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What is effective continuing professional development for Early Years teachers to support the acquisition of knowledge and skills?

Written By: Jackie Gray
8 min read
Jackie Gray, Director of Early Years, Outwood Grange Academies Trust, UK

This article reflects on the factors that contribute to effective CPD for Early Years practitioners and the approaches used to improve practitioners’ knowledge and expertise across Outwood Grange Academies Trust (OGAT). Specifically, it looks at:

  • how research into effective teaching has informed our professional development methods
  • the range of approaches used to improve practitioner knowledge and expertise
  • how Early Years settings across OGAT collaborate to enhance CPD.


Effective professional development

According to Cordingley et al. (2015, in Muijs and Reynolds, 2017), a number of factors characterise effective continuing professional development (CPD) programmes: ‘Longer programmes tend to be more effective than short-term interventions… effective CPD requires follow-up, practice and support… CPD needs to be relevant to the everyday work of teachers for it to have impact.’ (p. 282) In response to this research, we strengthened our CPD programme by:

  • providing training on a particular topic/focus over a number of sessions with gap tasks
  • working alongside practitioners, coaching in the moment
  • using video as a reflection tool.


Supporting effective teaching

We want all practitioners to have the expertise to effectively support children’s learning, enabling children to learn more and remember more. It is essential that practitioners provide Quality First Teaching, a style of teaching that uses a range of effective teaching strategies focused on high quality and inclusive teaching for every child, so that all children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are explicitly taught key skills and knowledge. The Education inspection framework (Ofsted, 2019) states:

Teaching… is a broad term that covers the many different ways in which adults help young children learn. It includes their interactions with children… communicating and modelling language… explaining… questioning, recalling, providing a narrative for what they are doing…’ (paragraph 339)

It is increasingly clear that using spaced or distributed practice, where knowledge is rehearsed for short periods over a longer period of time, is more effective than so-called massed practice, where we study more intensively for a shorter period of time. Returning to information and concepts over time leads to better long-term retention of knowledge (Rohrer and Taylor, 2006; Rawson and Kintsch, 2005). As Sweller et al. (2011) have pointed out, ‘if nothing in the long-term memory has been altered, nothing has been learned’. Rosenshine (2012) states that ‘the review of previous learning can help us recall words, concepts and procedures much more effortlessly and automatically… [M]ore effective teachers… present only small amounts of new material at any time, and then assist the students as they practise the new material.’ (p. 13)

Following this research, we support practitioners in providing opportunities for children to revisit, retrieve and embed new learning. One example of this is the creation of a teacher project pack for each topic. For example, an expressive arts and design (EAD) project creating 3D models linked to our topic ‘Amazing Planets’ involved teaching key skills and knowledge over a sequence of lessons, enabling children to learn about the Amazon Rainforest as well as the use of tools and techniques in making. This led to the children applying the new learning when making a 3D den for the rainforest and then independently in other contexts.

The project pack contains resources and exemplifications to build teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge. It includes six sequenced lesson plans incorporating OGAT’s five pillars of teaching and learning (clarity of learning, recap and recall, new information, practice and feedback). It includes key vocabulary, links to video clips, images of dens and key skills to be taught, e.g. attaching materials, curling and fringing paper, mixing paint, etc.

We trialled the packs in some schools and gathered feedback to evaluate and improve the materials. This was followed by training for schools, where we shared good practice through regular CPD sessions. We wanted to ensure that staff were secure in their understanding of how to teach the skills and knowledge and make use of spaced practice. Our aim is for practitioners to spend lots of time supporting the children through guided practice, engaging in conversations about their learning, asking questions, checking for understanding and addressing any misconceptions.

Instructional leadership

In addition to providing tailored support through teacher project packs, OGAT use the ‘See it, name it, do it’ approach as part of an ongoing effort to support staff and leaders to:

  • See it: See the model of effective teaching and the features that make it exemplary; see the gap – the gap between the model/exemplar and what the practitioner does
  • Name it: Name the actions to close the gap between their practice and the model
  • Do it: Practise and apply the actions immediately afterwards to help commit them to memory.

What does instructional leadership look like in OGAT Early Years settings?

The Director of Early Years and Teacher Coach work alongside the practitioners to develop expertise. In one example, a practitioner was asking children lots of questions and not giving children enough time to respond. According to Stahl (1994), Mary Budd Rowe (1972) ‘found… periods of silence that followed teacher questions and students’ completed responses… rarely lasted more than 1.5 seconds in typical classrooms. She discovered, however, that when these periods of silence lasted at least 3 seconds, many positive things happened…’ (p. 2).

Following the ‘See it, name it, do it’ approach, the Director of Early Years and practitioner identified the positive elements of the interaction discussed previously, e.g. asking open-ended questions. Together they watched a video showing quality interactions and named the practice:

  • The adult was at child’s level, giving eye contact
  • Open-ended questions were asked, e.g. ‘What can you tell me about your model?’
  • The adult counted to 10 silently to allow the child time to process the question and formulate a response
  • The adult engaged in a two-way conversation to support the child’s thinking process, e.g. the child learned that split pins are more effective than sticky tape for moving parts.

They then identified the gap between their practice and the model practice shown on the video:

  • Get down to a child’s level
  • Allow the child time to respond
  • Engage in a two-way conversation and facilitate problem-solving/critical thinking.

The practitioner then interacted with other children, using the improved questioning techniques shown in the video and discussed above. We further support the development of high-quality interactions through effective questioning techniques by providing training specifically on questioning techniques, producing a prompt sheet outlining techniques to encourage back-and-forth conversations and providing a list of question stems to support critical thinking and problem-solving.

Modelling for sustained shared thinking (SST)

We also made use of video formats to model sustained shared thinking (SST). Siraj-Blatchford et al. (2003) have stated that ‘“excellent” settings encouraged “sustained shared thinking”… an episode in which two or more individuals “work together” in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative etc.’ (p. v). In order to upskill practitioners on SST, we provided:

  • training on the principles of SST, including videos of exemplary practice and practising the strategy on peers
  • modelling for practitioners on how to engage children in two-way conversations, supporting their problem-solving/critical thinking
  • videos of practitioners’ interactions as a means of reflecting on practice.

Jordan and Henderson (1995) argue that ‘for certain kinds of research… video based Interaction Analysis may be the optimal choice… [V]ideo provides a shared resource to overcome gaps between what people say they do and what they, in fact, do.’ (p. 50) Using video reflection, a practitioner identified that she had dominated the conversation and not given the child opportunities to speak. She was able to say what would make the interactions more effective in supporting the child’s learning. Actions were agreed and the practitioner practised the strategies discussed, improving the quality of her interactions.

An example of a practitioner putting SST into practice

Two children (C1 and C2) took the dough leaves that they had made to a practitioner (P).

(P): ‘I like the way you have observed and looked carefully at the shape of the leaf. Tell me how you made that shape?’

(C1): ‘I used a knife to cut it and then I used a stick to do that [pattern].’

(C2): ‘Mine’s got a different one [pattern].’

(P): ‘Oh yes, I can see they have different patterns. Why is that?’

(C2): ‘I used a lolly stick.’

(C1): ‘I used a different stick.’

(P): ‘I can see something else on the “real” leaf but I’m not sure what it is.’ [Points to veins running through the leaf.]

(C1): ‘It’s where it has a drink. It sucks it up like this.’ [Shows the practitioner how to suck.]

(P): ‘Do you know what they are called, these lines on the leaf?’

(C1 and C2): ‘No.’

(P): ‘They are called veins.’

(C2): ‘I’ve got some of those.’ [Points to veins in hands – this is transferred knowledge from a previous topic.]

(P): ‘I wonder which tool you could use to add veins to your leaf?’

The children went to explore which tool would be the most effective for making veins.


CPD through coaching practitioners

Training in particular approaches to effective teaching and the ‘see it, name it, do it’ method is underpinned by coaching. For example, we encourage peer-to-peer support – recently, experienced practitioners modelled teaching a skill, e.g. attaching materials using a range of resources, for less-experienced practitioners. They questioned the children, responding to their suggestions and thinking aloud to demonstrate the thought process. Following this, the two practitioners discussed what made the session effective in supporting children’s learning. We also work alongside practitioners, ‘stepping in’ to model an aspect of teaching – e.g. modelling for the children which tools and techniques they could use to paint a flower.


Conclusion: What is the impact of CPD at OGAT?

Effective teaching to support learning involves a range of research-informed strategies depending on the knowledge and skills being taught, and effective CPD needs to be relevant to practitioners daily work with regular follow up, support and long-term planning. We therefore use a range of techniques, including modelling and instructional leadership, supported by the use of video and coaching, to develop research-informed practice. While we cannot isolate the impact of any one initiative, we have found overall that:

  • Practitioners have improved their knowledge of how to teach the skills and knowledge for EAD, enabling children to learn more and remember more
  • Their interactions with the children are now much more attuned to supporting children’s learning
  • Practitioners now see every interaction as a teaching and learning opportunity, and this is embedded practice across the Trust
  • CPD has fostered practitioners’ enthusiasm for EAD and led to wider opportunities for developing children’s creativity.

This has impacted positively on children’s outcome, as they have:

  • increased confidence in communicating their thoughts and ideas
  • the ability to make informed choices about the most appropriate tool or technique to use
  • increased ability to think critically and evaluate their work
  • improved perseverance to keep trying and resilience to continue when it doesn’t always go right.
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