In the last three months, everything that teachers and schools in the UK once took for granted has been torn from under our feet at lightning speed. Our attention has pivoted towards a new and unfamiliar normal – the online classroom, student ‘bubbles’ and unfathomably dense risk assessments have fast become our new priorities. Reality has shifted, perhaps for good. We would be forgiven for placing effective professional learning and ideas about subject expertise and job satisfaction low down on our list of priorities.
This, however, would be a mistake. Now, more than ever, professional learning must be capitalised and underlined at the head of our priority list. The challenges we faced prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 still exist, and many of these are likely to have been exacerbated by the effects of the virus and the national lockdown. For example, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2020) has produced a rapid evidence assessment examining the potential impact of school closures on the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students, which predicts that school closures are likely to reverse progress made to close the gap in the last decade since 2011.
In the short term, the deleterious effects of the virus may be mitigated by effective remote learning provision and sustained catch-up support programmes. In the long term, the education system will need to reconsider the role of the professional development of teachers and school leaders if we are going to continue to improve the educational chances of a generation of children. There is a well-established positive correlation between teacher quality and student achievement. This means that children taught by highly-skilled teachers learn more, on average, than children taught in the classrooms of less effective teachers (Hanushek and Rivkin, 2010). Professional learning, for all its difficulties, is the only tool we have to increase the effectiveness within our ranks, so that we can make greater inroads into the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students.
If professional learning holds one of the keys to sustained improvement at a systemic level, what should it actually look like in practice? A 2015 review of international research into teacher professional development suggested that subject-specific continuing professional development (CPD) is more effective than generic pedagogic CPD, in terms of its impact on pupil outcomes (TDT, 2015). The report from the Teacher Development Trust (TDT) suggests that effective CPD should be underpinned by:
- subject knowledge
- subject-specific pedagogy
- clarity around learner progression, starting points and next steps
- content and activities dedicated to helping teachers understand how pupils learn, both generally and in specific subject areas.
A more recent report into current practice suggests that even though subject-specific CPD is favoured by teachers and appears to have more impact on pupil outcomes, schools in England, especially those struggling in terms of pupil outcomes and inspection results, lag behind other high-performing countries in delivering high-quality subject-specific CPD (DfE, 2019).
We know that effective CPD programmes built around subject expertise are likely to improve outcomes for young people as well as teachers’ sense of job satisfaction. Yet we also know that CPD provision in UK schools is at present a ‘hit-and-miss’ affair, one in which many teachers, and by extension their students, get a poor deal. In many schools, CPD remains a low priority, as indicated by low budget spending and minimal time dedicated to development activities. Even in schools where there is significant leadership buy-in, professional development provision is often characterised by a decidedly scattergun methodology: generic, one-off PowerPoint presentations to the whole staff; a lack of emphasis on evidence-informed strategies or pupil progress; no direct connection between CPD and subject-specific teaching; and little sustained follow-up or evaluation.
A troublesome cause of poor CPD practice lies in knowledge deficits at leadership level. My work with school leaders through the EEF Research School Network has shown me that many school leaders and subject leaders lack a basic understanding of how children learn, the features of effective pedagogy, how to implement research evidence at scale and how to structure and facilitate professional learning sessions. Without leaders who can demonstrate this knowledge and expertise, it is very difficult to support and develop the staff of a school
If we are going to successfully increase subject expertise and job satisfaction, there is much to be done to improve teacher professional learning in the UK. The current hiatus in business-as-normal presents a golden opportunity to reassess and redesign CPD provision at a local and national level. Here are my ideas for what effective professional learning could look like in the next part of the twenty-first century.
CPD should be based on evidence-informed effective practice that has a proven impact on student outcomes. This should be the gold standard at all times. Ideally, we should think of professional development as a core curriculum that spells out the learning expectations of all teachers and leaders. What does every teacher need to know about cognitive science? What does every teacher need to know about assessment theory? What do science teachers (or maths teachers or geography teachers, etc.) need to know about how children learn in their subject? What do subject leaders need to know about effective implementation? What do CPD leaders need to know about the features of effective facilitation of adult learning?
This would be about the design and implementation of frameworks that support minimum expectations at all levels. It would necessitate the support and collaboration of national and regional networks – including the participation of professional associations and agencies to provide training for subject leaders – and would require significant funding. We are already seeing baby-steps towards such a curriculum. ‘The Early Career Framework’, published by the DfE in January 2019, is an excellent example of a rigorous, evidence informed framework (DfE, 2019). The question remains, however, as to whether all leaders, teachers and mentors in the UK are fully equipped to support early career teachers in achieving these objectives. Once again, the knowledge deficit within the community of experienced teachers and leaders is a huge challenge to overcome.
CPD should involve a clear relationship between the generic and the specialist. There are some ‘global’ aspects of teaching and learning that are applicable to every teacher of every subject. These include behaviour management, the main findings from cognitive science and key principles of assessment theory – among many others. However, the training opportunities that are probably most beneficial for teachers are those that are very specifically aligned with the curriculum. Maths teachers need to improve their understanding of how to teach students to solve quadratic equations; English teachers need to improve their knowledge of the Jacobean context of Macbeth; geography teachers need to know how to help students remember the facts that support the numerous case studies they must memorise for their GCSE exams.
When CPD time is set aside to answer subject-specific questions, amazing changes begin to occur. Teachers learn from each other, opportunities for collaboration occur naturally and teachers develop niche areas of expertise. It leads to feelings of competence, relatedness and autonomy, all features of job satisfaction and motivation (Deci and Ryan, 1985). It is important to add that in such a model, leaders must also provide a structure for follow-up, support and coaching to maximise the impact of the training.
Yet we should not overlook the fact that there are many overlaps between the generic and the specialist. Literacy at secondary school provides a good example of this. All teachers, irrespective of the subject they teach, require knowledge of the generic principles that support reading, writing, oracy and vocabulary development. The EEF promotes the concept of ‘disciplinary literacy’ as an approach to improving literacy across the curriculum, which recognises that literacy skills are both general and subject specific. The implication for professional learning is that teachers and leaders must be provided with opportunities to learn about literacy strategies in general terms and domain-specific terms (EEF, 2019). This ‘double-headed’ principal is true of a number of different areas of the ‘teacher curriculum’, including metacognition, feedback and cognitive load theory.
CPD should involve wider collaboration between schools, trusts and training providers. A streamlined, efficient approach to CPD would involve regional and national networks of schools, subject associations and other agencies working together to build capacity, plug gaps and develop specific areas of expertise, whether in general or subject-specific areas. This model should give teachers the opportunity to gain new qualifications, which would then have implications for career progression. The emphasis would be on developing leaders who possess the professional knowledge necessary to transform schools and ultimately student outcomes. Ultimately, this would be a way of professionalising teaching and centralising the role of subject expertise.
The cost and time implications of this approach could be partially mitigated by taking advantage of the new technologies that teachers and schools have embraced during the Covid-19 lockdown. Online platforms, webinars, Loom videos and Zoom conference schools could all have a part to play in creating a manageable model that would reduce the need for long-distance travel and days out of school.
CPD should provide chances for teachers and leaders to conduct independent inquiry. There is a delicate balance to be struck between ‘bottom-up’ teacher autonomy and ‘top-down’ direction. This lies at the heart of a CPD model that improves both teaching and job satisfaction. Teachers require the space and flexibility to explore and develop their subject-based practice through iterative and disciplined inquiry; however, school leaders must ensure that inquiry is carefully scaffolded and rooted in the best available evidence.
At my place of work, Durrington High School, all teachers undertake a year-long inquiry project into an area of teaching of their choice. On INSET days, they meet with a group of other teachers who are exploring the same area of pedagogy in sessions which are led by a member of the teaching and learning team. Programmes like ours mean that teachers have the agency to explore their own practice – but always in alignment with the school’s overall direction.
All aspects of CPD should involve rigorous evaluation. It must always be remembered that CPD is not a one-off event. Training should always lead to real changes and adaptations in the classroom. It should be followed up with monitoring, a support package and an evaluation of its impact. Evaluation is not sexy, but it is a crucial part of the ongoing development of a school and its teaching. Before implementing a new CPD programme, leaders and teacher trainers should be clear-sighted about how they intend to evaluate the impact of the new initiative.
In all, the national tragedy of Covid-19 will present many challenges to schools in the near and far future. We must ensure that we use these difficult times as an opportunity to herald a new dawn in teacher professional learning, which features a joined-up approach that is rooted in the best available research evidence, the wisdom of subject experts and our understanding of the factors that drive teacher motivation and satisfaction.
- In your context, how well is the balance between subject-specific CPD and generic CPD managed?
- What opportunities do subject practitioners have to collaborate with their colleagues in other settings?
- What kind of opportunities for independent inquiry are offered?
Deci EL and Ryan RM (1985) Intrinsic Motivation and Self-determination in Human Behaviour. New York: Plenum.
Department for Education (DfE) (2019) Early Career Framework. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/773705/Early-Career_Framework.pdf (accessed 7 June 2020).
Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2019) Improving literacy in secondary schools. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/improving-literacy-in-secondary-schools/ (accessed 7 June 2020).
Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2020) Impact of school closures on the attainment gap: Rapid Evidence Assessment. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/covid-19-resources/best-evidence-on-impact-of-school-closures-on-the-attainment-gap/ (accessed 7 June 2020).
Hanushek EA and Rivkin SG (2010) The quality and distribution of teachers under the No Child Left Behind Act. Journal of Economic Perspectives 24(3): 133–150.
Teacher Development Trust (TDT) (2015) Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the International Reviews into Effective Professional Development. Available at: http://TDTrust.org/about/dgt (accessed 7 June 2020).