Seven deadly sins of teacher development

28th June 2013 at 01:00

Great professional development inspires and motivates teachers, helping them to have a positive impact on young people's behaviour and learning. There is, however, a terrible irony that, as teachers, we often put up with learning experiences that we would never tolerate in our own classes.

This guide to the seven deadly sins of professional development is based on the international systematic reviews of effective practice carried out between 2003 and 2007 by Philippa Cordingley for the UK's Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Coordinating Centre, and in 2007 by Helen Timperley for New Zealand's Ministry of Education. How many of the following sins have occurred in your school in the past year?

Passivity

Nothing is quite as depressing as finishing a long day at work and then being made to listen to someone read out a dozen slides about how you are not doing your job properly. The minutes crawl by, your eyelids droop and the vast majority of information flows straight in one ear and out the other. This sin manifests itself frequently in after-work lectures, away-day courses and online training programmes. It is a sure-fire way to guarantee that few of the ideas being presented ever see the light of day again. Really effective professional development requires opportunities to implement, evaluate, discuss and refine practice.

Superficiality

There are hundreds of sources of wonderful ideas to improve and enliven teaching. Many of us will attempt to get the gist of a new idea over a quick cup of coffee and then rush off to try it out. The trouble with this approach is that, by not taking the time to understand the underlying theory, we are likely to apply the idea out of context without adapting it for our classroom.

A well-known "victim" of this sin was Assessment for Learning, an approach pioneered by Dylan Wiliam of the University of London's Institute of Education. This was reduced from a whole theory of practice to "objectives on the board and all students must know their level". If a teaching practice is worth learning, it is worth learning properly, over time, with frequent reference to (and discussion of) the research behind it.

Overconfidence

When teachers are inspired to try new things, the sheer excitement of innovation often distorts their view of the impact they are having. This is a classic example of the novelty effect, whereby an innovation improves performance not through its inherent qualities but because it prompts increased interest. The worst person to judge the effectiveness of a new idea objectively is the practitioner who is trying it out.

The only way around this is to know which groups of young people are supposed to be gaining from the new method, to take an objective baseline assessment beforehand and to follow up with further assessments. Even this is dubious as you do not know how much they would have improved in any case, so you cannot guarantee that your new approach caused any change. However, one of the biggest crimes in professional development is trial-by-anecdote, so any improvement in the quality of evaluation can only be a good thing.

Insularity

This sin manifests itself in two ways. The first is when teachers insist on pursuing new ideas all by themselves. This is still all too common, despite strong evidence to shows how much more effective it is to work with colleagues who can give support when the going gets tough, provide different perspectives and help keep up momentum in the face of competing priorities.

The second manifestation of this sin is when schools or colleges (or the departments within them) decide to "go it alone" and make the terrible decision to stop using external expertise. Research shows that external expertise can stimulate new patterns of thought and challenge preconceptions. It can highlight examples of superb practice elsewhere and broker connections and new relationships, ensuring that understanding can be shared and spread.

Gluttony

This sin often goes hand in hand with superficiality and is mainly attributable to some teachers' tendency to be magpies. Because there are so many exciting and inspiring sources of new ideas, it is extremely hard to decide which ones to try, so many of us simply try them all at the same time. How many new ideas did you (or your institution) try out in the past year? Saying "no" takes courage and determination, and is a vitally important ingredient of successful professional development.

It takes at least 30 hours of deliberate and careful work on a new teaching approach to begin to embed it effectively in your repertoire - some studies even suggest a 50-hour minimum. Being an ideas glutton may keep you excited and interested, but will ultimately do very little for the quality of your teaching or the quality of learning in your classroom.

Credulity

This is a truly deadly sin and most often manifests itself when teachers start talking about brains and neuroscience. Given a colourful brain-scan image and phrases that sound exciting and pleasingly simple (such as "left-brain" or "kinaesthetic learner"), far too many of us jump up and down with pseudoscientific joy. The sad fact is that many teachers have repeatedly fallen foul of the sin of credulity: believing an idea without properly researching whether it is sound.

In the worst case, we see classrooms where children are labelled with, for example, "auditory learner" badges - something that is the absolute antithesis of the original research and can be actively harmful. In other classrooms, we see children subjected to kooky exercises in an effort to "stimulate whole-brain integration", an idea that has conclusively been shown to be a complete waste of learning time.

Behaviourism

Far too much professional development is aimed at simply changing the observable behaviour and practice of teachers. At its worst, this sin reflects an assumption that teachers are incapable of selecting the correct methods and approaches, and that they need to be trained to be compliant with a particular set of approved methods.

Research shows that the most effective professional development helps teachers to focus on the learning needs of individual young people and iteratively (and collaboratively) refine and evaluate their practice to make improvements. By focusing professional development on improving learning, rather than modifying teaching practice, it is significantly more likely that young people in our classrooms will thrive. Make sure that all professional development begins by identifying which young people are supposed to benefit and how their learning or behaviour is meant to improve.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it identifies some of the issues highlighted by research into effective professional development that leads to improved outcomes for young people. By steering away from these bad habits we can decisively improve the impact of professional development and make significant progress towards higher morale and a self-improving teaching profession. This prize is more than worth the effort required to change the training culture in our schools and colleges.

David Weston is the chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust, the UK's national charity for effective professional development. To find out more, go to tdtrust.org.

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