But is it any good? Professional development in schools today - Education Matters Magazine
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But is it any good? Professional development in schools today

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Bob Burstow looks at what could be done to make continuing professional development more appropriate and effective.

Earlier this year, I was given the opportunity to take a very small sample of the variety of continuing professional development (cpd) practices around the world. A group of Education Masters students I was teaching happened have representatives from almost every major land-mass around the world and, as they were all practising teachers, this was too good a chance to miss.

The outcome was fascinating. The range of experience about as diverse as you could imagine. It ranged from “nothing” in some European countries (typically those where initial teacher education lasts for more than five years), to a written exam every three years (in South Korea) to check that the teacher was keeping up with developments in their subject area. In between there was a wide-ranging set of accounts given to the group as we shared our countries varying approaches, with very little obvious commonality.

Looking at this range in another way, the most frequent comments made about cpd fell into three categories:

  • Teachers have to attend imposed professional development programmes to introduce them to a new technique, recent development or process. This was not always related directly to teaching or pedagogy – it might, for example be an update about the correct use of Epi-pens or a new form of data collection or pupil monitoring. What was noticeable was the treatment of all teachers as identical for the purposes of the training – “one presentation fits all”.
  • More rarely there were accounts of professional development based on developing and increasing shared knowledge, through coaching or seminar groups. These, in their turn, ranged from an imposed system, where the coach or seminar chairperson was invariably a senior leadership team member (and hence acted as an evangelist for the school vision) to a much more egalitarian, process and knowledge driven, organisation – which allowed staff members to develop their own expertise and to make decisions about the usefulness of any newly considered development (I was struck both by the account of seminar/study groups in Singapore as well as some of the more whole-hearted implementations of Teacher Learning Communities (see the SecEd article – http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/best-practice/the-potential-of-teacher-learning-communities-in-education – for one example).
  • Many of those who responded commented on the lack of time or inclination for any impact evaluation on the practice of the teachers who had taken part. There seemed often to be a desire to deliver the course and then move on to the next good idea, with little pause between one innovation and the next. The most obvious effect of this, said my students, was innovation overload and the continuous dropping of one new approach in favour of the next, to no perceptible outcome.

This, then, is the professional development world as related to me by 45 enthusiastic and committed young teachers from around the world in January 2014. (You will have noticed, of course, that they were all also taking part in some significant professional development – as masters students at my university – and so made the sample subject to considerable bias – but this was hardly a rigorous piece of research.)

What is beyond doubt is the importance attached to professional development for teachers by most countries education policy makers. What is not so obvious is why this should be so. What is the purpose of all these courses and sessions? How can the purpose be best identified and then matched with the most appropriate solution?

It is these questions that I intend to address here.

Before trying for a solution, a little more ground-work is needed. Consider these three issues:

Firstly, what does this wide range of cpd programmes tell us about the view held about teachers and teaching?

It is possible to identify the standard two extremes from these accounts. The seminar and Teacher Learning Community approach tends towards a view of teachers as independent, informed professionals, who are very capable of making sensible enquiries and considered decisions.

The imposed, all teachers are the same, instruction sessions suggest a view of teachers as technicians, there to carry out instructions without question or discussion.

So the method of delivery may betray the viewpoint of the course organiser. The issue, I suggest, is not that this variety of stance exists – rather whether it has been consciously considered as a factor at the design and preparation stage of the cpd. The course content may be important and need to be “delivered” to all teachers – but to jump from there to treating every staff member as identical is a false move and not one that any thoughtful teacher would ever do in the planning of their own lessons. Why, therefore, should this be applied to cpd?

Secondly, what is the direction of the cpd? Is it being imposed (by government, district or school principal) in a top-down manner – or is it of a shared, collaborative nature and hence bottom-up in its origin and development?

You will be able to think of examples of both from the accounts at the start of this article and from your own experience.  Again, it is not the existence of these contrasting methods that is a cause for concern. The question here is whether the direction was ever considered during the planning and development phase of the individual cpd programmes.

It is tempting to suggest that the answer to this question is “No” – that cpd developers will tend to stick to their own comfort zone and familiar practices, rather than considering what might be the most effective approach to maximise the required effect (which begs the question about how much the consultant or course designer has considered outcomes).

Thirdly – and weaving through the whole of these accounts – is the issue of the content, and the thought that has been given to that.

My particular concern is that constant stream of “good ideas” or “new developments” or “important new techniques and approaches” that schools are flooded with. Consultants, governments and others alike are encouraging or demanding teachers to adopt their ideas.

What consideration is given to the validity or the provenance of these inspiring ideas? How is the average, pressured teacher (or indeed principal) supposed to distinguish the genuinely innovative idea from the false?

Others are concerned about this as well. In England, Tom Bennett, teacher journalist and blogger, has been worrying at this for some time and is beginning to address the issue with a series of day conferences for teachers aimed at giving them the tools to make informed decisions.

For those who can’t make events like that, then the web (with the usual caveats about validity and rigour) can offer useful thoughts – for example: Bill Cerbin’s 2010 presentation on the subject.

So, given the identified problem of cpd today and the three contextualising issues – what might be done to make cpd more appropriate and effective?

These suggestions may be familiar to many. The variety of practices around the world that were identified in my quick and dirty sample (earlier in this article) make it a near certainty that some regions and districts may already be doing this. However, nearly 40 years of experience in England suggest that what I am proposing here is rare. More commonly, senior leadership teams in England are faced with a series of training “slots” in the year planner, which need populating – and a number of ideas and initiatives that need to be implemented. The result of this is often a series of disconnected and isolated training sessions that introduce staff to a series of ideas. More adventurous schools may be trying a form of Teacher Learning Community but which too frequently is hijacked by senior leaders in the school who require specific areas of school practice (developmental needs as perceived by them) to form the working agenda for the groups.

What follows is an actual example of the developmental route that I am proposing:

1. The school identified a group (in this case the senior team in a school teaching 5 to 11 year olds – about 220 pupils) responsible for designing cpd and gave them the tools and the time to prepare a coherent plan.

2. The team initially focussed on the desired outcome from the cpd. This might be, for example, “raising the level of teaching in the school to outstanding” (this is in the terminology of the school inspectorate). It may be – as here – too vague or ambitious to be readily addressed, so a period of discussion may be needed to render the original idealistic aim more readily addressable. In this example the team stepped back from their initial objective to consider what blocks and hindrances were preventing this goal being reached. They decided that a major factor was a teaching staff who had become over-reliant on top-down advice and reassurance, almost to the point of helplessness and a high aversion to risk and failure. So the outcome was revised – to improve self-reliance and an active enquiry among all the teaching and classroom-based support staff. The initial objective was still present, but the actual outcome of the cpd programme was more realistic, attainable and (importantly) open to evaluation.

This latter is highly significant. If the outcome is not clearly defined, then how can cpd participants or school leaders know whether it has been achieved? Unless the outcome is clearly defined, how is it possible to accurately evaluate its impact?
3. The next stage is to consider how the potential participants are positioned with respect to the proposed outcome. To assume that all teachers are equally knowledgeable or ignorant is obviously incorrect. It is not an assumption that any teacher would make about their pupils. Indeed, to view cpd in the same terms as lesson planning – in terms of differentiation, say – is another way of raising the awareness of the planning group to the demands that face them.

(I was intrigued to learn recently of a school who require all staff, up to and including the principal, to deliver any in-house cpd session in a way that models an outstanding lesson. This is a challenge – especially to all those deeply reliant on PowerPoint – but is still missing the point – by still being focussed on the mechanics of the cpd sessions rather than the deep developmental part of the process.)

Consideration of the variety of starting points, in terms of expertise in the field that is the subject of the outcome, will then allow for a meaningful discussion about the actual cpd sessions themselves. In the example, it was realised that the Early Years teachers – who, in England, are constantly observing and recording their pupils’ behaviours, work and approaches to learning and other children – were in a different league when it comes to enquiring into their own classroom practice. This immediately focussed attention onto the contribution that they could make in discussion and analysis. It also had a marked effect on the final content of the introductory sessions for the resulting cpd programme

4. The penultimate stage in this process (which is so often the first in many planning meetings) is to decide what form the cpd should take. Questions that might now be considered include:

  • What is the time that will be needed to deliver this programme? A whole school year in our example. It was immediately apparent that this was not an outcome that could be addressed in a one hour twilight session. It also meant that the whole staff were focussed on one aspect of their development over the whole year.
  • Is the cpd best delivered by an in-house team, or is an external expert/facilitator a better solution? In the case of the example the answer was “Both”. I was invited in, as a university lecturer, to introduce the staff to the idea of classroom enquiry. We also discussed possible methodologies for observing learning in a class. There was also a hidden agenda in the layout of the programme – early sessions were delivered in a largely didactic and familiar cpd format – but this changed over the year so that the meeting where teachers brought back the results of their observations for discussion and advice was run by the teachers themselves as a series of floating discussions within the framework of a poster session – teachers presented their findings and questions on a poster that everyone else was invited to write on with answers or comments. This promoted extensive and intense discussion among small groups that changed as staff moved from poster to poster.
  • What obstacles to success can be diminished? Time and capacity are always issues in cpd – in this case the head employed an extra 0.5 of a teacher for the year. This time was available to all staff on request so that they could take the time to observe their pupils without trying to teach at the same time.

5. The final stage (and the most frequently ignored – despite the work of Guskey and others) is to plan the evaluation of the programme. Most often the only visible evaluation is the reaction sheet handed out at the end of a cpd session, which is little more than a knee-jerk response to the session itself and too often reflects the mismatch between the content and the existing knowledge of the participant.

I have found that evaluation over a longer time serves not only to provide an opportunity for progress towards the outcome to be assessed, but can also act as an extension of the cpd. By this I mean that it acts a reminder to participants about the programme, encourages them to keep considering its relevance and may provide an incentive to seriously work at embedding what they have learned in their continuing practice.

So what…

It is my experience that cpd in schools is often too short term, too reactive, too prescriptive and too varied to stand a chance of making a significant impact.

To stand a chance of improving success – and hence being demonstrably cost-effective (we have to keep the accountants happy) – cpd should be: well-planned, carefully paced and thoroughly evaluated (preferably before yet another new idea is introduced to the school).

There is one final thought – and this is for every teacher, everywhere. Do we not owe it to ourselves and more importantly to the children we teach to maintain our own reading and learning so that we can discriminate between the genuinely useful innovation and the quick sure-fire cures of the “snake-oil salesmen”?

Bob Burstow spent much of his working life as a teacher of 11-18 year olds. During that time he became involved in the first use of computers in schools (in the 1980s) and at that time first questioned the effectiveness of cpd provision for teachers and began to produce materials to reflect on and address his concerns. Upon moving into teacher education at Kings College, London in 2007 he was able to focus on this long held concern and now researches, lectures and publishes in this field.