The 7 Characteristics Of Effective Professional Development

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What should we look for in CPD?

External CPD is not supposed to be like Deliveroo but sometimes it goes that way. You look at a menu, choose what you want and someone pedals over what they’ve got and you consume it. Sometimes it can feel like it’s off the back of a lorry and more DPD than CPD.

But CPD is too expensive and too precious to mess about with. This isn’t fast-food out of a thermal delivery bag. Of course, some CPD can be brilliant and delivered by a top-dog who has everyone begging for more. CPD sessions seldom get shouts of “More!” and a standing ovation but there are some providers who make an impact and make a lasting impression. But beware of the expert.

External CPD can provide constructive input, offer new perspectives and challenge “the way things are done around here”. Then there are panto CPD sessions that are just pants and subject you to a PowerPointless hell. These can be awkward, out of date and just painful to sit through. Too many professional development sessions are ineffective in supporting changes in teachers’ practices and student learning.

The 7 fundamental characteristics of CPD

CPD can be developed by any individual or organisation, but unless it is endorsed by a recognised body or accredited, it does not come with any safeguards in standards and quality for learners. People creak and groan about Ofsted but what we don’t have is inspection of CPD. That would be a good use of Ofsted’s time and resources because we could sort the wheat from the chaff. Getting the most out of CPD is essential so what should we be looking for?

I think there are 7 key areas that we should be considering before sending off that email invitation to come and “do some CPD for us”.

1. Relevance

Sounds obvious doesn’t it? Just like some staff meetings, CPD isn’t always relevant to half those attending. If you organise a whole-school inset session is it really going to be relevant to everyone attending? Why does CPD even have to be whole-school?

Surely it is more effective if it is specifically geared up to a particular Key Stage, subject, department or responsibility? Beginning teachers and experienced teachers might belong to the same school ecosystem but they are going to need different things.

Ask your staff what they want and what they need so it contributes to their personal and professional growth. Make sure it aligns with your school’s context, mission and vision. When the content is focused, it supports teacher learning within their classroom contexts. Targeted CPD means the content has to be relevant to teachers’ needs and day-to-day realities. Teachers have to speak up and define the opportunities they want to see.

2. Teacher voice

Once needs are identified and they align with your organisation then you need a champion speaker but be careful of ‘experts’.

When selecting a suitable CPD topic look carefully at the person behind it. Teachers like to be taught be real-life chameleon teachers doing the job. However, if they are doing the job then chances are they will be in school like you. Some providers work part-time and can offer CPD in the week. Many can’t and so this means giving up a Saturday to attend one of their events.

But is it imperative someone is still school and classroom based? There are plenty of researchers and Edu-celebrities out there who are ‘on it’ and really know their stuff. Some of the best teachers might not work in a classroom anymore but have chosen to leave in order to share what they know and their insights. They are often powerful advocates of teacher voice, they are great speakers and can be truly inspiring.

Speakers don’t have to be engaging, amusing and unique. It helps if they are but don’t be seduced by ego and reputation. They need to make a difference above everything else.

3. Active

CPD is not a spectator sport – it has to be active. If all we are going to do is sit in rows or vegetate around cosy tables with bottled water and stationery, then we aren’t going to learn much. CPD isn’t a lecture but a golden opportunity to get hands-on, to participate, create and collaborate. This doesn’t mean ice-breakers or daft games either but interactive activities that you can use in class and that fit your context.

Effective CPD challenges, requires deep thinking and gets everyone discussing, designing and practicing new ideas. This might go from think-pair-share and speed-dating to jigsaw groups and developing concept cartoons. The CPD doesn’t all come from the provider either. Professionals have valuable insights to share and there is a responsibility on everyone to contribute, work together and refine approaches.

4. Up-to-date

It’s hard to imagine that CPD providers are still promoting educational myths and legends in their sessions but sadly they do. Learning styles, the learning pyramid, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, multiple intelligences and plenty more besides, these ideas are dangerous.

Catering content to their needs of a school is one thing but providing best-evidence is critical. There’s nothing wrong with providing quick takeaways that can immediately be applied but they need to be backed by credible research. Go with research-informed teacher training and not something that promises the Earth. What you are looking for is someone with a proven track record of developing and providing high quality professional development within an evidence-based quality framework.

5. Reflection and response

CPD sessions can sometimes feel like Pamplona’s running of the bulls where the ‘trainer’ unleashes the slides, races through a PowerPoint and leaves you running for your life. High-quality professional learning must build-in time for teachers to think and breathe. Discussion with colleagues and the trainer is vital and should be a frequent part of a session. There’s nothing worse than one-way traffic. Activities could involve ‘Catchboxing‘ opinions to sharing videoed lessons and out-takes  but whatever is chosen needs to provide time for quality reflection, feedback and feedforward.

CPD should be a commitment to DEAR: discussion, experimentation and analysis and reflection.

6. Sustained duration

Effective CPD isn’t a smash and grab raid. It needs to provide teachers with adequate time to learn, practice, implement, and reflect upon new ideas and techniques. One-off CPD is never really an isolated training session because it builds in accountability and engages teachers in rhythmical learning over the whole year.

CPD providers need to check-in with their attendees after the event and provide continued support so that teaching, learning and assessment can be continued, consolidated, enhanced and improved. Post-training reinforcement is crucial. This might be something as simple as follow-up emails and telephone conversations or small lessons, eCPD and learning activities that support a core concept or skill.

More productively, it involves a repeat visit of coaching and expert support. The CPD needs to be maintained not abandoned so tracking and assessing the quality of your professional development is essential.

7. Value

CPD can be very expensive. It also doesn’t have to cost a bean. Don’t necessarily equate ‘free’ with rubbish. Some speakers will offer their services for nothing because they are altruistic. In a community where we often hear teachers complaining about peanuts and monkeys, some free CPD is quite the opposite.

You will need to think about quality, time, cost and effectiveness and that is never easy to manage especially when you factor in travel and accommodation. A CPD provider will provide plenty of value if they do more than present and train but give you something to work with after they have gone. These are normally materials and books that can be used by individual teachers to continue their CPD journey in and out of school. Check they are accredited and can show you a rosette or similar. If your CPD is not well-crafted and well-delivered then don’t be afraid to say so.

And finally…

Teachers are desperate to grow and improve their craft but the quality of CPD they get can be extreme. When it’s great, then quality professional development can leave you feeling energised, excited and refreshed. When it isn’t, training can be harmful to your work.

High-quality professional development creates space for teachers to share ideas and collaborate in their learning to create communities that positively change the culture and teaching of their entire Key Stage, Department or in some cases a whole school.

John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project manager, writer and editor. I am the teacher without a tongue. www.johndabell.com

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