IRIS Connect Professional Development Blog - North America

How do teachers learn best? What you need to consider for effective professional development

Posted by Alexandra Spalding on 6/24/19 2:17 PM

Where does ownership of professional development lie? With the teacher? The professional development provider? The leadership team? Perhaps a more important question is where do you think it should lie?

I often hear that teachers and educators don't have time for their own professional development. Or they believe that it's the leadership team's responsibility to guide their professional development. More often than not PD is thought of as ‘providing training to develop a skill’, but effective professional development is so much more than something that is delivered to teachers.

effective professional development

Since the publication of research such as Inside the Black Box (Wiliam and Black, 1998), there has been general agreement that, when it comes to teaching children, the transmission model of learning does not work and that commitment must be given to teaching through interaction.

Yet, the same cannot be said for teacher PD.

Instead of identifying professional learning as a process of acquisition based on the leadership team passing on their knowledge, learning should be more commonly conceptualized as a course of action whereby teachers actively and collaboratively construct their own understanding and skills.


Discover PD that teachers really want

We asked 1000 teachers what professional development activities they would prioritize if they were in control of their PD, and received some interesting insights.

Our survey showed that teachers really value collaborative and personalized classroom-based PD. In fact, they find these activities even more useful than being sent off site to workshops or receiving one-off in-service days.  Read more about this study here.

"I would prioritize a system that staff trusted to be fair, supportive and provide real and constructive feedback to help improve teaching practice."

Over 80% of the teachers we asked said that they value classroom observing as a PD experience. This includes being observed themselves by a peer, a coach or a mentor, as well as observing the teaching of their colleagues.

"I would prioritize the opportunity to observe and learn from each other."

A number of teachers said that if it was up to them, they would prioritize watching other teachers teach in classroom observations, and would value the chance to observe teachers with particular expertise in different areas.

It was also suggested that video could be used to share this expertise and make it easier for teachers to observe each other by relieving the costs of substitute teachers and the struggles of scheduling issues. However, only a quarter of teachers who said that they highly value video reflection claimed they have been able to use it for their PD. Read more about how video can be used for PD here.

Surprised by these results?  Let us know what PD activities you value and why in the comments section below.


The culture you need for effective professional development

The type of culture needed for effective professional development is summarised nicely in the quote: “No sustainable change can be built without a culture of safety, respect and trust within schools.” - Pran Patel, Lead Coach, Harefield Academy

The need for such a culture is supported by research from Kraft and Papay (2014)

“In schools where teachers are reporting much higher levels of support, much more professional development and greater levels of trust, they find that teachers not only improve more rapidly in the first couple of years, they continue to improve. On average, in those schools, teachers are helping pupils more each year than they did the previous year.” - David Weston, Chair of the DfE Expert CPD Panel and Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust UK.


Why professional development must be continuous

Thinking of teachers as pupils leads me to ask: would you teach a class of students in a one-off lesson with no follow-up to the learning?

In-house PD is typically delivered during an after-school meeting slot that lasts somewhere between 45 and two hours. What about follow-up from the session for the teachers? Too often, we fail to acknowledge the importance of ensuring that professional learning is exactly that for teachers - continuous.

For instance, an evaluation of 75 training opportunities showed that less than 1% were effectively transforming classroom practice (CUREE, 2011). This can be explained using research by Joyce and Showers (2002) that found:

effective professional development

How to increase the chance of improving classroom practice from 10% to 90%

Training sessions are great for sharing ideas, as the article suggests. But as a stand alone activity, they are not a successful method of improving teaching and learning in the classroom.

After learning the theory, seeing a demonstration, having a go and receiving some feedback in the training session, the chance that the technique will be applied when the teacher gets back to the classroom is only 10-15%.  Elmore’s Second Law sums up the issue well: ‘The effect of professional development on practice and performance is inverse to the square of its distance from the classroom.’ (Elmore, 2004)

The types of activity that take this percentage up to 80-90% are peer mentoring, coaching and other forms of collegial support. So, whilst a training session can be useful, it needs to form part of a wider, ongoing CPD programme which has a clear focus on improving pupil outcomes in order to have a real impact on teaching and learning.

Time can be a common barrier to providing teachers with activities such as peer mentoring and coaching. Video is a possible solution for overcoming this, so that lessons can be watched after they’ve taken place and feedback can be provided at a convenient time for the colleague that is reviewing the lesson. Download your free practical guide to video coaching here.


How to assess whether PD is effective

Effectiveness isn’t about the performance of the trainer, but the extent to which practice and outcomes of learners has been improved.

The systematic reflection on and evaluation of the effectiveness of approaches to teaching should be everyone’s responsibility - teachers, senior leaders and PD providers.

Teachers ought to feel in control of their own professional learning and be able to contribute to the culture of learning, openness and trust that is needed for CPD that has a real impact on outcomes.  

Find out more about the effectiveness of professional development, here.


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