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A research-led approach to boosting professional development in schools

Written by: Raj Chande
5 min read
Raj Chande, Senior Research Associate, National Institute of Teaching, UK

I joined the new National Institute of Teaching (NIoT) because I believe that we can make a real contribution to research into teaching and professional development – both its quality and its accessibility. 

I know how hard it can be to translate research into classroom practice or into a genuinely useful CPD session for colleagues. I know this because I am also a teacher and, alongside my NIoT role, I will continue to teach mathematics and economics at a secondary school in Hackney. 

In August, I was asked to deliver an inset session on student motivation. I was surprisingly nervous, partly because my colleagues are already fantastic teachers and, frankly, more experienced than I am. But I think that there was more to it than that. I felt far less confident teaching adults than teaching children, and I’ve been reflecting on why. 

As a profession, I think that we are increasingly sure what a good lesson looks like, thanks to the outstanding work of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), the education research community and organisations like the Chartered College of Teaching and ResearchEd. Teachers are becoming more and more confident about applying the principles of pedagogical research and cognitive psychology in their classroom. Nonetheless, I didn’t feel that I could stand up and just teach my colleagues strategies for motivating students in the way in which I might teach my Year 10s how to solve quadratic equations. 

Subsequent conversations with teacher-training experts and CPD leads in schools have led me to believe that I am not alone. We are making progress, thanks to the likes of the Teacher Development Trust, many strong teacher-training providers and, once again, academics and the EEF. The sector is engaging with this research too: I have heard the EEF’s recent review of research on effective professional development cited in at least a dozen talks since it was published in October 2021 (Collin and Smith, 2021). 

The review is an excellent summary of what we know – but we don’t seem to know quite as much as we need to. This is partly because it’s very hard to research teacher training. Cognitive psychologists can run lab experiments, but teacher trainers can’t. 

There are approximately 450,000 teachers nationally, but only a few in each school are responsible for CPD. We have never had data linking teachers to the outcomes of their pupils, so it has never been possible to properly analyse which of the various teacher-training models lead to better outcomes for pupils. 

The NIoT is here to help. From 2022, we will be training teachers at every level of experience, from initial teacher training (ITT) to National Leader of Education (NLE). We are excited about the impact that our training will have – but we want to do more. By 2028, we want every teacher to have been positively influenced by the NIoT. 

To do that, our Research and Best Practice (RBP) team will produce rigorous research on professional development that directly addresses the needs of the schools that deliver it.

We need to listen to teachers. As an institution, the NIoT is rooted in schools. We have strong connections with our founding school trusts and Associate Colleges – but we want to go further than that. We want to serve every school and teacher-training provider in the country. 

We know that this is easier said than done. The sector is incredibly diverse in its philosophical approaches, demographics and institutions – but we see this diversity as a help, not a hindrance. There is no monopoly on promising ideas, and we look forward to engaging with everyone who has something to say. We will be at conferences like ResearchEd, checking the pulse of the profession via our partner TeacherTapp and, through our four regional campuses, visiting as many schools as we can (both inside and outside our network of trusts). We are especially keen to visit the parts of the country that need the most support when it comes to pupil attainment, teacher recruitment, retention and wellbeing. 

We are committed to delivering high-quality, transparent, peer-reviewed and ethical research. The EEF elevated the quality of education research in England, and we will hold ourselves to the same standards. 

We will, however, do some things differently. We are not primarily a research funder, so we will be doing much of the research ourselves. Our work will be embedded in a teacher-training organisation, which means that we will have skin in the game: we will use our research to improve delivery of the programmes that we offer. Being teacher-led means that we are looking to improve not only outcomes for pupils but also teacher-level outcomes, such as recruitment, retention, workload and wellbeing. 

And what happens when we find out something useful? With our colleagues across the country, we will develop implementation strategies that will support teachers and training providers, helping them to turn research insights into reality. We will share research and best practice on implementation in formats that are accessible for the sector. Rather than sending out 60-page PDFs, we’re thinking about short YouTube examples of best practice and ready-made but adaptable inset materials. 

We have two projects underway that we believe illustrate these principles. Our first project is about mentoring. We know that mentoring early career teachers (ECTs) is a huge priority for schools, and it can be challenging to find the time to deliver it well. So we immediately commissioned a review of best practice from a collaborative team of leading academics and practitioners. The final review and recommendations will be available in early 2023, accompanied by several digestible explanations, which we hope will help school CPD leads to turn our findings into sessions for mentors and other staff. 

For our second project, we are exploring the design and delivery of intensive practice, as part of initial teacher training. This project builds on promising evidence (Collin and Smith, 2021; Sims and Fletcher-Wood, 2021) that suggests that increasing the amount of high-quality practice undertaken by trainees can improve outcomes for pupils and teachers. 

We will pilot four intensive-practice approaches, developed by four providers working in different contexts. Our initial findings on the composite elements of the different approaches and how they can be implemented by teacher-training providers will be available in spring 2023. 

Alongside these two projects, we will be working closely with our delivery team to help them to integrate the latest evidence into their programmes and to help us learn more about what works and what doesn’t when training teachers. Whenever we learn something new, we look forward to sharing it with other providers immediately, so that they can integrate our findings into what they do. The NIoT has an invaluable opportunity to generate and communicate new insights into teacher training, and we want to weave these two activities through everything we do, on the largest possible scale. 

When we say that we’re rooted in schools, we mean it. We want you to tell us what would be helpful for teachers. Perhaps you’d like us to offer clear and practical guides on how to mark effectively but quickly? Or how to establish positive learning behaviours in the classroom? Let us know by emailing us at research@niot.org.uk, or find us on Twitter (@NatInstTeaching).

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