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Creating a learning culture by investing in staff

Written by: Kieran Briggs
5 min read

How do we characterise an effective CPD programme? It is relatively easy to identify slots in the calendar and gather staff together, but good attendance and hours spent are not necessarily synonymous with quality and impact. And impact is what CPD is all about. Indeed, the key findings from the Teacher Development Trust’s 2015 summary of research into effective CPD highlighted that programmes that are clearly student-centred had a significant impact on their achievement (Cordingley et al., 2015). But this impact relies in no small part on ensuring buy-in.

By 2014, in our school, our staff were with us in ‘cheerful cooperation’. But we had our sights set beyond ‘creative excitement’. We were convinced that a well-structured CPD programme could enrich staff and student experiences and craft a nurturing learning environment. We were struck by Dylan Wiliam’s vision of teacher learning communities, in which content – informed by research – was collaboratively explored using a flexible process (Wiliam, 2014). This bespoke professional learning model sat in appealing contrast to the ‘echo chamber’ of whole-cohort one-off CPD. And it was this type of responsive, professionalised offer that we set out to realise.

Recalibrating quality assurance

The first thing we had to consider was our approach to learning evaluations. Bjork’s work on the risks of conflating learning and performance has repercussions both in the classroom and to the rationale that has historically driven teacher evaluations. Graded lessons in particular run the risk of using ‘poor proxies’ for student learning as the basis for a summative judgment and leave little scope for considering permanent changes in knowledge (Soderstrom and Bjork, 2015). Taking this into consideration, we recalibrated our evaluations to have a focus on typicality rather than one-off ‘outstanding’ lessons, but still felt that the summative judgement acted as a barrier to staff development. We were determined to develop a discursive process where lesson evaluations were an opportunity for dialogue around pedagogy.

As we removed grading, we poured extra energy into ensuring that written and verbal feedback on lessons was formative and genuinely developmental. Throughout, we kept a careful eye on staff well-being and the time taken to undertake these processes. We experimented with three evaluations a year and flirted with no evaluations at all. But increasingly, we felt that what we needed was a process that created more time for specific and formative discussions around pedagogy. It was this that we felt would help foster the learning community that we wanted.

In its current iteration, staff have a full teaching evaluation in term one, followed by a detailed and discursive feedback session about their practice and what they would like to continue working on. Follow-up ‘developmental drop-ins’ then take place in subsequent terms to offer feedback on how this work is going, offering coaching suggestions along the way, as well as using teaching and learning forums to ensure that excellent practice is cascaded to all staff. It feels like we are tapping into the collective creativity of our community as a result.

A research-informed classroom

It is a truth universally acknowledged that teachers are often time poor, and it was crucial to us that we only spent CPD time on professional learning which not only improve[s] pupil outcomes [and]  reduce[s] teacher workload.’ (Hendrick and Macpherson, 2017) We also wanted our CPD to feel unilaterally relevant, with teachers focusing on aspects of their practice that made the most sense to their development and classes.

Our first wave of post-Ofsted CPD was action research and it allowed us to do just this. Using Tharby and Allison’s Making Every Lesson Count (2015) as our focus, we asked staff to select from explanation, modelling and questioning, depending on feedback from their most recent evaluation, and then to nominate a focus group of students in their classes as a touchstone for their work. CPD sessions were structured around discussion of stimulus material with a lead practitioner and collaborative planning of what would be tried. This was followed by in-class experiments, ‘drop-ins’ from members of the group and evaluative discussions about changes they would make next time. It felt organic and impactful because it was orientated so clearly on classroom practice: distilling research into classroom experiments with a clear focus on student outcomes.

Whilst this programme allowed teachers to focus on their own practice, with cross-curricular discussion groups providing a helpful sounding board, we became aware that there was a driving need for department teams to collaborate more. Set against a backdrop of curriculum design pressures, the following year of CPD was structured to balance exploration of whole-school priorities, with time for these to be prioritised by departments. We moved to identify research-informed priorities that were of universal significance (retrieval, explanation and feed-forward assessment) and used keynote talks to distil key rationales, believing that ‘effective research is a form of liberation which gives teachers a richer vocabulary with which to navigate the complex language of the classroom’ (Hendrick and Macpherson, 2017, p. 15). For example, our work on retrieval has used research from Willingham (2009) and McCrea (2017) to explain the rationale behind dual coding, elaboration and ‘interrupting the forgetting’ with staff, before creating space and time for teams to apply this in their own context. Far from mandating certain formats or approaches, we encourage departments and teachers to innovate and then share their work across the school through Tuesday briefing slots, building confidence and skill.

Teacher expertise

Our CPD design has always developed in response to wider demands, and its relevance relies on maintaining a detailed understanding of our staff. Integral to ensuring an effective learning culture is an appreciation of the fact that ‘learning the skills of teaching […] requires deliberate practice’ (Allen and Sims, 2018, p.19). It seems obvious, but an understanding of the learning curve present in the early years of teaching necessitates a purposeful CPD programme for recently qualified teachers (RQT). Our most recent development has been to create bespoke RQT programmes that run as ‘tuning cycles’, where staff work with a lead practitioner on aspects of their practice. These tuning cycles allow teachers to deliberately practise and refine skills, using focused feedback from their coach to reflect on each iteration. Wholly separate from whole-school evaluation processes, the programme is an investment in both staff who are coaching and staff who are being coached, and is working brilliantly to nurture our new and inexperienced teachers.

The self-improving school system

This culture has led us to a position of increasing innovation. That creative excitement we aimed for several years ago is now a reality and the climate we have created continues to develop, both for individual teachers and through the development work we are able to lead through our teaching school. Put simply, we have ensured that the ‘continuing’ in CPD remains the most important part.


Allen R and Sims S (2018) The Teacher Gap. Abingdon: Routledge.

Cordingley P, Higgins S, Greany T et al. (2015) Developing great teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Teacher Development Trust. Available at: (accessed 10 December 2018).

Hendrick C and Macpherson R (2017) What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice. Suffolk: John Catt Publishing.

Mccrea, Peps (2017) Memorable Teaching: Leveraging Memory to Build Deep and Durable Learning in the Classroom. High Impact Teaching. Charleston: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Soderstrom NC and Bjork RA (2015) Learning versus performance: An integrative review. Perspectives on Psychological Science 10(2): 176–199.

Tharby A and Allison S (2015) Making Every Lesson Count: Six Principles to Support Great Teaching and Learning. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing.

Wiliam D (2014) Five components of an effective teacher learning community. Available at: (accessed 10 December 2018).

Wiliam D (2018) 2 simple changes to create the schools our children need. Teachwire, 22 October, 18. Available at:  (accessed 25 October 2018).

Willingham D (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School? San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas