The new theory of evolution

Creating continuing professional development that is meaningful and memorable is possible after all. David Weston reports

David Weston

Continuing professional development is one of the most powerful tools for improvement. In schools where the CPD is run really well, teachers feel more confident, more enthusiastic and more able to make a difference to their pupils' learning. At the same time, pupils benefit from greater motivation and enthusiasm for subjects, improved performance in tests and greater fluency and sophistication in their answers.

Yet far too much training is one-off, consisting of superficial tips and tricks, and fails to relate to the needs of the pupils. Nobody learns effectively this way.

Philippa Cordingley from the Centre for the Use of Research Evidence in Education (Curee) is one of the lead researchers in this area and explains that "What's sauce for the goose, in this case the pupils, is sauce for the gander - the teachers"; if we practised in CPD what we preach in the classroom, then the whole profession could benefit.

My charity, the Teacher Development Trust, is campaigning for schools to adopt radically more effective approaches to the way teachers develop and learn. Our approach is based on a wealth of international evidence that highlights four key principles underpinning some of the outstanding practice in the best schools, as well as school systems in high-performing countries such as Japan and Finland.

Principle 1: Focus on pupil need

Teachers' CPD should be targeted squarely at the learning needs of their pupils. By carefully identifying specific pupils or cohorts, the whole process of learning becomes less abstract. The best schools are constantly on the lookout for pupils who need further support, whether for remedial work or to challenge them further.

The trouble is that the assessment data used in schools is often too broad. Simply knowing that James is performing below his target in maths tells you nothing about the specific areas where he is struggling. What he really needs might be some detailed work on geometry and angles.

The more specific the identified need, the better the professional development. Because his teacher, Angela, knows that James and four of his peers seem to be having particular difficulty with geometry, she can book herself on to a course that gives her more teaching strategies in geometry with these pupils. During the course, she will be considering James' reaction to every new idea presented, and she can ask specific questions of the facilitator to help address her pupil's needs.

If the facilitator, Steve, is being particularly effective, he will ask challenging questions of Angela to make her question her own beliefs. Perhaps she has arrived with a preconception that pupils like James will never grasp these ideas fully and that differentiation in these cases means not presenting harder material. Until Angela's underlying beliefs are engaged, she is unlikely to change the way she teaches significantly.

At the end of this particular course, Angela may give Steve a low rating as she did not like having her ideas questioned, but effective learning is not always enjoyable. Indeed, after a restless night of thinking, Angela goes back to school with much higher aspirations for James and his peers.

Principle 2: Joint practice development

The traditional British teacher is a solitary employee who gets quite uncomfortable when someone starts looking over their shoulder. Someone in senior management will probably pop in for an observation once in a blue moon, and they will be poring over their test scores in a spreadsheet somewhere, but all very much at arm's length. This whole approach to teaching contrasts hugely with the teamwork displayed in Japanese and Finnish schools, where the quality of subject teaching is the joint responsibility of every teacher in that department.

A bad lesson in one classroom is a problem for everyone, so a huge amount of time is spent working in teams to plan lessons, share learning issues and misconceptions, and evaluate the work of many different pupils to build a mutual understanding of the learning taking place.

The joint development of teaching practice is of fundamental importance in improving teachers' professional development. "Sharing good practice" is not enough by itself - it can lead to superficial understanding of ideas without engaging with the theory behind them.

When such teamwork works well, it can lead to more disagreements in the staffroom, albeit productive ones. But in such staffrooms, trust and mutual respect run very deep. Teachers coach and observe one another, and precious time together is used to discuss ways to create more effective learning.

To illustrate, Angela, from our previous example, returns from her course and starts planning the next group of lessons with her colleague from the adjacent set. They have a heated debate about the merits of the new ideas, which leads Angela to send facilitator Steve an email to clarify some points. Her colleague agrees to come and watch Angela's next lesson to see what effect the ideas are having on James, and they use his observations, as well as some joint discussion of that lesson's work in his exercise book, to refine their theories before presenting them to the rest of the department.

Principle 3: Sustain the learning

Angela's growing enthusiasm for the new approaches will not come to much unless she keeps on refining and adapting the ideas for several months. Sadly, this is the prime reason that most good ideas from CPD fail to have any impact - people lose momentum, forget the ideas and revert to their previous practice.

Research suggests that unless teachers actively engage with a new idea for at least 50 hours over two or more terms, the difference it makes to their pupils will be minimal. If teachers are attending one-off courses as part of this extended cycle of enquiry then such off-site CPD can play an immensely valuable role. However, in most schools these courses are isolated and disconnected occurrences and all benefit is lost in a sea of other priorities and classroom stresses.

Angela's work with her colleague has really only just begun. Fortunately, she and her colleague find time regularly to plan their next lessons and they are able to observe each other, as well as other colleagues, so that the whole team develops the ideas that Angela learned on her original course. As time goes on, it is apparent that the root causes of James' issues with geometry are quite specific - different, in fact, from some of the other pupils'. James never really understood angles the first time they were taught, and Angela tries pairing him up with a more confident pupil to work through some fundamental ideas. This is only partially successful and Angela ends up partnering with a different colleague to develop their approaches to partner work, which sparks a whole new interest in this style of teaching.

Two terms later, after repeated research, reflection and enquiry, the department has a much more solid approach to geometry that permeates every scheme of work in every year, and they are starting to head off in different directions as they feel their work is done.

Principle 4: Engage with experts

Many schools have created CPD groups that work this way, with a process of enquiry that leads them to new ideas. People usually feel quite inspired by the process. In our example, the department proudly invites course facilitator Steve in to observe their new approach, but they are stunned when he is less enthusiastic than they are. Steve explains that, although they have come a long way, they have not yet explored the new ideas to their full potential.

This is a classic example of group-think. No matter how well intentioned, any group of people will start thinking along similar lines and end up agreeing even when the evidence is weak.

The final fundamental principle of effective CPD is that it requires external expert input in order to disrupt such group-think and guide teams towards the most effective strategies. Teachers need to engage with experts and coaches at regular intervals to ensure that their own lines of enquiry are not leading them down blind alleys.

While refining and experimenting with practice is vital to improving teaching, pupils cannot afford to wait while teachers discover that their new approaches are ineffective. Similarly, improvement should not be allowed to stop when a teacher is overwhelmed with personal or work issues. There needs to be a mentor or coach on hand to support them and ensure they remain engaged.

Angela's team spend a while discussing their progress with Steve and he suggests three or four possible ways in which they can fruitfully develop their thinking. They spend a couple of hours planning some lessons with him and agree to bring him back in to their department at the end of the academic year. In the meantime, Angela promises to remain in touch by email to make sure they do not repeat their mistakes.

The Teacher Development Trust is holding a series of free webinar debates about effective CPD. Visit and For more on Curee,

Sound advice

"This sounds great, but my school doesn't get CPD. What should I do?"

- Find one or two like-minded colleagues and start your own CPD group. Begin by identifying specific pupils and learning issues.

- Identify expertise on the web, in books and in other schools. Twitter is a great way to share and discuss ideas with other teachers.

- Set yourselves a long timeframe - meet regularly for at least two terms. A rota for bringing cakes and biscuits can do wonders.

- Observe each other and video yourself. Do not worry about what you are doing at the front; concentrate on the way pupils react to the lesson.

- Talk to sympathetic members of the senior leadership team and ask them to attend some of your sessions to see the benefits.

- The planning stages of a lesson are where teachers really engage with content, misconceptions and ideas to develop their thinking.

Worrying facts

- In a snapshot of training providers for the Training and Development Agency for Schools, only 1 per cent of the courses were effective at transforming poor teaching into better practice.

- Only 7 per cent of schools report evaluating the impact of CPD on pupils' learning.

- Schools spend, on average, just 0.5 per cent of their budgets on CPD.

- The most common form of training teachers receive is watching a PowerPoint.

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David Weston

David Weston is chair of DfE Teachers’ Professional Development Expert Group and chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust. He’s a former maths and science teacher and a governor of both a primary and a secondary school.

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