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Research School Network: Effective teacher CPD and CPD leadership: What does it look like in schools? Reflecting on our first few months of supporting schools as a Research School- The importance of CPD

Effective teacher CPD and CPD leadership: What does it look like in schools?

Reflecting on our first few months of supporting schools as a Research School- The importance of CPD

In April 2018 I was fortunate enough to embark on a very challenging and rewarding six-month training programme centred around effective CPD and CPD leadership in schools. The Teacher Development Trust associate qualification in CPD leadership involved several stages, including a review of the existing evidence, a CPD audit of my school, and the design of a professional learning transformation project. This programme, together with the Education Endowment Foundation’s A School’s Guide to Implementation’ guidance report‑schools-guide-to-implementation/
very much catalysed our journey regarding school improvement at HISP Research School at Thornden. In our first term as a Research School we have been supporting many schools in our local area with implementation, and the one thing that has clearly resonated is the need for effective CPD if change is to happen in the classroom. Below is an evidence summary report that I carried out during the TDT programme, with the hope that it will be of some use to school leaders. I have included my questions / thoughts / possible implications at the end of each section to encourage reader reflection.

The Why?’

There is much evidence to show that teacher CPD can have a strong impact on student outcomes (Cordingley et al 2015 and Darling-Hammond et al 2017), with some studies suggesting gains equating to more than two years’ progress in one year. These gains have been shown to be even greater for students from disadvantaged backgrounds (Wiliam 2016 and Timperley et al) thus having the potential to improve the life chances of all students. Together with a national teacher recruitment and retention problem, and a realisation of the need to address excessive teacher workload by both the DfE and Ofsted, one could argue that there has never been a more important time to focus on the effective CPD of teachers. With a growing body of evidence to challenge the current thinking around CPD, school leaders have never been so empowered to make better decisions around the CPD of teachers, and thus impact the outcomes of their students. In this report I aim to review the literature surrounding CPD and CPD leadership, focusing on what has been shown to work, but also how it can implemented effectively. A key factor that stands out in the literature I have read is the importance of context. I will therefore also attempt to reflect upon the potential implications at Thornden School by posing myself questions, which will hopefully encourage other leaders of CPD to think carefully about their schools. 

The What?’

In order to ascertain what effective teacher CPD looks like, perhaps the best place to start is to look at the evidence relating to the desired outcome of this, great teaching. The What makes great teaching?’ review (Coe et all 2014) identifies the following two factors that have the strongest evidence of improving student attainment:

  • Teacher’s subject knowledge (including their ability to understand how students think about a subject and identify common misconceptions)
  • Quality of instruction (including strategies like effective questioning and the use of assessment)

The paper Expert teaching: What is it, and how might we develop it ?’ (McCrea 2018) unpicks the common behaviours of expert teaching that have great impact, and links these to the development of mental models in four domains:

  • Knowledge of the pathway towards mastery of a curriculum
  • Knowledge of what students know and don’t know
  • Knowledge of how learning works and how to catalyse it
  • Knowledge of how to analyse, evaluate and iterate their own knowledge

Both sources elude to the importance of subject specific knowledge and pedagogy in teacher development. The What makes great teaching?’ report is a systematic review of over 200 pieces of research and analyses several different methods of evaluating teaching. It also clearly states the quality of the evidence linked to each teacher practice. It does however highlight the difficulties in measuring teacher effectiveness where evidence is combined from several different evaluation approaches. The Expert teaching: What is it, and how might we develop it’ report is a summary of evidence by one person and so is more limited in terms of the volume of evidence analysed and indeed any evidence that might not have been included. 

So, having a clearer understanding of what great teaching involves, what does the evidence suggest in order to support teachers and leaders in achieving this? Below are the common features of effective CPD that are concluded in several reports:

  1. Generic vs subject specific: CPD should include subject specific training relating to both subject knowledge and pedagogy
  2. Duration: Prolonged CPD programmes have a greater impact than shorter CPD
  3. Challenge: External input by experts is important to challenge current thinking

One key factor is the importance of subject specific CPD. This is indeed a shift from the more common generic pedagogical focused approach more prevalent in UK schools compared to schools in the most high-performing countries (Cordingley et al 2018). This certainly supports the argument that teacher expertise is highly domain specific (McCrea 2018). The Effective teacher professional development’ (Darling-Hammond et al 2017) and Developing great teaching’ (Cordingley et al 2015) reports both provide substantial evidence that a generic approach to CPD is insufficient and that the most effective CPD programmes include a focus on subject knowledge and subject specific pedagogy. However, evidence of this was more limited to the core subjects of Maths, English and Science. The former report is a systematic review of 35 studies over the last 30 years that provide evidence of improved student outcomes and changes to teacher practice. It emphasises the difficulty of drawing conclusions about the efficacy of individual CPD components due to the complex nature of PD, and the inability to comment on the elements of PD models that did not have a positive impact on student outcomes. It also puts its findings into the context of the American education system. However, it does review a vast amount of evidence and identify commonly shared features of effective CPD. The latter source is a review of reviews of evidence about effective CPDL in order to put into the context of the English education system. Again, it does pull on a vast amount of evidence (46 sources of evidence were screened), and again highlights limitations such as the fact that as soon as a review is carried out, it is essentially out of date as it can miss the most recent evidence published. A more recent report Developing great subject teaching’ (Cordingley et al 2018) supports the importance of subject specific CPD even further. This rapid evidence review of subject specific CPD in the UK concludes that schools that are struggling appear less likely to prioritise subject specific CPD over generic approaches. It also refers to evidence that demonstrates the importance of generic aspects of pedagogy, but stresses the need to contextualise these generic aspects in CPD so that teachers can indeed relate to it and understand what effective pedagogy looks like in their subject. This report again refers to a large evidence base and is useful in that it summarises the current situation in the UK, identifies the potential reasons for the disparity in subject specific CPD, as well as making comparisons to other countries.

Another key feature of effective CPD is the sustained duration of a specific programme to provide teachers with adequate time to learn, practice, implement and reflect upon new strategies (Darling-Hammond et al 2017), and as Dylan Wiliam puts it, to allow them the time to get into new habits’ (Wiliam 2016). In order for this to occur, the recommendation is that a specific programme / focus should last at least two terms (Cordingley et al 2015). There is however evidence that one-day training focused on a single aspect can also have a sustained impact on teaching and learning. If time is an important aspect of effective CPD, can providing teachers as professionals more time and resources alone be enough to improve student outcomes? There is little evidence to support this approach (Timperley et al 2007).

So, if there is a lack of evidence to support teachers driving their own CPD, should a more prescriptive approach be used? Indeed, CPD that provides external challenge via external expertise leads to successful outcomes (Cordingley et al 2015). When reading this I automatically questioned whether or not the external challenge needs to come from an outside person coming into schools, or having research leads within a school engaging with professional reading to challenge current thinking would have the same impact. A recent EEF pilot programme Research into practice’ showed how teachers that received half termly training sessions with a research lead had statistically significant increases in their attitudes towards academic research. However, this is a pilot study which is designed only to test an idea and whether or not it could be trialled successfully on a larger scale. It also provides no evidence of impacting student outcomes. In terms of a wider, more secure evidence base, the Developing great teaching’ report concludes that in terms of external input, the most successful outcomes came in the form of coaching and facilitating, rather than prescribing. This is indeed supported by the Teacher professional learning and development’ systematic review (Timperley et al 2007) which concludes that prescriptive CPD can be effective in changing teaching practices, but has limited longevity and / or impact on student outcomes.

Implications / Thoughts : 

  • At Thornden we are lucky enough to have subject specialists teaching each subject. With a national shortage of teachers how do we ensure that this is maintained?
  • Providing more opportunities for subject specific CPD requires more complex planning of INSET days as a one size fits all model will not suffice. Where will the external expertise come from for all subjects?
  • What can we do for Heads of Department who don’t have effective HoD networks to provide the external challenge?
  • Some of our departments regularly use department time to plan collaboratively, to discuss subject specific concepts and how best to teach these. How can this good practice be spread across all departments? Modelling from these departments in staff meetings doesn’t seem to be enough. Do we initially, for some departments, make their use of department time more prescriptive (scaffolding) to encourage them to think differently? How can we help them experience’ what good use of department time looks like in their context?

The How?’

So far I have explored the importance of effective CPD and summarised what the evidence suggests this looks like. With schools being such complex environments with their own unique contexts, the deepest thinking needs to be focused on how schools can achieve this, but only once the why has been established and communicated effectively with all involved. The how is essentially down to effective leadership as a CPD programme can lack impact even if it contains the components described above. All of the research I have read regarding effective CPDL requires leaders of CPD to consider the following:

  • How teachers’ existing theories and beliefs will be explored and be challenged where necessary.
  • How open teachers are to improving their practice and therefore to get into new habits and routines.
  • How teachers will receive regular and accurate feedback, and reflect on this.
  • How the impact of CPD on student outcomes can be evaluated.

There are various models available for CPD leaders to consider in order to support teachers in developing their practice. In his book, Leadership for Teacher Learning’, Dylan Wiliam describes five principles of teacher learning:

  1. Choice: Leaders should allow teachers to have choice and thus ownership of their CPD.
  2. Flexibility: Leaders should provide an environment whereby teachers have the freedom to adapt and modify techniques to make them work for them and the different classes they have.
  3. Small steps: Leaders should encourage and support teachers to only attempt to change one or two aspects of practice at a time, until it becomes a new habit.
  4. Accountability: Leaders should ensure that all teachers have a written action plan of their development priorities.
  5. Supportive accountability: Leaders need to create a culture whereby CPD is valued and teachers agree in a need to continuously improve their practice. 

In the Teacher Professional Learning and Development’ report Timperley et al propose a sequence of inquiries as a model to support CPD leaders in developing effective CPD that is centred on and builds on the learning needs of the students. It also emphasises the importance of the evaluation of the impact of the specific changes to teacher practice on the students.

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For the effective CPD supported by the vast amount of evidence summarised in this report to be achieved, a culture needs to be established in all schools whereby professional development is valued and prioritised by senior leaders (DfE 2016) and indeed staff (Wiliam 2016), and where teachers are respected and trusted as professionals. Indeed, there is increasing evidence that teachers who work in supportive contexts stay in the classroom longer, and improve at faster rates (Papay and Kraft 2015). A recent meta-analysis reviewing 60 studies on teacher coaching programmes found that sustained coaching improves both classroom teaching and pupil achievement (Kraft et al 2018). Another aspect that leaders need to consider is how Performance Management is used in schools in respect to impact on culture. A report based on two rapid evidence assessments suggests that for complex tasks performance management targets should set outcome goals based on employee actions (such as engagement with professional learning) rather than quantitative outcome goals (Gifford et al 2016). Schools should also make a clear boundary between teacher developmental opportunities and evaluation of performance.

Implications / Thoughts:

  • How can we further improve the measurement of the impact of our CPD programmes?
  • How can we further develop the professional learning group’ structure next year to have a greater impact on student outcomes? How can we measure this? Although the majority of our teachers voluntarily joined a PLG this year, how many have actually been sufficiently challenged and really engaged with it?
  • What evidence should we ask for from staff regarding CPD impact without being punitive and adding unnecessarily to workload?
  • How do we continue to offer choice around CPD, but also ensure that individuals receive the CPD they require (whether they agree with it or not?)
  • Effective CPD involves challenge and deep thinking. It’s not about leaving with several exciting’ ideas to try out without planning for successful implementation. Do we communicate this clearly enough?
  • How do we continue to improve the coaching across the school in the future?
  • What about the CPD of support staff? Should we build in coaching conversations throughout the year for them as well as teaching staff? If so, how and when do we train these coaches up, or do we use the teaching staff coaches? Surely teaching staff wouldn’t have enough domain specific’ knowledge of what support staff do to coach them effectively?


Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., Major, L. What makes great teaching: Review of the underpinning research. 2014
Coe, R . Evaluation: Why, What, How? Chartered College of Teaching IMPACT magazine May 2017
Cordingley, P., Higgins, S., Greany, T., Buckler, N., Coles-Jordan, D., Crisp, B., Saunders, L., Coe, R. Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Teacher Development Trust. 2015.
Cordingley, P., Greany, T., Crisp, B., Seleznyov, S., Bradbury, M., Perry, T. Developing great subject teaching: Rapid evidence review of subject-specific continuing professional development in the UK. 2018
Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M.E., Garner, M. (2017). Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute
DfE 2016…
DfE 2016…
EEF toolkit: Staff deployment and development: https://educationendowmentfoun…
Gifford, J. (2016) Could do better? Assessing what works in performance management. CIPD research report.
Kraft, Blazar, Hogan (2018) The Effect of Teacher Coaching on Instruction and Achievement: A Meta-Analysis of the Causal Evidence. Review of Educational Research.
Mccrea, P: Expert teaching- What is it and how might we develop it? Institute for Teaching 2018
Raya, Manuel Jiménez & Sercu, Lies (2007) Challenges in teacher development: Learner autonomy and intercultural competence Peter Lang (Frankfurt & New York www. ISBN 9783631558065236 BOOK REVIEW in British Journal of Educational Technology Vol 39 No 6 20081131 – 1148
Papay, J., Kraft, M. Developing workplaces where teachers stay, improve and succeed. Albert Shanker Institute. Washington Post. 2015
Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H & I. Fung (2007) Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education
Wiliam, D. Leadership for Teacher Learning. Learning Sciences International 2016. ISBN:978 – 1941112 – 267

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