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Developing teachers’ professional competence: Accessing research evidence and a theory of action

Written by: Gary Jones
7 min read

This article outlines a framework of teachers’ professional competence and explores the relationship between teacher access to research and their own professional competence. It then goes onto explore the underpinning theory of action, which describes the relationship between teacher access to research and improved pupil outcomes. Finally the article explores the implications of the interaction between the framework of competence and theory of action for a range of different stakeholders, such as the Chartered College of Teaching, Multi-Academy Trusts, individual schools and teachers.

One of the first successes of the Chartered College of Teaching has been to allow its members access to over 2,000 educational journals, which had previously sat behind publishers’ expensive pay walls. As Dame Alison Peacock, the College’s chief executive, says:

‘Educational research can sometimes be seen as quite esoteric and separate from the realities of day-to-day teaching… We hope the knowledge and research platform we are developing will help to connect the big research ideas to classroom practice and allow our members to share their own insights on what works.’

However, teachers having access to educational research is, in itself, not enough to guarantee that ‘big research ideas’ will subsequently make it to the classroom. We need to locate the individual teacher’s access to research knowledge within a conceptual framework of teacher competence. Having done so, we will then be in a position to develop a theory of action, showing how teachers’ research knowledge can lead to changes in pupil/student learning.

To help with this task, I will draw upon the work of Guerriero and Revai (2017) who have developed a conceptual framework of teachers’ professional competence. I will then draw upon the work of Brown (2017), on theory of action, which will link teacher access to research to changes in pupil/student learning.

A conceptual framework of teachers’ professional competence Guerriero and Revai (2017) start off by defining teacher competence as:

‘a broad term referring to the ability to meet complex demands in a given context by mobilizing various psychosocial (cognitive, functional, personal and ethical) resources. In this sense competence is dynamic and process-oriented, and includes the capacity to use and to adapt knowledge.‘ (p.261) (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 is titled "A conceptual framework for teacher competence" and shows a diagram of circles and boxes connected by arrows. There are three main boxes. The first box on the top of the diagram is titled "Teachers' professional competence". On the right of the box are two overlapping circles. The first is labelled "Content and Pedagogical Knowledge", the second is labelled "Affective-Motivational Competencies and Beliefs". An arrow labelled "Decision-Making and Professional Judgement" leads to a circle labelled "Teaching approaches" on the right of the box. From this circle an arrow labelled "Instruction" leads down to the second main box labelled "Student learning". This box contains two overlapping circles, labelled "Cognitive" and "Social-Emotional". An arrow labelled "Research and Experience" leads left to the third main box. This box is titled "Teacher learning" and contains the three bullet points "Initial Teacher Education", "Continuous Professional Development" and "Informal and Non-informal Learning". An arrow labelled "Opportunities to Learn" leads upwards to the first main box to complete the cycle. As the authors note, this conceptual framework is based on teacher learning, with the learning coming from a number of different sources, be it initial teacher training, in-service CPD or informal or non-formal learning. Indeed, these opportunities to learn will influence teachers’ professional competences on an ongoing basis throughout their careers. Within this model, opportunities to learn will influence teachers’ content and pedagogical knowledge and have affective motivational competences and beliefs. Guerriero and Revai note the work of Shulman (1986, 1987) to show how content and pedagogical knowledge have three specificc categories: subject knowledge; knowledge of teaching; and knowledge of learning, including knowledge of teaching and learning processes particular to both the subject and general teaching. Guerriero and R.vai (2017) state that affective motivational competences include aspects

‘such as career choice motivation, achievement motivation and goal orientation, but also teachers’ belief about their subject area, about teaching and learning, as well as their perceptions of teaching and of the profession’. (p.262)

Affective and motivation competences are, however, also influenced by how teachers view the extent to which they have self-efficacy.

But teacher knowledge, motivational competences and beliefs are not in themselves enough to lead to teacher competence (i.e. ‘the ability to meet complex demands in a given context by mobilizing various psychosocial (cognitive, functional, personal and ethical) resources’ (Guerriero and Revai, p.261). As such, teachers also need to be able to use their knowledge and expertise to make quick-fi re decisions in response to what they see within the classroom and other settings. To this end, Guerriero and Revai cite the work of Seidel et al. (2011), who identify three aspects of the decision-making and reasoning process:

1. ‘The ability to describe what has been noticed.
2. Higher-order processes to connect the observed classroom event to prior knowledge and understanding of teaching and learning.
3. Knowledge-based reasoning processes to evaluate and predict what might happen as a result of connecting the observed situation to prior knowledge of teaching and learning. ‘As such, decision-making and professional judgement provide the connection between formal knowledge, competencies and teaching, as noted by Guerriero and Revai in the context of this model of professional competence.

The next aspect of their model of professional competence considers the teaching strategies and practical approaches that a teacher may decide to use as a consequence of deploying their professional judgment. These strategies could include, for example, approaches to planning and preparation, the classroom environment, teaching and their professional responsibilities. However, we must not forget that these strategies now need to be put in place and used alongside their teaching, and it is only at this stage the diverse elements of the teacher’s competence make it into the classroom. It is at this next stage that we hope to have pupil/student learning consisting of two inter-related elements, the cognitive and the emotional.

So, having briefly summarised Guerriero and Revai’s conceptual model of teachers’ professional competence, it is necessary to map out how teachers having access to research journals will lead to changes in the level of a teacher’s professional competence and subsequent changes in pupil learning.

Access to research and teachers’ professional competence:

A theory of action Brown (2017) cites Earl and Timperley (2015), who define a theory of action (ToA) as:

‘an organisation’s “theory”, or story of how it will make change in the world. A theory is an explanation of why certain things happen’.

As such, Brown argues a theory of action can be usefully viewed as a ‘route map’ that helps educators to work out what needs to happen if the innovation or intervention – in this case access to research – is to make a difference. Brown goes on to identify six elements of a ToA: first, an understanding of the context; second, what problem they are faced with; third, how this problem is going to be attended to and why; fourth, what learning is expected to take place; fifth, what the expected changes in behaviours are; and finally, what changes in outcomes are expected. How these elements of a ToA come together is illustrated in Figure 2, ‘An outline model of a theory of action’.

Figure 2 is titled "An outline model of a theory of action" and shows a diagram of six numbered circles. There are two circles per line, each with an arrow leading to the next higher numbered circle. The circles are labelled from one to six as follows: "Context", "Problem", "Innovation", "Learning", "Changes in behaviour", and "Changes in outcomes".

So, using Brown’s model, let’s see how we can integrate it with the work of Guerriero and Revai (2017) to come up with a ToA linking increased teacher access to research with changes in pupil outcomes.

Context – pressures on schools and teachers to improve.

Problem – due to publisher pay walls, teachers and school leaders have (in the past) found it difficult to access the latest educational research.

Innovation – the Chartered College of Teaching is providing its members with access to over 2000, research publications.

Learning – access to research. Journals now provides teachers with opportunities to develop general pedagogical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge.

Changes in behaviour – this learning will impact upon teacher motivation and influence teachers’ professional judgement, teachers’ choice of teaching and learning strategies and how teachers conduct themselves in the classroom and other settings.

Changes in outcomes – as a result, this should lead to improved pupil learning outcomes – both cognitive and emotive.

Some initial observations

We now need to consider the implications of this analysis for each of the Chartered College of Teaching’s multi-academy trusts (MATs), schools, and individual teachers. Firstly, the Chartered College of Teaching needs to work with ‘producers’ of research to ensure that the product of research activities is both relevant to teachers and communicated to teachers in a relevant manner, which can then be translated into changes in both teacher knowledge and practice. Secondly, MATs should be looking to take advantage of economies of scale and opportunities for joint working between schools, where collaboration on evidence-based joint practice development is the norm. Thirdly, given the workload pressures on teachers, schools will need to find ways of reducing unnecessary demands on colleagues, so the time and space is created for thoughtful professional learning. Finally, individual teachers need to recognise that access to research is only part of the journey of becoming an evidence-based practitioner, as time and effort will be required to develop the skills to make the most of educational research in a classroom setting.



Brown C (2017) Measuring impact and the scale-up of educational innovations: A working paper. London: UCL Institute of Education: UCL Centre for Knowledge Exchange and Impact in Education.

Earl L and Timperley H (2015) Evaluative thinking for successful educational innovation. Education Working Papers, No. 122. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Guerriero S and Révai N (2017) Knowledge-based teaching and the evolution of a profession. In: Guerriero S (ed) Pedagogical Knowledge and the Changing Nature of the Teaching Profession. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Shulman L (1986) Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher 15: 4-14.

Shulman L (1987) Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review 57: 1-23.

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas