Research School Network: Effective CPD and toothpaste what do they have in common? Effective CPD and toothpaste what do they have in common?


Effective CPD and toothpaste what do they have in common?

Effective CPD and toothpaste what do they have in common?

by Unity Research School
on the

1. The Big Picture

“Supporting high quality teaching is pivotal in improving children’s outcomes. Indeed, research tells us that high quality teaching can narrow the disadvantage gap. It is therefore hugely encouraging to see a host of new initiatives and reforms that recognise the importance of teacher quality such as the Early Career Framework and the new National Professional Qualifications. These exemplify a growing consensus that promoting effective professional development (PD) plays a crucial role in improving classroom practice and pupil outcomes”

Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)

And that is where the recommendations outlined in the most recent guidance report from the EEF on Effective Professional Development stand to support school leaders with responsibility for designing and selecting professional development.

The research synthesised within the guidance report identifies that PD has great potential, but it also comes with costs:

“We know that teachers engage in professional development activities whilst balancing multiple and, at times, competing commitments and time pressures. The need is clear, therefore, for professional development to be well designed, selected, and implemented so that the investment is justified.”

Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)


Professional development may take a variety of different meanings in different contexts. This guidance report2, drawing on the underpinning review3, defines teacher professional development in a narrow yet focused manner that perceives professional development as:

structured and facilitated activity for teachers intended to increase their teaching ability … in order to improve outcomes in the classroom”

Therefore, two examples of PD would be:

  • school-wide, monthly twilight sessions on how to improve formative assessment in the classroom
  • a series of online webinars on how to improve behaviour management in the classroom

Two non-examples include:

  • a briefing on how to use new smartboards
  • an information update on the new school admissions policy

Until recently, considering the effectiveness of PD has focused on either forms’ (things like instructional coaching or lesson study) or characteristics’ (things like collaboration or activities that are sustained over time).

However, Dr Sam Sims and Harry Fletcher Wood in a critical review of the characteristics of effective teacher professional development3
proposed a third way.

In addition to thinking about forms and characteristics, they hypothesised that thinking about professional development in terms of mechanisms’ might add even more power and nuance to our pursuit of increasing the effectiveness of professional development:

Mechanisms are processes that directly change knowledge, skills, or behaviour – approaches typically grounded in evidence from cognitive and behavioural sciences, like goal setting or feedback.

Crucially, mechanisms isolate the causes’ of effective PD in a more precise way that either forms or characteristics and help by communicating how’ the change works.


We are all very familiar with toothpaste – the many different brands, types, packaging styles, tastes … so here’s the helpful analogy.

We can bring the process of choosing a toothpaste alongside the elements of professional development by considering the following – when faced with a large selection of toothpastes in the chemist or supermarket, we will consider the:

  • purpose, for example is it targeted at whitening, or reducing sensitivity = the form
  • taste,for example, degree of minti-ness’ = the characteristic
  • brand, specific ingredients and packaging of the various companies = the programme
  • key ingredient for the purpose requires, for example, fluoride to reduce cavities = the mechanism

It is this final aspect, the mechanism that we want in our toothpaste; that is, the specific, replicable, observable ingredient which will be crucial in in helping us to prevent cavities. The more fluoride our toothpaste contains, the healthier our teeth are likely to be.

When designing and selecting professional development, we are advised to be looking to identify and incorporate the fluoride’, the mechanisms that are likely to alter teacher behaviour, develop effective practice and improve pupil outcomes.


The more mechanisms professional development includes and effectively implements, the larger its likely impact on pupil attainment3.

Recommendation 2 in the guidance report2 helpfully presents us with four groups of mechanisms within effective professional development, relating to the need to:

  • A Build knowledge
  • B Motivate teachers
  • C Develop teaching techniques
  • D Embed practice

As illustrated below, with an extract from the guidance report (page 29), these four groups contain the 14 mechanisms identified by the review3 as being particularly impactful when implemented well.

Health warning’: it is important to see the 14 mechanisms as a helpful checklist’ rather than a burdensome tick-list’. Please do not go away from this blog, or the guidance report, thinking that for professional development to be effective it needs to contain all 14 mechanisms.

Indications are that the more balanced’ the professional development is, as in, having at least one mechanism from each group, the more effective it is likely to be in securing teacher behaviour change and hence improvement/​development of practice and hence impact on pupils’ learning and outcomes.

We’ll explore the 14 mechanisms and the notion of a balanced design’ in more detail in our next blog.

Building Knowledge

Andy Samways
Director of Unity Research School


1. Website homepage for Effective Professional Development guidance report, EEF
2. Effective Professional Development guidance report, EEF.
3. Sims et al. (2021), What are the characteristics of teacher professional development that increase pupil achievement? A systematic review and meta-analysis, EEF

Coming next: Exploring the mechanisms and ensuring a balanced design for effective PD

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