Professional Development: What the research says

Professional development can be hugely valuable, but educators are often limited in the time available for it and are faced with a huge range of options that can be difficult to choose from. With so many courses to choose from, what will have the biggest impact on the young people you work with?

Originally published in Issue 4 of Hello World: The computing and digital making magazine for educators. Available free at helloworld.cc (Shared under Creative Commons CC BY NC SA).

In 2014 The Teacher Development Trust assembled a team of education professors and researchers to look at the evidence for what makes the most effective professional development for teachers. Using international research they distilled 8 principles of the most effective courses for teachers.

Duration and rhythm

Many courses for teachers are only a single day. It can be helpful to get out of school and focus, but the research suggested that it is the programmes that last longer than that which have a real impact. Learning about a new approach is just the start, you need to have time to keep revisiting it, applying it in practice, and reflecting on the results. Many people aim to do this with material from a one day course, but the best professional development gives teachers a structure to support them to frequently check in over up to a year and explore how the new learning relates to their own experience and practice. Look out for professional development that takes place over a longer term than just an isolated day.

Considering participants needs

We know it’s important to understand students needs and different starting points for learning, and it’s no different for teachers. The best professional development has deliberate opportunities for teachers to involve their day to day experiences and set goals based on the needs of their own contexts. Sharing needs with other participants can also allow a shared sense of purpose to develop, which helps in making these goals a reality back in the classroom.

Alignment of content and activities

If you’re learning about active, project based skills, does make sense to do this through a lecture? The most effective professional development is delivered in a way that aligns with the approach being developed. Look out for not just what courses are about, but how they are delivered.

Content

The evidence suggested that the most effective professional development tends to focus on certain key building blocks of content. Subject knowledge is the first, with the most effective courses building understanding of the content teachers teach. Linked to this is subject specific pedagogy; not just how to teach generally but the detail of how to teach a particular subject. Much of this is about being specific, look out for courses to build subject knowledge and teaching skills in a specific area rather than to generally improve your generic pedagogy.

Activities

Teachers need time to assimilate new ideas and decide how to fit them into their existing practice. The most effective professional development has activities which allow teachers to consider their context and usual practice and plan for how they will develop it. Look out for activities that will explore how to translate what you learn into your existing practice. It’s important to have a chance to be reflective and use assessment to see what difference new approaches are making to students’ progress. Longer term programmes give a chance to do this in a structured way, which contributes to the findings that they are more effective than one off day courses.

External providers and specialists

The research found external trainers can have an important role. They bring a fresh perspective, and notice and challenge established ways of doing things in a school. However, it’s important that teachers are active participants and take the lead in professional development. Just as students need to actively engage with what they learn, teachers do as well. Professional development that has you doing, practicing, planning and making changes is likely to be the best use of your time.

Collaboration

Although working with young people much of the day, teachers often work alone. Collaborating with others is an important feature of the best professional development. Working through problems, discussing how to help students make the most progress, and embedding new approaches across a school as a team can lead to the most sustainable change. Planning together can also bring new ideas to your work and challenge some of the habits you have which could be more effective.

School leaders

Just as collaboration between teachers is important, collaboration with school leaders can increase the impact of professional development. For school leaders, getting involved with the process promotes a learning culture, and helps to focus on the wider impact that you want to see across the school. School leaders are also often needed to navigate potential barriers and make sure resources and support are in place for change to happen. If they are involved then improvements are more likely to be facilitated to grow.

There’s lots to look out for here, the research shows that professional development can be quite variable but that there are key features that can make it very effective. The fundamental one is a focus on the students. That is after all what professional development is about; getting even better at supporting students to progress and develop. If you look out for one key thing when choosing professional development, make it a focus on what the young people you teach will ultimately get out of it.

You can read the full report ‘Developing Great Teaching’ from the Teacher Development Trust here.

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