Why most teacher CPD fails and what we might be able to do about it

As a Research School we spend a great deal of our time reading, listening and talking about effective teacher development.  This blog is an attempt to summarise the brilliant work from a number of super colleagues, that is helping to shape our thinking.  In this video Mike Hobbiss talks about the work he has been doing with Becky Allen and Sam Sims on habit formation and teacher development.  In the presentation, Mike discusses the graph below from the paper Can Professional Environments in Schools Promote Teacher Development?  (Kraft & Papay):

The graph suggests that the performance of teachers improves rapidly in the early years of their careers, but then begins to plateau from year 3/4 onwards.  None of this is surprising.  If you don’t improve in the early years of your teaching, it will become quite a miserable job!  So to bring about this improvement, novice teachers are supported to focus on specific aspects of their teaching and then receive regular feedback on how successful it is.  This feedback might come from an observer or how well the students respond to it.  Based on this feedback they will either ditch the approach or refine it.  The approaches that appear to work will then be the subject of very deliberate practice, day after day and lesson after lesson.  Eventually, over time, they will be become a habit.

The fact that these approaches novice teachers are focusing on, whether they be focused on managing behaviour or developing pedagogy, become habitual is useful in some ways.  It means they don’t have to think about them and so can focus on other things in the classroom.  This does, however, present a problem.  Habits are hard to break.  So when we try to get teachers to embed new approaches into their teaching, what we are trying to get them to do is to break some habits and form new ones, which is difficult.  Most CPD that teachers engage with will fail at this, because (a) it doesn’t target a specific approach (b) it doesn’t give focused feedback on that new approach and (c) it doesn’t provide the opportunity for the teacher to engage in deliberate practice in a sustained and focused way over time.  All too often CPD is too general and a short lived and so won’t support habit formation.

Harry Fletcher-Wood writes about this here.  He suggests that we should be rethinking the idea of effective CPD.  Harry suggests that the best way to identify effective CPD is to look for:

  • Evidence of Impact – has the programme been shown to have an impact on student attainment?
  • Evidence of mechanism – we know from psychology and behaviour science that lasting change requires the formation of new habits and then repeating an action in context

When schools get this right, it is possible to reduce the plateauing effect on teacher development:

This graph is also from the Kraft & Papay paper.  The dashed line is for teachers who work in the top 25% of schools in terms of professional culture e.g. rich CPD and effective line management.  The dotted line is for those teachers in schools in the bottom 25% of professional culture.  What this suggests is that if you work in a school with a rich professional culture, rather than plateauing, you will have a better chance of continuing to get better and better as a teacher.  This is important, because the quality of teaching matters to student attainment.  Becky Allen and Sam Sims explain this in this presentation.

The overall attainment in a school deteriorates when the measurably effective teachers leave the school.  And the attainment of pupils in schools increases when teachers who were effective in other settings arrive in the school” (Becky Allen)

So what can schools do stop the plateau and help more of their teachers to develop their practice and become more effective over time?  According to Sam Sims in this blog the answer lies with instructional coaching:

In terms of impact on student outcomes, instructional coaching has a better evidence base than any other form of CPD.”

In this blog the Ambition Institute describe instructional coaching:

“The principles of instructional coaching are linked to the principles of developing expertise in any domain through the use of deliberate practice. The first step is to identify a destination or outcome, often called the target performance.

Teachers can move from their current performance towards this target performance by practising a sequence of sub-goals with the aid of a coach. This allows them to overcome existing ingrained habits and adopt new behaviours. The input of the coach is in observing the practitioner’s current performance, setting precise sub-goals and designing practice.”

They summarise the process of instructional coaching:

  • identify, and clearly define, the target performance
  • identify the biggest gap between target and current performance
  • break this down into components which can be practised
  • design practice
  • facilitate practice in controlled conditions
  • give feedback and increase complexity of practice

This is different from other forms of coaching that schools might have tried in the past, where perhaps a coach will sit with a coachee and try to ‘draw out’ the solution through asking open questions.   With instructional coaching he coach will have a level of expertise in the area that the coachee is looking to develop.  They will identify the specific area of focus for the coachee and design a practice drill for them.  Furthermore there is an expectation that the practice will take place in controlled conditions, outside of the lesson i.e. the teacher will rehearse their explanation or questioning in front of their coach and receive feedback.  This will be repeated, until it has become embedded.

Instructional coaching appears to work, because it replicates the habit forming approach that teachers adopt in the early years of their career:

Try a new approach > get feedback > ditch or refine > practice > get feedback > refine…repeat.

This makes it a very attractive proposition for schools, in terms of embedding an effective approach to teacher development.  Like all things though, how successful it is will be dependent on how effectively it is implemented.  However, if the claims about how effective instructional coaching can be are right, it’s an endeavour that is worth our time and effort.

The ideas around habit formation and teacher development have implications for organisations who delver CPD too, such as our Research School.  Our training is delivered with this in mind:

  • As well as delivering input, a significant part of our training focuses on helping leaders to clarify the root cause of the issue they are looking to address.
  • The training is sustained over time, allowing us to build a good relationship with delegates.  So at the moment, our training programmes are made up of nine, two hour modules.
  • In between the modules, delegates are offered one to one bespoke support (via Zoom at the moment), which usually takes the form of a coaching conversation.  Delegates are supported to refine the issue further and then commit to specific actions to address it.
  • As they implement these new approaches back at their school, they are encourages to get feedback on its impact and use this to refine the approach further.

It’s an exciting time for teacher development.  Using the evidence in this way will undoubtedly help more teachers to improve over time, which will in turn impact on the attainment of more students.

Shaun Allison




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