How can we improve professional learning? Part 1

Professional learning has long been considered a standard part of teaching. From sporadic twilight sessions to INSET days, we have a healthy expectation that teachers continue to develop their practice throughout their career. In recent years, however, the increasing emphasis on evidence-informed practice has brought professional learning back into the spotlight. The success of education conferences such as ResearchED attests to the growing demand for rigorous, research-informed CPD across the country.

This spotlight has, however, raised significant questions about how we approach professional learning in schools. Although schools have always engaged in professional learning, many of us have experienced situations where it has ‘gone wrong’. We all agree professional learning is important – so why do some of us think it’s so bad?

Problems with professional learning

One common issue is that professional learning is often not considered a high enough priority to be allocated significant time in teachers’ busy schedules. Training sessions become sporadic and are delivered on an ad hoc basis, rather than being seen and treated as a professional entitlement. Not only can this negatively impact the quality of training, it also sends a clear message to staff that their development is not considered a priority.

A more fundamental problem, however, is that we often lack a meaningful vision for precisely what it is that we want professional learning to achieve. This is in no small part the result of the fact that staff training is often seen primarily as a tool for school improvement. Training, therefore, tends to focus on surface-level changes that seem to provide a quick-fix for our problems. Unsurprisingly, we quickly find ourselves suffering from initiative overload, as short-term priorities come to dominate.

Such a focus misses the point. Professional learning isn’t about making your school better. It’s about making your staff better. We can much more easily improve our schools by equipping our staff to better implement the things we already do than we can by asking them to introduce a new initiative.

Of course, in practice things aren’t so simple. Our schools are all made up of a team of practitioners who are at different points in their career, each with their own knowledge and experiences. They will have varying strengths and weaknesses, and catering to these makes delivering effective professional learning incredibly complex. We are understandably reluctant to train our staff to do things that, to all appearances, some of them can already do. It can therefore seem more sensible to instead introduce something new, something that might benefit everyone. When we do this, however, training quickly becomes a case of throwing new ideas at colleagues and seeing what sticks. This reinforces a defiant short-termism at the expense of long-term improvement.

What’s our vision?

Within our trust, we are keen to ensure that our professional learning offer does not repeat such mistakes. We want our staff to receive a rigorous professional learning that is evidence-informed, that prioritises long-term improvement over short-term gain. To do this meaningfully, however, we needed to identify precisely what that offer was. Saying we wanted to ‘improve teaching’ was too vague – we needed to be crystal clear about what we wanted to achieve. We needed a coherent vision.

At Bedford Free School, we believed we had such a vision. Over the past few years, much of our professional learning has been focused on ensuring that our staff are trained to effectively use our whole-school routines (based largely around Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion). Staff training focused on regularly revisiting and reviewing the core routines that underpin our approach, so that all staff (old and new) can master them.

Although this was helpful in supporting our whole-school routines, it led us to obsess over the surface-level features of good practice, at the expense of the knowledge that underpins it. This is due in no small part to an historic tendency to think of teaching as a skills-based profession. We often have a clear idea of the sort of thing we want teachers to be doing in the classroom (such as our TLAC routines), and so we focus on that which is visible, rather than the knowledge and mental models underpin it. What we needed to pay attention to what we wanted our staff to know.

I’ve written before about how we believe that there is a core body of knowledge that all teachers should have access to. It’s the shared knowledge of ‘the best that has been thought and said’ that not only underpins their classroom practice, but allows them to meaningfully debate within their departments. This is an idea that we have already worked to put at the heart of our offer to trainees. It is, however, just as important for our permanent staff. If we want our colleagues to be able to meaningfully debate what constitutes best practice in their departments, we need to make sure that they have access to this knowledge, regardless of where or when they trained and their level of experience.

Place your bets

The problem with such an approach is that there has historically been little agreement on precisely what that knowledge is. Because of (primarily) pedagogical divisions within the profession, we have been very reluctant to try and categorically identify a core body of knowledge that all teachers should have access to (precisely the problem that the DfE’s Early Career Framework is intending to fix). Furthermore, we cannot simply give our teachers generic guidance on how to go and teach their subjects – they are, after all, the experts in their field.

These challenges, however, don’t absolve us from the need to make decisions about what we want our staff to know. Although we might not be able to definitively set out what knowledge is best, within our trust we can place bets on what knowledge we think is most likely to improve practice within our schools. What knowledge about assessment, for example, is most likely to enable our departments to improve their end of year assessments? What knowledge about curriculum design is most likely to enable them to meaningfully debate how to build students’ disciplinary knowledge?

By placing such bets within our trust, we can work to identify the knowledge that we think is most likely to improve practice within our schools. The goal of professional learning is to ensure that all of our staff have access to this knowledge. This, we hope, will empower them in turn to place their own bets within their departments about how best to teach their subject.

In my next post, I’ll explore the practicalities of implementing our vision at Bedford Free School.

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