Improving CPD (Part Two)


This is the final part of a two part blog.
If you haven’t already done so, please read Part One first.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

David Weston of the Teacher Development Trust is clear on what good and bad CPD looks like and he damningly concludes that “a large swathe of training has no effect whatsoever on pupil outcomes”.

“In fact,” he continues, “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 leave 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, Weston argues, is a lack of evaluation. Once CPD 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.

Weston says ineffective CPD also tends to:

– force teachers to follow lists of ‘best practice’ with its impact (or more accurately ‘compliance’) measured through repeated observations and the scrutiny of lesson plans;

– mandate fixed structures for lessons;

– bolt on ‘tips and tricks’ to existing teaching methods;

– focus on pre-prepared schemes of work and lesson plans.

Writing in SecEd magazine, Weston provided a snapshot of six areas of good practice by way of antidote:

Leadership and culture

In the most effective schools, CPD is championed and monitored by a specific member of the senior leadership team. All leaders take responsibility for prioritising it and modelling good teacher-as-learner behaviour. A specific member of the governing body is responsible for monitoring CPD processes. Teachers and learning support assistants have regular, dedicated and uninterrupted time during term to carry our collaborative and reflective development; conversations about pedagogy and evidence are common. Staff collaborate to decide key whole-school CPD areas and these inform the school development plan and performance management.


The most effective CPD (and performance management) maintains a laser-like focus on benefit for pupils and learning, rather than simply changing teacher behaviour. Resources and time are allocated based on a detailed understanding of colleagues’ strengths and needs; subject knowledge is inextricably linked to subject pedagogy and curriculum development is seen as a CPD activity that focuses on improving pupil understanding.

Evaluation of impact

Every CPD activity needs to have a targeted benefit for a specific cohort of pupils in a specific area. The most effective schools ensure they have baseline assessments and measures so that they can track the progress made during CPD and use the on-going evaluation formatively. Teachers use subjective judgements and observations moderated with standardised assessments, where available.

Support and challenge

The most effective CPD uses sustained, collaborative in-house processes that are supported by external expertise, whether in the form of courses, consultancy, resources or research. It is important to engage with experienced practitioners who can give a different perspective and challenge any orthodoxies and group-thinking. The best schools have a network of experts and schools who they use for support and challenge.

Processes and systems

The most effective CPD involves significant collaboration repeated over a long period. Processes for allocating resources and opportunities must be transparent and well-understood with an emphasis on high expectations and equal opportunity of access. The best CPD leaders maintain a level of challenge for staff using mentoring and coaching, secondments, shadowing and job-swaps. Accreditation is used to challenge, recognise and reward progress. There are clear peer-mentoring and induction systems in place for new staff and programmes for both statutory and non-statutory training all the way from trainee teacher to leadership development.

Research and evidence

The best schools engage in a continual programme of research to locate best practice and arrange frequent opportunities for all staff to view, explore, implement and evaluate ideas. Schemes of work are developed and school spending is informed using research-based evidence. Pupils are extensively involved in the setting of research questions, planning of approaches, gathering data, evaluating and refining approaches.

Weston concluded that schools and colleges should “pick one [area of CPD at a time] and focus on it for a year before moving on”. He also said that “it’s a good idea to partner with other schools for mutual support and challenge”

Deliberate practice

Focusing on one thing at a time and doing so for a long period of time is important and deliberate practice holds the key to being an expert teacher. Why? Because being an expert teacher – like being an expert at anything – takes a lot of hard work and effort. However, when we practise our trade we must do so deliberately because, as Doug Lemov says in Practice Perfect, practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent. In other words, if we practice the wrong things or the wrong techniques then we will simply embed these bad habits into our everyday practice; we will not get better.

Deliberate practice is a focused and collaborative exercise.  Deliberate practice is what top athletes do.  Top athletes are coached in one area of their performance at a time – say, their back-hand, their swing, their positioning on the starting blocks – and are given immediate feedback by their coach, before reflecting on that advice and making small corrective adjustments.

This is a process not dissimilar to what we do as trainee teachers and newly qualified teachers. We constantly receive feedback and reflect on our own performance before making tweaks. Our mentor acts as a critical friend.

We should continue in this vein throughout our teaching careers, not – as I explain here – become isolated and start developing bad habits as soon as we are awarded QTS.

Of course, this is not easy because engaging in deliberate practice, to continually reflect on our performance, is to expose ourselves to our own failures, to pick apart our mistakes. Deliberate practice is also time-consuming and takes real effort and resilience. I experienced this process in a small way recently when I watched a video of myself giving an impromptu presentation to a large group of people. I did not enjoy the experience but I knew it was valuable and I could reassure myself that I was witnessing my presentational skills at their worst because I’d had no idea what I was going to say when I’d stood up to address the crowd and had not been speaking on one of my specialist subjects.

Watching a video of my performance allowed me to see myself as others do, to reflect on my every tick and stammer, my flailing arms and – most acutely – my speech impediment. I exposed myself to my failures and, as a result, I learnt how to tweak my performance. I did this with my teaching about eighteen months ago, too. I videoed a lesson with my Year 11s and watched every excruciating moment over and over to find out how I could improve. I saw myself as my students did and it was an illuminating experience, perhaps the most valuable CPD I’ve ever engaged in.

The experience would also have been improved markedly had I focused on one aspect of my practice and watched the video with a coach who could give me feedback and challenge my opinions

Practice perfect

Doug Lemov, who as well as the author of the book I mentioned earlier is a teacher trainer with the Uncommon Schools network in the US, said that the CPD he used to experience was ineffective because, although “evaluations were outstanding… 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.”

Lemov continued: “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 skills multiple times – or learn to practice and be able to begin a year-long 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.”

Ineffective CPD then, or so Lemov argues, is that which is not focused on effective teaching, and is not evaluated for its impact on student achievement.

Our manifesto for effective CPD must therefore include the following features:

–    CPD must be focused on improving teachers’ practice

–    CPD must be focused on improving students’ achievemen

Practise the 20%, design the drills, shorten the feedback loop

Doug Lemov suggests that in order to improve teachers’ practice and students’ achievement, effective CPD should be about:

– Practising the 20%

Lemov argues that we should apply ‘the law of the vital few’ to our CPD provision because, with practice, we’ll get better results if we dedicate most of our CPD time to practising the 20% of things which create 80% of the value (or, in a different interpretation, the 20% of things which have the same value as the other 80% combined). In other words, we need to prioritise our CPD content.

– Designing the drills

Through focusing on fewer things at any one time, it is possible to work on those things with a greater level of intensity.  Designing the drills is about thinking through the ways in which we can best practise the 20%; it is about designing methods which will have the biggest impact on everyday performance. In other words, we need to find the best form for our CPD to take.

– Shortening the feedback loop

Once we’ve chosen our 20% and decided on the methods by which we’re going to improve them, we need to find ways of getting regular feedback on our improving performance because one of the most effective ways of improving our teaching practice is to improve the quality and immediacy of the feedback we get.  We therefore need to ensure that CPD provides opportunities to get feedback on our teaching which can help us ‘tweak’ what we do and can be put into immediate use.  In other words, we need to routinely evaluate our performance and evaluate the effectiveness of our CPD.

As I say above, these three things are what all top athletes do. So what are the implications for us

What this means in practice

In schools and colleges, we need to focus on those aspects of teaching which have the greatest impact on student outcomes.  I have suggested elsewhere that, for my organisation at least, the highest priority is to improve the quality of the formative feedback we give to our students.  This is also, not coincidentally, the number one intervention strategy according to The Education Endowment Foundation and John Hattie.  If I were to expand on this, I’d cite our next highest priority as being the need to improve the use of questioning and, to complete the holy trinity – or our ‘big 3’ – I’d add as the third highest priority the need to provide greater challenge, to pitch the work we set our students so that it falls within Zygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’.

Once we’ve agreed on our priorities – our 20% – we need to design the drills.  We need to agree on the ways in which we’ll help teachers improve on their subject-specific use of these skills.  This is the difference between strategies and techniques.  In short, the strategy is ‘feedback’ and the technique is the personalised way in which feedback is given and acted upon by different teachers in different subjects.

Once we’ve agreed on the 20% and designed the drills, we need to shorten the feedback loop by formulating ways of evaluating and feeding back on teachers’ practice.  This might be about developing peer observations and feedback, coaching and mentoring, lesson study, work scrutiny, and so on.  It might also be about how we evaluate the impact of the ‘drills’ not just on a teacher’s practice but on students’ achievement.  This is why we need the focus of our CPD programme to be sustained over the long term: we need to give each new way of working sufficient time to have a real impact on students’ learning.  It’s also important to remember that habits are hard to break and we need to give teachers the time they need to embed new teaching methods in their everyday practice.  Shortening the feedback loop is not about completing a survey after an INSET event; it is about truly investigating whether or not CPD has had a lasting impact on their daily teaching

I’ll end with six essential preconditions for the establishment of effective CPD as set out by Tim Brighouse and David Woods in their useful reference book, The A-Z of School Improvement (2013). The ideas are theirs; the phraseology is my own:

  1. An agreed school policy about the practice of teaching and learning which is subject to continuous review: a policy which emphasises a shared philosophy and a shared language about learning and teaching, the key messages of which are transmitted effectively into every area of the curriculum.
  2. A continual emphasis on the importance of the study of learning and teaching as the core business of the school/college: the school, and particularly those in leadership positions, use a variety of means to signal the importance of pedagogy such as the publication of case studies of best practice, and the use of public spaces such as the staffroom noticeboard to provide materials including articles, book reviews, and general teaching resources.
  3. A clear support for collaboration: collaboration is not left to chance but structured through the use of team work, study groups, cooperative planning.
  4. A well organised coaching and mentoring programme: coaching goes beyond general advice and personal support to the specific enhancement of skills in teaching and learning.
  5. An expectation that staff will carry out action research and disseminate their findings: some of this research could be done as part of a link with higher education and could contribute to a staff accreditation programme where all teachers have to provide a professional reflection.
  6. An integration between CPD and performance management: staff are encouraged and supported to identify appropriate development needs and links to succession planning.

“Great organisations create talented people”

Malcolm Gladwell

4 responses to “Improving CPD (Part Two)

  1. Pingback: Memory is the residue of thought | M J Bromley's Blog·

  2. Pingback: Lesson Study | M J Bromley's Blog·

  3. Pingback: 2014 – The Year in Review: Part One | M J Bromley's Blog·

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