Effective CPD focuses on improving teaching and evaluates its impact on learning.
“There is advantage in the wisdom won from pain.”
Aeschylus, The Oresteia, 458 BC
Every year since 1856, Oxford and Cambridge University rowing crews have competed in the Boat Race on the Thames. Today, millions of people globally watch the race. As my housemate competed in Great Britain rowing trials, I’ve seen how the training works.
Rowing training involves phenomenal dedication, teamwork, coaching and practice. A year before the race, trials are run at the British Indoor Rowing Championships over 2000 metres. The use of ‘ergoes’ (indoor rowing machines) displays data as a core score: not just distance and time, but crucially, the speed or ‘split’ projected over 500m. After every stroke they take, indoor rowers get the split as instant feedback, which they use to hit the right pace. This focuses the mind and the team. Over six months, they put in 1,200 hours of training whilst doing full-time Oxbridge degrees. The heaviest, most powerful individuals don’t always win the boat race: skill, balance and teamwork often allow lighter, more effective teams to win.
Getting everyone rowing in the same direction is an apt analogy for teachers’ continuing professional development (CPD) in schools: it requires a clear destination, strong steering, balanced teamwork and dedicated practice. For CPD, there’s a lot to learn from rowers’ teamwork, focus on a core score and instant feedback.
What’s so important about CPD?
If improving teaching quality opens the door to raising student achievement, CPD holds the promise of acting as a key. After all, John Hattie’s synthesis of 800 meta-analyses puts CPD as a large effect size on pupil achievement of 0.62, in the top 20 of all the practices analysed. Instinctively, it feels as if CPD has the potential to raise the bar and close the gap in pupil attainment. It’s just that the keychain of CPD jangles with several hundred keys, and as of yet we’re unsure which ones unlock the door.
There are lots of things suggested as CPD to try to improve teaching quality, of varying degrees of formality, informality and quality: expert presentations, external lectures, specialist courses, individual reading, collaborative research, group discussion, joint reflection, coaching triads, reflective journals, summative observations, best practice sharing, lesson co-planning, action learning sets, Teacher Learning Communities (©Wiliam), data analysis cycles, Personal Learning Networks, Subject-based Outstanding Learning Communities, 360-degree performance appraisals, school R&D hubs, marketplace carousels, social networking sites like Twitter, education blogs, online webinars, teachmeets, education festivals and research conferences, classroom videotaping – the options are many. How do school leaders know what the most effective provision is, and what’s not?
When is CPD ineffective?
Anecdotally, I’ve found that most CPD tends to be quite scattergun. Every year the school presents teachers with about 50 options for twilight CPD sessions. From this dazzling and dizzying array of choice, we are expected to select two options. There’s no real strategy behind why the choices are made, other than that they seem interesting. There’s no real follow up as to whether we’ve actually used it in class. Evaluation forms ask how much we enjoyed the session but not whether the training achieved its objectives or helped us apply its ideas. The options, all of which are one-off events, contain a great many things that seem to have very little to do with actual teaching, from ‘Secrets of a Hostage Negotiator’ to ‘Restorative Justice & Mediation’ to ‘SIMS’ and ‘Cyber Safety’ all the way to ‘Health and Safety Management’. CPD provision as I’ve experienced it has very little focus or impact.
Many teachers agree, and have blogged about it: Top 10 CPD activities to avoid; The Ten Commandments of CPD; Why can’t training days be useful for once?; pyramid jelly cocktail sticks and pretending to be Pluto: these are just a few posts written by teachers on ineffective CPD.
The research evidence says the same. In July 2010, the OECD said diplomatically: ‘In the UK the quality and nature of continuing training available is very uneven’. In fact, schools in England spend just 0.5% of their budgets on CPD, according to the Teacher Development Trust. In contrast, in the world’s best school systems like Ontario, Canada, over 10% of school budgets and teacher time is spent on CPD. Whilst students spend 1100 hours a year learning, teachers in England are expected to spend only up to 30 hours a year, less than an hour a week. But it’s not just that lack of money and time is dedicated to CPD. Research shows that barely 1% of CPD training is improving classroom practice effectively in English schools. Why is it so ineffective?
As David Weston, the CEO of the Trust says: ‘A large swathe of training has no effect whatsoever on pupil outcomes. In fact, in some cases, teachers come away from irrelevant away-days having made poorly-understood and superficial changes to their teaching that not only make the lessons worse but also leaving them with the impression that they are now better teachers who require less training in future’… ‘The training most schools choose is often poorly chosen and ineffective, and the evidence about how to fix this is not widely known or understood.’
The main reason for this is a complete lack of evaluation. Once training is delivered, only 3% of secondary schools evaluate the effectiveness of its impact on student attainment. The maxim here seems to be: if you don’t evaluate it, you can’t improve it.
David Weston sets out some features of ineffective CPD:
- forcing teachers to follow lists of ‘best practice’ methods and checking compliance through repeated observations and scrutiny of lesson plans;
- mandating fixed structures for lessons;
- bolting on ‘tips and tricks’ to existing teaching;
- buying in and parroting pre-prepared schemes of work and lesson plans.
Similarly, Doug Lemov, a teacher trainer with the Uncommon Schools network in the US, who works in schools in disadvantaged areas, had a profound realisation as to why CPD was ineffective:
“Evaluations were outstanding. But then we noticed something alarming. If we surveyed the same participants three months later, they were not quite as upbeat. It was difficult to concentrate with so much going on…
“Our workshop participants, on returning to their classrooms, were trying to do the equivalent of walking onto Centre Court at Wimbledon and learning a new style of backhand in the middle of the match. Of course they weren’t winning. Tennis players know that refining your backhand means hitting hundreds or thousands of strokes before a match begins.
“We realised we would have to approach teaching like tennis. We would have to practise, right there and then in the workshops, doing fewer things better. A single workshop wouldn’t really make people better unless it caused them to practise key skill multiple times – or learn to practice and be able to begin a yearlong cycle of practice…
“On the whole, researchers agree that professional development programs typically have weak effects on practice because they lack focus, intensity, follow up and continuity. In other words, what we do to train teachers fails to make them better teachers. ’
This is exactly what you see when CPD provision is ineffective: it is unfocused on effective teaching, and unevaluated in its impact.
So what makes CPD effective?
Research from 2006, 2011 and 2012 shows that the evidence is clear that CPD is effective when it is targeted, evidence-based, collaborative, sustained and evaluated:
CPD is most effective in improving teachers’ practice and pupils’ achievement when it is sustained and evaluated. Most CPD by contrast is fragmented and unevaluated. Ultimately, I see only two main principles that underpin what schools, leaders and teachers need to do to ensure CPD is effective in improving teaching and learning:
- Focus it on evidence-based teaching practice.
- Evaluate its impact on pupil learning.
1. Practise the 20%
Apply the law of the vital few: with practice you’ll get stronger results if you spend time practicing the most important things. Focus more on practicing the 20% of things that most create value than the other 80% of things you could plausibly spend time on. Practise the highest-priority things more than everything else combined.
2. Design the drills
Use drills to distort the game and intensively isolate one or several skills. The strategic decision about which skills to refine is the essence of teaching. One of the keys is to develop the self-discipline to focus on fewer things.
3. Shorten the feedback loop
One of the fastest ways to improve performance is to improve feedback, which gives immense advantages. Feedback works best when it’s given and used immediately. Make putting feedback into practice right away the expectation. Timing of feedback beats strength of feedback every time.
So, if I was designing a school CPD program, I would focus it on the vital few priorities that we know work best for improving teaching and learning, such as explanations, questioning, checking for understanding and feedback. Departments would then design practice drills to help new and experienced teachers improve their subject-specific use of these core skills. For ideas on what this might look like, see these posts on deliberate practice by Alex Quigley and Nick Hart, and on explanations by Alex and Tom Sherrington. CPD would involve sustained, long-term, strategic focus and collaborative, formative, coaching observations. Alex has also collated the research on how cultivating a culture of coaching could transform teaching quality more comprehensively than I could, and his reading draws on similar texts. Most of all, CPD would be rigorously evaluated for the impact achieved on pupil learning through teacher surveys and departmental focus groups one week, one month and one term after its delivery. It’s no good just asking teachers whether they enjoyed CPD straight afterwards; most feedback will be polite and positive. Instead, we need to ask: have you used the ideas from the CPD session in the last week? in the last month? in the last term? For schools the ‘core score’, so useful to maintain focus and guide teamwork in rowing, is the impact on pupil learning. CPD sessions that prove ineffective would be cut and not repeated.
It strikes me that this simple approach would dramatically transform CPD: systematically evaluating and improving our impact on learning. Just like rowing crews training for the Oxbridge Boat Race, or tennis pros training for the Wimbledon Championships, combining focused practice and constant feedback might achieve great results. Of course, CPD is a different game altogether from ITT, which is what I’ll be looking into next week.