Research School Network: The common pitfalls of CPD – and how to avoid them We consider the recommendations that can lead to improved teaching towards the ultimate goal of improved student outcomes

The common pitfalls of CPD – and how to avoid them

We consider the recommendations that can lead to improved teaching towards the ultimate goal of improved student outcomes

by Greenshaw Research School
on the

Surveys of teachers have found that whilst 100% of us believe we have more to learn as a teacher, 31% felt they would not be negatively impacted if INSET days were suddenly scrapped and over 60% of classroom teachers felt that CPD had only moderate to no influence on their teaching. This is clearly a problem: schools have a moral duty to get better, teachers are incredibly keen to improve, but it appears that a significant number of us have not found the CPD we’ve received to be very influential. So what’s the reason for this disconnect between emphasis and impact?

This is a messy problem which is likely down to no single issue. This compounds the problem – because the problems of effective CPD are so tricky to grapple with it is likely the solutions to them will be just as tricky if not more so! There is no silver bullet to the problems just as there is no single problem. But by taking the time to think deeply about what the problems within our particular context are, we are taking a crucial first step towards overcoming them.

The Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) guide to implementation gives 6 recommendations that can lead to improved teaching towards the ultimate goal of improved student outcomes, with four of those recommendations feeding into this implementation cycle:


Whilst this cycle should be seen as ongoing with no intervention truly finished” within it, any new implementation will start at the Explore’ phase: Define the problem you want to solve and identify appropriate programmes or practices to implement”. We’ll start by focusing on this phase before touching on some of the other phases further down.

We all want the best outcomes for our students so when we come across something that we’ve been shown works”, our eagerness to help our students improve means we often can’t get it into our classrooms soon enough! But it is important to approach with caution, otherwise we run the risk of falling into the cycle of planned failure”:


Let’s imagine a school scenario to help contextualise this:

A school identifies a group of students who they believe are likely to fall just short of a passing grade at GCSE. They decide to put in place an after-school intervention class for those students, because they’ve seen that out-of-hours study in schools can enhance attainment. They start running these sessions but find that a number of students aren’t turning up. When speaking with those students they find out that a lot of them are unable to get home safely at the later time, so they ask for staff to print off resources for those students, so they can be handed in at a later date and fed back on. After a few weeks it’s noticed that students aren’t completing this work and staff are having to spend a sizeable amount of time chasing these students for their old work and arranging to give them the new work. So not only has the old problem not been solved (students not accessing the extra support), additional problems (more pressure on staff time, additional resources that need to be made etc.) have been created too.

This is where an understanding of the Explore” phase from the EEF diagram is so crucial, examining the fit and feasibility with the school context”. When thinking about why it’s so hard to plug and play” strategies in education it is helpful to differentiate between a complicated system and a complex one. A highly advanced watch is an example of a complicated system: a lot of sophisticated mechanisms coming together. However, that coming together will always produce a consistently expected outcome: the correct functioning of the watch. A complex system on the other hand is defined by the fact that its outcome is not simply the product of its mechanisms coming together. Finance, education, and governments are all examples of complex systems. It’s why teaching policies developed abroad (shaped by the culture in which they were developed) rarely translate well when shipped into other areas with different cultures and values.

So now that we’ve looked at why schools can’t simply follow a recipe for good outcomes”, some aspects of the explore” phase guidance, and how the cycle of planned failure shows us what can happen if we don’t fully analyse the problem before trying to fix it – what are some of the things we can do to avoid these pitfalls?

Firstly, as we’ve seen above, definition and analysis of the problem is crucial. Without knowing what we are trying to fix, we won’t be able to figure out if it has been fixed or not. For example, it might be that students aren’t retaining key mathematical equations for area of 2D-shapes. What data do we have to back up this statement? Who have we spoken to/​seen that could give us helpful information about this?

Secondly, we should combine evidence-based recommendations for effective CPD with the knowledge we have of our own contexts. This can be aided by finding examples of similar implementations in similar contexts and looking at the successes/​problems with them so that we can plan for the implementation and mitigate against potential risks. This can go some way towards accounting for the complicated vs complex differentiation. Think about what are the key features of the solution that must be rigidly stuck to (e.g. retrieval practice should be free of/​have minimal cues), and what features we would need to think about adapting to fit our context (e.g. what point in the lesson we might do this).

Next, we should think about rolling this out on a small scale so we can examine the feasibility and figure out teething problems in a low-stakes environment, perhaps with only a handful of teachers with one class/​subject each. This will mean that when adjustments need to be made in light of these teething problems, they can be implemented quickly and without constant large-scale changes which can wear down staff.

Finally, we want to ensure continual monitoring. Even once those initial teething problems have been addressed it is likely that more will crop up, because we’re dealing with a complex system. Not all teachers are the same just as not all students are the same. Each colleague will need differing levels of support and will face different challenges with different contexts (e.g. different classes/​subjects). We want to ensure we’re in a position to fine-tune” our activities where necessary so we’re getting the best out of them and most importantly, so that we’re addressing the problem we’ve started out with. In doing all of this, we make it more likely that we can initiate and sustain our change, improve outcomes for our pupils, and break the cycle:

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Amarbeer Singh Gill

Lead Practitioner of Maths

St John’s Catholic Comprehensive School


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