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Research School Network: The Fluoride of Professional Development Jon Eaton, Director of Kingsbridge Research School, Introduces the EEF’s guidance report, Effective Professional Development.

The Fluoride of Professional Development

Jon Eaton, Director of Kingsbridge Research School, Introduces the EEF’s guidance report, Effective Professional Development.

by West Somerset Research School
on the

The EEF’s latest guidance report, Effective Professional Development, is a game-changer for school leaders. Up till now, when we’ve been trying to design or identify good Professional Development, we’ve had to rely on some fairly vague indicators of good’: it should be collaborative, sustained, iterative, supported by school leadership, evidence-informed and focused on outcomes – among other things.

It’s not that this advice is wrong – these are all sensible ideas. The trouble is, they don’t get to the heart of what makes a Professional Development programme effective. They don’t explain how it’s supposed to work, how it actually changes teacher behaviour in the classroom.

Entering the nebula

Recommendation 1 of the guidance report addresses this problem with a vignette:

Aleena is the Headteacher of an all through school, who is determined to improve outcomes for children. She identifies professional development as a pivotal tool to do this, so spends time researching different PD programmes and approaches.’

The vignette goes on to describe the various approaches recommended to Aleena. One programme focuses on KS2 pupils’ reading outcomes. Someone else suggests instructional coaching. Neither of these quite meet the bill. The reading programme isn’t well-matched to teachers’ needs. The instructional coaching programme, on examination, is hard to pin down to specifics – it seems to mean different things to different people. Aleena turns to some of the principles mentioned above: make it collaborative, make it sustained…

Finding it all a bit nebulous, Aleena rightly asks herself, When selecting PD programmes, or designing my own PD, what should I be focusing on?’

The Fluoride of PD

To borrow a toothpaste analogy that the authors use throughout the guidance report, it’s as if Aleena asks what is it about toothpaste that reduces cavities and is told it’s the mint flavour, or the fact that it’s in a tube. True, those things will probably help transport the cavity-reducing ingredient to the end-user, but in themselves they aren’t the features that reduce the cavities. Fluoride is.

So what’s the Professional Development equivalent of fluoride?

It’s mechanisms. These are the observable, replicable building blocks’ of Professional Development. Each is supported by evidence from research on human behaviour (‘they have been found, in contexts beyond teaching, to change practice’) and they are so fundamental to the effectiveness of a programme that the guidance calls them​‘elements that could not be removed without making the PD less effective’.

For that reason, Recommendation One states, When designing and selecting professional development, focus on the mechanisms.’ In fact, it goes further: The more​‘building blocks’ incorporated, the better the chance of success.’

This is helpful to Aleena. Instead of relying on hazily defined forms of Professional Development or broad advice about making it sustained, she can look at the constituent mechanisms and make a judgement about whether the Professional Development is a good bet or not.

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The Fab Four(teen)

The mechanisms – and there are fourteen of them in the guidance report – can be split into four groups. There are mechanisms that:- 

  • build teacher knowledge
  • motivate teachers
  • develop teacher techniques
  • embed practice

Let’s look at an example of each.

Building teacher knowledge

The first category aims to address the way Professional Development builds teachers’ knowledge of a particular practice. One mechanism from this section is​‘Revisiting prior learning’.


Motivating teachers

Having built understanding, we look next at how to make sure our Professional Development motivates teachers. One of five mechanisms from this section is Presenting information from a credible source’:


Developing teacher techniques

At this point, teachers are knowledgeable and motivated, but if they don’t have the tools to apply their understanding, the approach is likely to founder in the classroom. This is why, for example, the EEF’s Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning guidance report makes Recommendation 1 this: Teachers should acquire the professional understanding and skills to develop their pupils’ metacognitive knowledge’. Knowledge alone isn’t enough. There are five mechanisms in this section, one of which is Rehearsing the technique’:


Embedding practice

So teachers understand the approach, are motivated to use it and have the tools to put it into practice. But if it fizzles out after a couple of weeks, was it worth the investment of time and resources? The mechanisms in this section aim to influence teacher behaviour so that the practice remains embedded. There are five mechanisms in this section. One of those is Providing prompts and cues’:


Here, we’ve looked at just one mechanism from each of the four groups: building knowledge, motivating teachers, developing techniques and embedding practice. These are the fluoride that cause the Professional Development to work, the building blocks that would help Aleena design and select effective Professional Development. It should be stressed, however, that even with these mechanisms in place, the programme itself should be informed by a reliable evidence base.

Finally, in the spirit of knowledge-building, here are some questions you can use to check your understanding:

1. Recommendation 1 was When designing and selecting professional development, focus on the mechanisms’. What exactly do we mean by​‘mechanisms’?

2. Mechanisms’ might seem quite an abstract term. How would you explain this to a member of staff unfamiliar with the guidance?

3. What were the four broad groups of mechanisms?

4. How many mechanisms are in the guidance report?

5. What’s one mechanism that might be used to help motivate staff?

6. The mechanism Providing prompts and cues’ belongs to which of the four categories?

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