Playful CPD would be a lot less dull and lot more effective

Educators are increasingly coming to appreciate the importance of play in lessons – and the same goes for staff training

Fun CPD would mean for better training

Continuing professional development. Three words in, and there’s a chance I’ve made your eyelids start to droop already. It’s such a ubiquitous term in education that we rarely consider a fundamental problem with CPD: it sounds bloody boring.

One wonders if this is part of the reason why teachers have had to endure so much substandard CPD over the years: perhaps the term sounding dull seems like implicit permission to make it dull in practice. And, by goodness, there has been plenty of dull CPD over the years, from fussy workshops on educational minutiae, to tickbox compliance with hare-brained government schemes, to the cookie-cutter wisdom of “inspirational” speakers for hire.

Too often, CPD has been something to endure, something that leaves teachers resentful and stressed that their real work is stacking up while they drum their fingers.

How refreshing, then, to see teachers and schools taking control of CPD, in the hope of creating something more useful, interesting and relevant. In recent weeks, for example, we’ve seen teachers enthusing about the Portobello Learning Festival in Edinburgh and the inaugural Falkirk Learning Festival, held last Saturday.

A “learning festival” already sounds more promising than a CPD day or session – a festival should be a jamboree of ideas and possibilities – but there was more than clever branding going on here. The enthusiasm for these events was evident on Twitter. At Portobello High School, this stemmed largely from building the festival around an issue that many teachers are keenly interested in and trying to get their heads around: adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs.

At Falkirk, there was talk of the “passion” and “inspiration” fuelling the day, but teachers also praised myriad workshops that identified – sometimes in granular detail – solutions to situations they might actually encounter in classrooms and schools.

Successful CPD, then, needs to tap into teachers’ genuine interests and be shaped by what will be of practical use to them. All of which may seem self-evident; certainly, members of grassroots movements such as TeachMeets and Pedagoo, both of which started in Scotland, could have told you that ages ago. But it’s a far cry from the top-down dispensing of arid information often packaged as CPD over the years.

Writing for Tes Scotland as she looked back on a 40-year career, former secondary head and local authority boss Isabelle Boyd said that one big improvement in Scottish education was the emergence of CPD as an ongoing process – ie, the idea that teachers should constantly be thinking about what they do and how to make it better (bit.ly/TesBoyd).

But there is still a way to go, she fears. In a follow-up this week (see tes.com/news), she writes of “a need to unpack what we mean by CPD”, adding: “There is still a residue of opinion that sees CPD as going to a course, or an event – something done to you or for you.”

Humans are inherently playful, and teachers are increasingly trying to reflect that in their classroom practice. Perhaps that should be extended to times when pupils are nowhere in sight: to in-service days, twilight CPD and weekend learning festivals.

Play is widely misunderstood, still often dismissed as a sign of lacking seriousness and rigour. Yet, playfulness does not mean chaos: it means a nimble approach to ideas, a determination to explore and experiment rather than waiting to be told what to do.

The best CPD is playful: teachers are driving their own professional learning, not just waiting for information from on high. With freedom to explore ideas and trust to set their own agenda, this is worlds away from the worst examples of mind-numbing CPD.

In short, CPD doesn’t have to be dull – but you’ve got to let the teachers play.

@Henry_Hepburn

This article originally appeared in the 21 June 2019 issue under the headline “We all learn better through play – and that includes teachers”