The findings show that concentrating CPD on subject knowledge gives teachers the confidence to share responsibility for learning with students. These teachers are also able to offer in-depth, open-ended enquiry, confident in the knowledge that they can draw discussion back to the primary goal. Secure subject knowledge also appears to remove dependency on textbooks and limited schemes of work, allowing for creative teaching that responds to the individual starting points of students.
So if we recognise that teachers require continuously evolving subject knowledge and professional expertise, how are we going to find the space and time to develop them both?
In Finland, teachers must complete a master's degree that includes both pedagogy and subject knowledge. The rest of the world is unlikely to go so far. But we can do much more to recognise subject knowledge as a valid part of CPD.
Make time to think
School leaders must ensure that teachers have opportunities to reflect on the impact of generic teaching strategies on specific subjects. For example, cross-curricular sessions (often designed to help colleagues examine alternative ideas) should include time to contextualise the implications for their individual subjects. Is this teaching style really appropriate for maths? Does this research have any relevance to English teaching? Questions like these should be an integral part of CPD.
Primary leaders can involve subject specialists (for example, from local secondary schools or universities) in whole-school sessions and then encourage phase or year teams to work together to contextualise subject knowledge for different stages of development.
Individuals can also take the initiative, even if encouragement to do so has been limited in the past. Secondary teachers can become examiners, a role which generates the most up-to-date knowledge about exam board requirements and introduces them to specialists from other schools.
Teachers can also take distance-learning courses. This may, for example, reflect current developments in English literature or allow a teacher to pick up on an era with which they are less familiar. Such opportunities advance subject learning as well as increasing motivation for teachers and potential gains for students. An alternative is to revive links with subject associations. Many of these are active in promoting subject research and have fantastic guides on how to do it within the constraints of a teacher's limited time.
Nurture professional links
Links with others who are passionate about a subject, perhaps in more practical ways, are important too. Relationships with a local further education college can be powerful here. For example, a recent recruit whose opportunity to teach a subject at higher levels is limited in school may find it is possible to lead an A-level evening class instead. At the other extreme, where there is only one teacher of a subject in your school, a local college might be a great source of mentoring. Primary schools that already have links with FE colleges to train classroom and nursery assistants might well be able to use those connections to make contacts with other departments.
Teachers who tweet often request information about real-world projects that are relevant to current curriculum goals. Other schools across the country, as well as people running community and environmental projects, seem to be only too pleased to respond with links and suggestions. Check out #Edchat on Twitter to see how this works.
Regardless of the route that is taken, seeking to retain relevant subject knowledge is as important as improving planning and practical skills. Given the compelling evidence, it is disappointing that so many school leaders opt for CPD that is at best irrelevant, and at worst a complete waste of everyone's time.
Philippa Cordingley is chief executive of the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (Curee) and Graham Fowler is a researcher, writer and consultant
Cordingley, P, Bell, M, Rundell, B et al (2003) The impact of collaborative CPD on classroom teaching and learning (EPPI-Centre)
Bell, M, Cordingley, P, Isham, C et al (2010) Report of Professional Practitioner Use of Research Review: practitioner engagement in andor with research (Coventry)
Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (2011) How can school leaders manage curriculum change effectively? (Curee)
Cordingley, P and Buckler, N (2013) Who You Gonna Call? Evidence about using specialists effectively and who they are (Skein)
Cordingley, P (2012) The role of professional learning in determining the profession's future (Curee)
Is there a "crisis in understanding"? This TESS article looks at the arguments.
Explore the importance of subject knowledge to maths teaching.
We discuss the UK's shortfall in subject expertise.