Effective Continuing Professional Development (CPD) has become something of an obsession for us. So much so, it prompted us to write a book, The CPD Curriculum, on how to approach it in the right way to have a real impact on the interconnected issues of pupil outcomes, the wellbeing of staff, and the retention of teachers in the profession. We were delighted then to see the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) produce a guidance report on effective CPD, drawing together research from across the world and considering the steps which schools needed to take in order to make this happen.
The EEF have become known for casting an objective eye over some of our most proliferate practices and interventions in schools, busting myths, such as teaching to preferred learning styles, and highlighting the approaches which suggest the most promise in bringing about improvements in education, such as metacognition and the correct use of feedback. They are a quick guide to what may make a difference and a starting point for delving into some of the research that may otherwise present something of a labyrinth to busy teachers. They also give a point towards promising areas to explore as part of a curriculum for Continuing Professional Development.
Often the sheer busyness of schools is a barrier to professional development, and CPD can be relegated to the ‘I’m just too busy’ pile, especially when it has become synonymous for many with drafty halls and overlong lectures which have little if any relationship with actual classroom practice. But just as we suspected from our own reading of the research, the EEF is clear that CPD does and can make a difference to the practice of teachers and the consequent outcomes of pupils. Something every teacher is united in wanting to see, even if we have differing opinions on what these outcomes might be. So, how might we go about utilising CPD to best effect?
Well, first you need to cast a really careful eye over what the issues actually are in your school, department or classroom. What are the barriers to learning that your pupils experience? What is it you want them to be able to do? And how will this impact the outcomes you want to achieve, in all its forms? What is the starting point, what is it that people already know, how can we build on that and, most importantly, what will the change look like once it has been implemented, especially in relation to what pupils know and can do at the end of it all?
Identifying areas of improvement
Identifying the key areas you want to improve is the first step. This will only come from high-quality data, both quantitative and qualitative, which is gathered through visiting classrooms, exploring pupils’ work, and dialogue with a range of stakeholders and open and honest reflection. In the fast-paced world of school improvement, this can seem like a frustratingly slow process, but as the EEF’s implementation guide indicates, beginning by exploring the issue as fully as possible allows for more precise and effective implementation of any initiative. If this stage is rushed, you can end up: attempting to use CPD to address an issue which is either not there; or an issue which has been misunderstood; or an issue which only affects a small proportion of the school community. This is highly likely to fail and then we are back to square one, teachers believing CPD has little or no value and needs to be relegated to that ‘I don’t have time’ pile once again. If we want our teachers to value CPD, we need to make it valuable in providing solutions to address genuine problems. This becomes our CPD Curriculum ‘intent’.
However, good leaders and teachers will be gathering this data continuously, striving not necessarily for big changes, but reflecting on what has and has not gone well and what the ‘best bets’ may be to take this further. But not everyone is in that same position and creating the collective conditions where others can share their reflections and challenge assumptions can be hard and is not something we should underestimate. We need to build a culture where people are trusted to explore this, willing to take some risks and open to listening to the ways in which improvements can be made. This can take time and is unlikely to happen overnight. But once this has been established, you are able to really understand what it is you want to achieve, at a macro and micro level, and you can then begin to choose the mechanisms by which this can happen – our CPD Curriculum ‘implementation’.
Implementing your CPD curriculum
Looking at these, on a granular level, is an important part of the design process. Whilst we may love the idea of overnight change, effective change is a slow process, and deciding on the steps and stages is essential if we want to make a difference. CPD should be iterative and therefore we need to understand how this will be developed over time. Just as with pupils, we need to build on prior knowledge and manage their cognitive load if we want to ensure CPD will have the desired impact. This is especially difficult with staff as you have such a wide range of experiences, prior knowledge, ideas and values which each individual brings to the table. There needs to be real clarity about what you want to achieve, why it matters, and selecting elements which are demonstrable and tangible. While we need teachers to be able to understand the theory of why we want to do particular things, we also need them to be able to see these abstract ideas in a concrete way and give them opportunities to explore what it may look like in their context.
Questioning, something which we know is effective in all classrooms, might look quite different in a maths lesson and an English one, with different purposes and approaches. If we take an approach which fails to consider different needs and is too rigid, it is again unlikely to have the impact we want. Busy teachers who have a huge variety of demands placed upon them are likely to revert to past behaviours and change management then becomes either an exercise in compliance or quickly falls by the wayside to be relegated to the ‘yet another good idea we forget about’. This is where I find Dylan Wiliam’s ‘tight but loose’ approach useful, as you ensure staff understand and have fidelity to a core principle, in this instance formative assessment, but have the flexibility to select the best approaches for them and to explore them in their own context. As long as they are reminded of why the principle matters, what underpins it and what we want it to achieve, then giving staff room to breathe, adapt and reflect on impact, is important.
Giving staff agency will help build motivation too, as they work towards something which they know has real value, they are given the opportunity to adapt to their context and to be able to explore this with colleagues who can offer support and alternative perspectives. The more motivated staff are around this too, the more self-sustaining this process becomes, as a truly collaborative environment where people are continuously exploring their practice together is one where outcomes for pupils are likely to lead to improvement, not to mention to wellbeing of professionals who will quickly lose their drive if everything is done to them, and the ‘P’ of professional is lost from CPD.
Ultimately, when considering our implementation of CPD we need to remember that we are dealing with adult learners who are learning on the job. The theory we share with them during an inset day or a twilight session needs to be followed up immediately with time to plan how to use that theory and then, after they have experienced their plans in action, they need time to reflect on what they can learn from it. Too much CPD focuses either on theory or practice and overlooks the vital steps of planning and reflection.
Assessment of progress
Finally, we need to build in regular feedback loops to the conversation, where we can check progress towards our goal, consider deviation and what our next steps might be. This forms part of our assessment of the ‘impact’ of our CPD curriculum. If we have carefully considered the steps needed as part of our planning towards our final goal, then the rhythm should be part of the fabric of the school year. The more granular our approach too, the easier it is to isolate the steps taken and know what the next ones may be, and the more bespoke CPD will feel. Ongoing conversations about pupils’ outcomes will allow all to explore the impact and what is and is not working. We should not be afraid to examine that last part too - what is not working. If things are not going in the right direction and having the desired impact despite fidelity, be brave enough to change course. There is no point returning slavishly to something which isn’t set to achieve what you want. However, if the diagnostic ‘explore’ stage has been done carefully and the mechanisms chosen carefully, this should hopefully mean a slight shift of the rudder as opposed to a 180 change of direction.
Most importantly for me though, it is about really valuing CPD at the heart of whatever we do. Whether our focus is on developing strategies to manage behaviour, improve retrieval, or understand more about the intricacies of our subject, CPD is where improvement will grow and flourish. Showing how it can make a difference and nurturing the environment where people have time and support to achieve shared goals, is essential if we really want to see the development of professionals, and the difference this can make, happen in our schools.
Guest blog by Zoe & Mark Enser, co-authors of 'The CPD Curriculum: Creating conditions for growth', with over 40+ years of combined classroom experience and expertise.