Research and reciprocity; foundations for sustainable professional development and learning

27 October 2018

Philippa Cordingley, Chief Executive, Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education

What makes a difference? Starting with aspirations for pupils!
Research about continuing professional development and learning  (CPDL) that makes a difference for pupils as well as  the staff involved ( Developing Great Teaching, Cordingley et al, 2015)  highlights, above all things,  the importance of aligning a sustained combination of support and learning activities around participants’ specific aspirations for what they want their pupils’ learning to look like if their own learning is successful.  This is at one level a simple, common sense route to sustainability. Any teacher or school leader who is truly confident that CPD is about enhancing their pupils’ learning will find ways to keep it going. But it is surprising how rarely CPD support for teachers and or the CPDL teachers take from it makes a direct link between teacher and pupil learning and starting points.


Where to start?
When we facilitate CPD in CUREE our starting point is always to ask teachers to identify a sub group of learners and to identify what their learning will look like if the CPD is successful. That way we and they know what evidence to look for as the CPD unfolds and can contextualise the support we offer in meaningful ways. Focussing on just three sample learners in any one CPD cycle also means teachers can go beyond simple test scores to explore rich and meaningful pupil evidence including and especially video evidence, that arises from their experiments with new approaches.   Once teachers have got over the early anxieties about having video cameras in their classrooms the opportunity to explore focus pupils’ thinking and learning behaviours in much greater depth than is possible in lessons can be almost addictive. Just a ten minute video of focus pupils’ conversations while they learn can easily support an in-depth hour of coaching.


What works?
The research also identifies a number of activities and experiences that are linked with success -provided they are organised around aspirations for pupils. These include; working with specialists; getting to grips with the why as well as the what of new approaches; shared risk taking to enhance trust; planning for learning over time and formative assessment to enable CPD facilitators to provide tailored support.

Specialist expertise
It is crucial that CPD support provides access to specialist expertise (some of it external) in, for example, illustrating what excellence looks like in different subject contexts and for sub groups of learners, challenging orthodoxies and designing effective evaluation into development – with sensitivity!

• We need specialists to help us challenge orthodoxies. Whilst that might not sound like a key to sustainability it is key to ensuring that the CPD gives teachers the chance to review approaches to things that really matter but which have become routinised and in need of a fresh pair of eyes.

• Knowing what excellence looks like in a number of real, close to practice contexts is definitely what helps teachers see CPD as a way of enhancing the day job rather than an irritating add on; and

• Using specialists to design powerful ways of evaluating the impact of the CPD process helps to ensure that the evidence teachers are looking for – about learner successes and challenges – arises naturally as part of early attempts to experiment with new approaches. Real evidence about pupil s’ learning is crucial for motivating teachers and leaders to stay the course


Getting to grips with the why as well as the what of new approaches
Developing practice and an underpinning rationale or practical theory for new approaches about, for example, why and where things do and don’t work side by side so that teachers and leaders making use of them can make informed adaptations for their own context is central to building ownership.


If CPD stops at illustrating new approaches and asserting that they will work without helping teachers grasp the under-pining rationale and explore where and how they might work best and least well, teachers are condemned to using them in the form in which they first encounter them. But new approaches and ideas have to fit into the slip stream of teachers’ established practices and so have to be adapted for particular pupil groups and flows of learning.  CPD which helps teachers explore the why as well as the what has much more chance of being used on a sustainable basis and helping teachers walk the walk as well as talk the talk of best practice.


Shared risk taking to enhance trust
Setting up peer supported dialogue provides a purposeful and close-to-practice context for CPD.  Developing practice means making implicit beliefs and ideas explicit so teachers and leaders can review them in the light of new evidence. This is a tricky process and one best explored with colleagues making the same journey who know a lot about your pupils and school context. But just discussing practice with peers, rather surprisingly, isn’t linked with learner success unless there is a focus on exploring evidence about how learners are responding to the changes the teachers are making. What teachers need is to experiment with new ideas and disrupt the status quo so they can see, analyse and reflect on learning through a fresh pair of eyes. Taking risks is always challenging and depends on trust. Trying out new approaches with a partner who also risks looking silly if things go wrong is an important way of accelerating trust building.

Reciprocal risk taking and peer conversations are both important to sustainability because they help teachers manage the emotional demands that reviewing and developing practice makes on busy professionals. The evidence is pretty strong that teachers learning together become committed to sustaining CPDL – because they don’t want to let each other down.


Planning for learning over time
Another key characteristic of effective CPDL is that it should be sustained, usually over two terms. The formal support for the CPD can be episodic. It is useful to think of CPD input sessions as electricity pylons that keep the power of teachers’ work based professional learning flowing.

So for sustainability school leaders and facilitators need to consider how to keep the learning moving over time. Crucially important in this is the way regular phase or department meetings create a focus on and time for sustained and sustainable reflection between peers on how professional learning and practice is developing in response to CPD support. Think of this as a power system with CPD events being like electricity pylons (very obvious and playing an important role but not actually the point). It is the teacher learning flowing freely along the lines as they start to apply their learning to their teaching and to pupil learning that really matters.

Each pylon; a CPD training session. In the wires, the flow of educational progress!


Assessment for learning
Last but not least the research tells us that CPD activities need to include formative assessment for the teachers because CPD facilitators need to identify and build on Teachers’ starting points and differentiate the support they offer to take account of what participants know, believe and can do already.

One of the commonest complaints from teachers about CPD is about how little CPD providers take account of what they know and do already.  So getting this right means facilitators using initial formative assessments. It also means using naturally occurring evidence from teachers about how their pupils are responding to the changes they are making to refine their CPD offer.  One size CPD fits no one and there is no good reason to sustain the effort if the offer is undifferentiated.


In short
In other words, sustainable CPD is a structured and sustained professional learning process that works with the grain of school life and of professional practice; one that is utterly focussed on enhancing learner success and that models for teachers the practices CPD seeks to help them make real for pupils. To make it real, in many ways, school leaders and CPD facilitators need to treat their staff as their class.

Philippa Cordingley, Chief Executive, Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education

Posted on 27 October 2018
Posted in: Blog

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