How to set teacher CPD free

Few people can say for certain the best way to address continuing professional development in schools, but many are in agreement on one thing: the way it’s done in Scotland needs a shake-up. Henry Hepburn reports on the trend towards more rough-and-ready grassroots approaches to sharing best practice
15th March 2019, 12:04am
Henry Hepburn


How to set teacher CPD free

Headteacher Gavin Clark draws breath to make his opening remarks. The mic's not working. After a bit of jostling with the stand, he gets going, joking about the wonky equipment and the unusual design of the 1960s assembly hall (a chunk of the audience has to crane their necks to watch from a diagonal section to the left). And everyone has to try not to be mesmerised by the glitter ball dangling from the ceiling.

This is the learning festival at Preston Lodge High School in East Lothian. It's been an annual fixture since 2014 when it became one of Scotland's first secondaries - some say the first - to organise just such an event. It feels a little rough and ready to begin with, as a few stragglers attempt to bag one of the few blue plastic chairs at the back of the room; initially, the vibe is more stand-up comedy club in a basement bar than corporate-showpiece CPD event.

This, however, is pretty much the point: the first Preston Lodge Learning Festival in 2014 was organised explicitly as an alternative to the Scottish Learning Festival (SLF) in Glasgow. The SLF was - and still is - the flagship event in the Scottish education calendar (see box, page 28), but many teachers around the country have complained over the years that they would never be able to attend because it's held midweek and they can't get time away from school.

Preston Lodge's festival makes a virtue of its improvisational feel - a world away from personality-led TED Talk slickness. Right from the start, it's clear that this event, which is squeezed into a single afternoon, revolves around the needs of classroom teachers.

"The point isn't to 'listen to me' - that's exactly what this learning festival is not about," says Clark, as he welcomes delegates, made up of his own staff, but also visitors from as far afield as Aberdeen and Glasgow.

The festival chimes with the changing approaches to teacher CPD in Scotland in recent years. There's been a move towards more in-house, school-led sessions, arguably fuelled by necessity - given the pressure on local authority budgets - as much as an evolving understanding of effective pedagogy.

The Preston Lodge festival - built around small, interactive sessions where teachers share tips for often very specific classroom and school situations - certainly seems more effective than the hoary old approach of splurging school or local authority cash on some big-name speaker to sprinkle his (and it usually is a he) pedagogical magic dust. Sometimes, teachers come away feeling inspired by such talks, but many have questioned the long-term impact of such an approach.

So, what does the research say about the most effective way to do CPD? As is so often the case with educational research, findings are far from conclusive. It is hugely difficult to determine whether a specific form of CPD - or indeed any educational intervention -

will have a major, sustained impact. It took long enough to prove that smoking caused cancer; education is subject to so many variables that determining cause and effect is a particularly slippery process.


Filling the research cavities

That said, research on CPD poses some fascinating - and perhaps counterintuitive - questions for teachers. And it's hugely important that the profession considers them, according to CPD experts Harry Fletcher-Wood and Sam Sims.

"It takes years to become an expert teacher," they wrote in Tes Scotland in September. "Even the very best initial teacher training cannot hope to give teachers everything they need to master the craft. Good CPD is critical to ensure that teachers can keep getting better. Research suggests that good CPD can also help to improve retention in the profession."

But, they added, "we cannot provide good CPD unless we know what it looks like", and that a year they spent analysing swathes of research evidence "revealed some important gaps in our knowledge".

Fletcher-Wood, associate dean at the Institute for Teaching in London, and Sims, a researcher at the UCL Institute of Education, were in no doubt that bad CPD ("inspiring" speakers with their own agenda, case studies a decade out of date, one-off training unconnected to anything) was "far too common".

But they also questioned widespread assumptions about features of effective CPD, such as that it had to be sustained, subject-specific, practice-based, involve teacher buy-in and draw on external expertise. "Collaboration" - a topical issue in Scotland in light of the publication of the headteachers' charter last month, which deemed this to be a crucial factor in the devolution of more power to schools - is also commonly viewed as essential for good CPD.

"Collaboration could be crucial," said Fletcher-Wood and Sims, who reviewed 980 CPD studies. "But it could also be that many effective programmes bring teachers together because it's a cheaper way to provide CPD. Concluding that collaboration made such programmes work is like concluding that mint flavouring prevents tooth decay."

So which factors were they more persuaded by instead? One form of CPD that seems to have "a powerful effect on student learning" is "instructional coaching: frequent, individual, targeted guidance for teachers on small steps to improve". Coaching seems likely to help change those "old habits" ingrained in a profession that, with the same courses and exams returned to each year, can become repetitive. "Most notably, coaching programmes require teachers to repeatedly practise new skills in their own classrooms," Fletcher-Wood and Sims said.

Setting aside this insight, it seems that we are still at the foothills of understanding what makes CPD work.

Preston Lodge head Clark is aware of this, and does not make grandiose claims for the school's festival and associated CPD - but he is convinced by an idea that underpins it.

"The whole philosophy about it all is management relinquishing control," he says. Even if senior staff are not immediately convinced by the merits of every session, freedom is paramount; "complete autonomy" is essential to get the most out of teachers, insists Clark, even if some ideas on the festival line-up appear stronger than others.

Paradoxically, however, attendance for this edition of the festival is compulsory. It was previously held on a Saturday, when 30-40 of Preston Lodge's 90 or so teachers would attend; this time, almost all teaching staff are here, with more than 180 attendees in all.

Clark says that the risk with school-run CPD is that it amounts to the same ultra-keen staff talking among each other. But with everyone in attendance, sceptics included, there's a chance that you might make a difference to the practice of teachers who would never have turned up voluntarily.

Richard Holme, a University of Dundee academic who has explored effective teacher CPD, has no problem with mandatory participation, as long as participants do ultimately buy into the CPD they are undertaking. Holme warns of the danger of taking a woolly approach to CPD: "If the ultimate aim is learner outcome, it needs to be focused and have a rhythm and be sustained - that is, repeated and returned to, with two school terms suggested as a minimum. Being situated in practice - having an obvious professional relevance - is also important."

And, Holme stresses, schools should not underestimate seemingly more peripheral elements of good CPD - such as a good feed and rewarding company.

"Based on more informal or anecdotal evidence, having decent catering - especially for after-school sessions - and being able to attend with people you like, perhaps even bringing a friend, is more important than we realise. This might be one of the reasons for the popularity of the recent BrewEd pub-based initiatives [see]."

I confess to not noting the quality of catering at the Preston Lodge Learning Festival, but I do attend several sessions. The 35 workshops - each participant chooses three - are eclectic in the extreme (see box, left). If there is something that binds them, it's that they tend to deal with fairly specific practical classroom issues rather than high-minded philosophical discussions or the unpicking of abstruse policy issues.

I hear a depute headteacher from the Scottish Borders telling a smattering of teachers how they could slash the time they spend marking by deploying comparative judgement, a system whereby teachers compare two pieces of work at a time, repeating the process and allowing an algorithm to rank the papers. This, he says, allows more than 100 scripts to be marked inside an hour, freeing up time for "high-quality corrections".

A primary teacher leads a session on "fearless eating", explaining how she got the fussiest of eaters to try spinach, lettuce and radishes.

In some rooms, things get very specific. There is a history teacher, for example, who shares an ingenious method for using a Nando's menu to help pupils get their heads around the 1297 Battle of Stirling Bridge and the Scottish Wars of Independence.

Down another corridor, an administration and business-studies teacher has the five attendees at his session huddled around a desk - and looking relaxed, with one PE teacher in his shorts - as he shares what he does to remedy his concerns that S3 students are too used to being "spoon-fed" answers. He has been researching the effectiveness of an approach that demands pupils show that they have attempted to find an answer for themselves before asking the teacher for help.


'No straightforward answers'

This teacher, like a few others at the festival, undertook his investigation as part of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership (SCEL) teacher leadership programme. Since 2014, SCEL - now part of Education Scotland - has been at the forefront of efforts to improve CPD and get teachers to think more deeply about what works in classrooms.

Teacher professional learning has never been more to the fore in Scotland, with the Professional Update system - overseen by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) - demanding that teachers continually update their expertise. The GTCS website also emphasises how central the idea of "practitioner enquiry" - "an investigation with a rationale and approach that can be explained or defended" - has become to the job of the teacher in Scotland; the hope is that it "supports professional growth by challenging or 'disrupting thinking' and 'ingrained habits of mind'".

Another CPD expert, Professor Rachel Lofthouse, says there are "no straightforward answers" on what the best forms of CPD are, as this depends largely on the quality - rather than type - of provision and to what extent teachers can apply it in practice. She is clear, however, that schools should play a bigger part in organising CPD.

"There is an industry of big-name speakers at education conferences, most of whom are engaging and informative, but there is also a wealth of knowledge among the profession, not all of which is shared as effectively as it might be," she says. "This is a good reason to develop more school-based CPD."

Lofthouse, who is director of CollectivEd: The Mentoring and Coaching Hub, stresses that effective CPD is not just about being trained in something, but also allowing teachers to "engage in professional learning".

"The impact of this will be enhanced if teachers and school leaders are able to create space and time after the CPD event to continue to reflect on, and be creative with, what they have learned," she says.

Discussion has to continue afterwards and teachers must be given opportunities to try things out in practice, insists Lofthouse. "One advantage of school-based CPD is the shared experience with colleagues and the enhanced chance of ongoing discussions with each other," she adds.


'Incredibly lonely'

The Preston Lodge Learning Festival is not entirely about small workshops: it also has a keynote speaker. Professor Kate Wall, however, has not been parachuted in to provide a few random nuggets of wisdom and the short-lived afterglow of the inspirational speaker: her cerebral presentation zeroes in on an idea of practitioner inquiry that is at the forefront of so many teachers' minds - at Preston Lodge and beyond - just now.

The University of Strathclyde professional-learning expert says it is "really powerful" when teachers throw away that old-fashioned notion that they are the fonts of all knowledge, and instead prioritise improving their own learning. This, she emphasises, has to be a collective endeavour.

"Expertise might be in the classroom next door, so we need to hear more about what each other is up to, and what worked and what didn't, to solve the key questions of practice in the school," she says.

Yet, taking control of one's professional development can be "incredibly lonely", says Wall. As a former primary teacher, she recalls being seen as an "oddball" for "asking lots of questions" about teaching practice in her school and querying why things were done in a certain way.

To those teachers who do persevere in asking questions, whatever resistance they encounter, Wall cautions not to expect clear-cut answers. Even the Education Endowment Foundation (which analyses research evidence on the effectiveness of a host of teaching approaches) and Professor John Hattie (he of the meta-analysis of 80,000 education studies) do not have proof of what works, says Wall, only a list of "best outcomes".

Her message for teachers keen to improve their professional development by throwing themselves into research projects, then, is not to overreach: "We have to be really careful about making grand statements [about what works]. Are you really going to get proof?"

Good and bad CPD is not a black-and-white issue. Big-name, one-off speakers might be useful, for example, if they've done some homework on the audience they're addressing; and school-run CPD sessions may be in vogue, but they have to extend beyond a single in-service day.

The bottom line is that there remains much to learn about what makes for effective teacher CPD. There is, however, consensus on one thing: teachers should not wait for CPD to be done to them. If CPD has worked, it will produce teachers who question old habits, challenge received wisdom and never stop learning.

Henry Hepburn is news editor for Tes Scotland. He tweets @Henry_Hepburn

This article originally appeared in the 15 March 2019 issue under the headline "Set CPD free"

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