Research School Network: A balanced approach to successful professional development Kirstin Mulholland, the EEF’s new maths content specialist, explains the mechanisms from the EEF’s latest guidance report.


A balanced approach to successful professional development

Kirstin Mulholland, the EEF’s new maths content specialist, explains the mechanisms from the EEF’s latest guidance report.

by Research Schools Network
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At a time when high-quality, impactful PD has never been more important, just what can school leaders do to ensure that any PD into which they invest time, energy and resources actually hits the mark?

Reflecting on training I’ve experienced and delivered in the past, I can see that even small tweaks may have helped these PD opportunities to make a much greater impact in my classroom and those of my colleagues.

The EEF’s new Effective Professional Development guidance report highlights essential building blocks – or mechanisms – which increase the likelihood that professional development (PD) will make a difference to classroom practice and pupil outcomes. These are grouped into four categories, indicating their overarching purpose:

1. Building knowledge

Building knowledge means presenting PD in a way that makes it accessible. Just like when working with our pupils, we need to have a clear focus, providing examples of successful practice and allowing colleagues time to reflect on and discuss how this might apply in their own classrooms.

When building knowledge, it’s also important to consider manageable units of change. For example, it’s useful to break PD down into achievable steps which can then be revisited and developed using a drip-feed’ approach. This makes change realistic for colleagues and reduces the likelihood of cognitive overload. It also links to research on spaced practice and retrieval, suggesting that colleagues may be more likely to retain information in the long-term.

2. Motivating teachers

Motivating teachers is about ensuring that PD is done with’ – rather than to’ – our colleagues. Crucially, it’s also about recognising colleagues’ progress towards the changes you’re trying to bring about.

Reflecting on the PD I’ve led in schools, I know that I could have done this better – or certainly more consistently. It can be difficult, within the sometimes-frenetic pace of schools, to prioritise this. The temptation is always to move onto the next pressing thing on our to do’ list.

But reading this report, I can certainly recognise the value of acknowledging colleagues’ efforts. This doesn’t need to be elaborate – a simple Well done’, or, I’ve noticed you’re working hard to implement this’ can suffice. For busy teachers, it’s difficult to overestimate the importance of feeling seen’ and appreciated in providing motivation for persevering with PD, when putting this off, or doing nothing is a far easier option.

3. Developing teacher techniques

Developing teacher techniques means ensuring that colleagues understand what the desired outcomes for PD look like. Within this, one of the elements that most resonates with me is the emphasis on social support’. Evidence suggests that PD which provides this support is more likely to improve pupil outcomes.

One of the schools I worked in had a Sharing Our Practice’ (or SHOP’) programme, which helped us do just this. After a focused PD session, we would meet our SHOP partner to consider how to develop techniques in our own classroom settings. We discussed what we wanted to achieve, before taking it in turns to observe each other in action, and then meeting again to give feedback.

In my own experience, I also found that creating space for these professional conversations helped establish a culture where constructive discussions about teaching and learning become more commonplace, supporting the sharing of ideas around good practice.

4. Embedding practice

This final element is vital if PD is to have a lasting impact. As school leaders we need to think carefully about what continued support is needed for new techniques to become embedded long term.

It could be a simple approach like show and tell’ sessions in staff meeting. These provide opportunities to revisit PD learning and discuss how this was working in practice. I always loved these sessions. The tangible buzz as colleagues talked about what had worked (or not!) for them can forge the motivation to embed and sustain new approaches.

As school leaders we know that the most important thing we can do to improve pupil outcomes is to continue to develop teaching and learning. In these challenging times, PD has real potential to help us do this. Incorporating mechanisms from each of these four key groups into your next PD activity can support you to do this, helping to make that goal of a lasting impact on classroom practice for your pupils a reality.

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