from the TDT report is tailored to reproducing this kind of teacher, it seems to me, but in doing so has some important things to say about how we build and sustain a high-quality model of school improvement through continuing professional learning for teachers:
The review highlighted several design features in the delivery of a professional development programme (appropriate duration; rhythm; designing for participants’ needs; creating a shared sense of purpose; and alignment across various activities) that make it more likely it will have a lasting impact on teacher practice and student outcomes. There were particular findings relating to each design feature.
DURATION: According to the review, to be effective in producing profound, lasting change, professional development interventions had to be prolonged. The most effective professional development lasted at least 2 terms – more usually a year (or longer). More limited change on very specific learning tasks could be achieved through shorter-term interventions, but to transform general practice, longer duration seems key. However, longer duration in itself is not sufficient – the use of time in a longer term programme is key. It is important to consider how schools and alliances can be incentivised to provide the sustained resources and commitment required for effective professional development. It is important to emphasise here that time on its own is not the answer – quality is just as important. School leaders must ensure that staff are given time to engage with longer term programmes – to cover not only a programme’s initial input but also subsequent in-class experimentation and collaboration with colleagues. Leaders must support an approach to professional development in which staff are encouraged to focus strategically and meaningfully on particular areas of learning and practice over time. Where working to transform general practice, external facilitators and CPD providers should move away from a model of one-off, one-day support – and consider how to embed sessions within a longer programme of support and engagement.
RHYTHM: The review tells us it is important that professional development programmes create a “rhythm” of follow-up, consolidation and support activities. This process reinforces key messages sufficiently to have an impact on practice. The specific frequency of activities varied across studies, but the key aim remained constant – teachers were able to grasp the rationale that underpinned the strategy being explored, and use this understanding to refine practices and support implementation. Time here is key – school leaders must consider how staff are supported to engage in this rhythm and adapt workloads accordingly. Providers must carefully design programmes to allow for frequent, meaningful engagement from participants. Programmes must be underpinned by strong evidence and a clear rationale; time must be taken to surface participants’ own theories and align these with those of the programme. Providers should consider how they develop participants’ skills to critically engage with this knowledge base, and balance this with opportunities to implement and apply to practice.
DESIGNING FOR PARTICIPANTS’ NEEDS: The review shows us that content is also key to achieving impact on teachers’ practice. All reviews found that an essential element of successful professional development is generating buy-in: creating an overt relevance of the content to its participants – their day-to-day experiences with, and aspirations for, their pupils. The reviews also noted the importance of programmes that provide differentiation: opportunities for recognising the differences between individual teachers and their starting points. Similarly important were opportunities for individual teachers both to reveal and discuss their beliefs and to engage in peer learning and support. Schools must consider how they support teachers’ skills in identifying and understanding needs. We must develop the capacity for teachers to reflect on their classroom and students’ learning, and map this onto areas of need for their own practice. This can be supported by providers – who should take time to identify and understand the particular needs of participants and their students. They must create opportunities for participants to share these and understand the content in overt relation to these.
CREATING A SHARED SENSE OF PURPOSE: The review points out that achieving a shared sense of purpose during professional development is an important factor for success. Whether teachers were conscripted or had volunteered to take part in an activity did not appear to be a highly significant factor – a positive professional learning environment, sufficient time, and a consistency with participants’ wider context were all more important. Within schools, this might suggest there should be less of a focus on splitting between voluntary and conscripted activities. Rather, CPD programmes should create a coherent and shared sense of purpose across staff, and demonstrate an explicit relation to their everyday experiences and context. Providers should focus on providing course content that builds a sense of purpose. This can be done in a number of ways; examples found during the review included peer support, the use of evidence from experimenting with new approaches, and working on why things work, as well as what does and does not.
ALIGNMENT: The review indicates that effective programmes will feature a variety of activities to reinforce their messages and test ideas from different perspectives. No single particular type of activity – or configurations of multiple activities – was shown to be universally effective or crucial to success. What matters is a logical thread between the various components of the programme, and creating opportunities for teacher learning that are consistent with the principles of the student learning being promoted. For the providers of CPD, this will require important consideration around how best to reflect and model the approaches they share with teachers in the delivery models used. Schools, meanwhile, should consider how in-school processes reflect and support the elements sought in external opportunities. School leaders should support staff to develop strategic approaches to professional development that allow for clear links across activities. (Developing Great Teaching: Summary Doc, pp 11-16)
This is extremely useful, and pleasingly, what we have been trying to work towards since the start of 2013, though there is much more that we could and should do. The full report is published here, and what is even better, it is not significantly longer than the summary (though it has, of course, fewer pictures…). This quote, a final conclusion from the main report (p12), expounds the last sentence from the summary above (“School leaders should support….”) and indicates how we might proceed:
…the evidence in this report suggests a number of things that schools and teachers can do on the ground. It points, for example, to the importance of school leaders:
Distinguishing sharply between:
- CPD aimed at operational and procedural knowledge (e.g. how teachers use fire extinguishers or comply with legislation or MIS systems) where simple briefings and group discussion may suffice; and
- professional learning directly aimed at building on teachers’ starting points to significantly enhance pupil learning – where the sustained and dynamically interacting mix of activities highlighted by this evidence will be required.
Setting explicit and high expectations of pupil learning oriented CPD providers and facilitators – whether they are colleagues in school, from other schools, from HEIs, from professional networks, private providers or examination boards, through, for example:
- discussing specific expectations about potential impact with participating teachers prior to participation
- interrogating providers (including internal ones) prior to signing up for/ agreeing to CPD programmes about how they:
support identification of teachers’ and school leaders’ starting points so that programme activities can build incrementally upon participants’ prior knowledge, skills and experience.
use content-specific formative assessment as a CPD goal, a learning process, a means of ensuring the CPD programme is having the desired impact and as a learning outcome.
build planning time for planning change “back at the ranch” into away-from-class or school activities.
embed collaborative learning and the development of shared understanding and goals within the professional learning process.
ensure programme providers either have of have access to in-depth expertise in the programme goals in relation to teaching and learning and the curriculum content and in relation to the professional learning process – and have ensured all three are aligned.
ensure programmes provide tools to help teachers and leaders engage critically with evidence about how pupils respond to changes they are making in their day to day work settings.
This, one would imagine, is the sort of thing that would find its way into the Teacher Development Standards. It is also a call to arms for school leaders who place the learning culture of their staff, whether “professional” or not, at a high priority.
Having introduced this document again to us, David Weston began his talk with this diagram, from the work at Harvard of Kraft and Papay (2014), showing the impact of a strong professional environment on grade scores in maths of the students taught. Similar work, by Viviane Robinson and colleagues in Auckland, shows that the two strongest impacts on outcomes that leaders can make are good quality teaching and instructional feedback, and, especially, the leadership of teacher learning and development. Both these components, Weston suggested, and I would agree, contribute directly to the sort of strong professional environment described by Kraft and Papay.
Imagining a situation where a school, say, wanted to get better at teaching children to have a growth mindset, Weston said it was far more effective to go about it in the following way (rather than the traditional – been on a course, this is what I learnt, this is what we should do, here’s a powerpoint – version!):
- Look at barriers to learning in my class/our group of classes – for those children we have high aspirations for but who are struggling
- Identify commonalities – is growth mindset an issue for our pupils?
- Get training in from somebody with real experience and expertise
- The speaker, as well as teaching on growth mindset, also provides tools to know if the ideas in the hands of the staff have made a difference yet
- Senior leaders to check that the impact is what they hoped, look for evidence of change
This problem based approach is much better than any top-down model, even where the problem is identified by the leadership, simply because teacher ownership – and there is nothing better than being challenged to solve problems that you yourself have identified, to increase ownership – is key to their engagement in the learning. This then boils CPD down to two key problems:
- In what way do I want children to change so they become better learners?
- How can I get better at doing that?
The role of leaders then becomes an envisioning one, developing a view of teachers for themselves where they believe that they can do better. This creates a coherence so that teachers understand the relevance of any professional learning to the wider priorities of the school and the profession. Leaders have the power to cut away the things that do not contribute directly to teacher effectiveness.
However, there is something else that leaders can do – put themselves in the place of teachers and learners, and model this for themselves. It is the attitude that says I’m a learner, I get things wrong, you know more than me about this, we have different perspectives and incidentally, no way can I judge your quality on the basis of a 30 minute observation. It is also the attitude that encourages teachers to lead this and to help each other improve, so that everyone is talking about their own learning. It asks the questions constantly: Have we allowed space for every single person in this school to grow?
Effective CPD (and here, Weston was “telling us” what was in the standards) needs the following three groups to work together:
- School leaders: they resource, they provide the space, and they hold teachers accountable for learning
- Teachers: they accept the responsibility to be reflective, evaluative and supportive of one another
- CPD Providers: they are accountable for the tools they provide, and the content, and there is an expectation that what they provide is supported by evidence.
This is led (and I would debate this, but no matter for now) by impact on student outcomes. This determines teacher actions and practice, which in turn determines the type and duration of professional learning required. It means that the best CPD is characterised by:
- Coherent programmes, not unconnected activities: “We know that what we are learning fits into the exercise of our craft”
- A focus on outcomes and evaluation: “What has changed? What difference am I trying to make? Has it worked yet? And how do I know?”
- Sustained collaboration between participants: The learning from experts, like that of teachers, needs evaluation and testing with one another’s ideas and practice. Well structured enquiry and collaboration is important.
- Expert challenge: we can’t do everything by ourselves: we need to be open to expertise from outside, and be willing to be the source of that expertise for others.
- Clear leadership, with a coherent CPD strategy.
That’s it for now. Plenty to think about.