What do we know about the hallmarks of effective professional development?
I have taken a closer look at the ‘Characteristics of effective teacher professional development‘, written by Sam Sims and Harry Fletcher-Wood. The paper has been sitting in my draft blogs since publication in August 2018. This is my summary of the 25 pages for the busy classroom teacher and I hope I have done the paper justice.
We know that effective teacher professional development is effective when it is sustained, collaborative, subject-specific, draws on external expertise and has buy-in from teachers (Teacher Development Trust), but I wonder, do the schools that provide their staff with a cup of tea and a slice of cake, improve teacher effectiveness? Meaning, do those who offer one-to-one conversations – for teaching and learning to grow – work better in professional development settings.
Professional development needs to be practice-based, and from the research that I have been conducting over the last two years in schools across the United Kingdom, teachers and head teachers struggle to access research-led information. Despite this, “several recent PD programmes [including government policy] incorporating these characteristics have failed to have any detectable impact on pupil attainment.”
How many training days?
In countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Shanghai, teachers report spending between 24 and 40 days per annum on such professional development (PD). International surveys suggest the average is 10.5 days with English state schools lagging behind on 4 or 5 days each academic year.
The motivation for training is clear, to improve pupil attainment. However, how time should be spent best, is less clear.
The aim of this research is to unpick alignment between evidence on human skill acquisition and features of rigorously evaluated CPD interventions.
Sims and Fletcher-Wood argue that this “consensus view is based on flawed methodological foundations and is likely to be misleading” because the methods researched provide no way of distinguishing ‘active ingredients’. Both argue that it is necessary to “look for both evidence of a correlation between specific interventions and pupil attainment and evidence of mechanisms from basic research.”
The consensus view…
This paper is not the first to criticise the consensus view.
Sustained CPD: “The justification for this is usually that it takes time for teachers to assimilate new knowledge or practitioner techniques.” A chance to challenge and clarify rather than one-off sessions.
Collaborative: Again, it is claimed to be more effective teachers take part in a group – the “community or practice”. The justification is that the transfer of information directly from a course leader to an individual is ineffective.
Buy-in: There is a claim that voluntary professional development is more effective than compulsory. “Some researchers make the more nuanced point that there can be a strong buy-in for obligatory professional development” as long as the purpose and benefits are clearly explained to the participants so they value taking part.
Subject-specific: Another claim is that professional development must align with subject knowledge, rather than general pedagogical techniques divorce from the content. “the two are often argued to be complementary … and most effective when both training on subject knowledge and pedagogical techniques are delivered together.”
Outside expertise: Generally, outside expertise requires input from people who do not work in the same school as the teachers receiving the training. the justification being to provide challenge or fresh input as opposed to recycling existing expertise from inside the school.
Practice/application: A final claim is that professional development is more effective when it involves opportunities to use what has been learned.
As Sims and Fletcher-Wood argue, “The precise nature of the claims being made … is not always clear … which means that a programme containing more of the six characteristics cannot necessarily be assumed to be better than one containing fewer.”
The above approach now informs government policy in the UK (DfE, 2016; Menter, 2010) and recently re-issued Standards for Teacher Professional Development.
The problems with consensus?
In the paper three rigorous, well-designed studies of professional development are discussed to illustrate limitations and motivation. One study which offered 95 hours of professional development, meeting all of the above consensus views, showed no significant effects on students’ participation. Interestingly, the treatment group showed weaker achievement on state tests. (Garet at al., 2016).
In another study, five of the six characteristics were offered to 2 groups of teachers. 93% received the planned training time and 78% attended. Teachers in both groups received substantially more professional development than the control group. conclusion?
Interestingly, “the impact on teachers’ knowledge and practices disappeared when researchers returned the following year”.(Garet at al., 2016).
In the final study, Jacob et al, 2017, professional development intended to improve teachers’ mathematical knowledge to elicit more student thinking in the classroom. The program was over 40 contact hours throughout an academic year and was offered over a three-year period of time to allow sufficient change.
The study led to slight increases in teacher knowledge, but “scores did not increase, and in many cases decreased!”
With caution …
If I have read the paper correctly, Sims and Fletcher-Wood claim that they can identify interventions which are and are not effective – using qualitative studies. They conclude that the consensus view is not supported by existing cross-subject reviews of the characteristics of effective CPD. This provides one plausible explanation for the null findings in the three studies above.
In the paper, an analogy is used: Toothpaste has many ingredients but many of them would not be classified as active ingredients. E.g. the mint flavour to eradicate tooth decay.
How likely are the consensus view characteristics of effective PD to be redundant? Meaning, causal contributions may create effectiveness CPD, even if it is causally redundant. Again, going with the toothpaste analogy, it provides other benefits which consumers wish to purchase in conjunction with a product able to reduce tooth decay, i.e. fresh breath.
Does a cup of tea and cake improve teaching?
My take on this is that if you provide your teaching staff with a ‘cup of tea and a slice of cake’ after a long day of teaching, and before professional development kick-starts in a twilight session, the refreshments may be casually redundant and provide no direct benefit to the students. However, the decision may offer a plausible explanation for collaborative buy-in, to ensure teachers are enthusiastic and willing to participate.
An alternative way?
So, what are the active ingredients for CPD?
Well, collaborative CPD does not guarantee better pupil attainment. The same interventions without collaboration may just be as effective. Evidence for the effectiveness of coaching in improving teacher and student achievement is cited as one alternative – drawn from cognitive and behavioural psychology.
The challenge for schools is, creating sufficient time for teachers to have coaching conversations with one another, and protecting time to do so without fear of the approach appearing as just ‘talking and listening’ rather than actively doing something traditional.
A point worth noting is the distinction between how novice and experienced teachers think and learn. “Novices work towards desired solutions, whereas those with more experience tend to have committed the desired solution to memory as a procedure.” (Larkin et al., 1980).
Novice [teachers’] limited working memory can easily be overwhelmed by complex tasks, and modelling and scaffolding will help focus on important features. Coaching provides access to models of ‘how to do X’ back in the classroom. Sustained, one-to-one, deliberate practice with an experienced colleague to promote a change of habits and focus in the classroom. My experience tells me, that this makes the greatest difference to a teacher’s performance.
The paper concludes that the consensus does not need to be abandoned entirely, and more evidence for and against the claim that “collaboration [and other hallmarks] is a characteristic of effective professional development.”
We need ‘strong evidence of correlation and mechanism’.