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Enhancing teacher quality through research-engaged professional learning and development: A scalable approach

Written by: Mark Leswell
7 min read
MARK LESWELL, RESEARCH LEAD, SWALE ACADEMIES TRUST, UK

Introduction 

In light of considerable investment in continuing professional development (CPD), it is crucial for school leaders to understand the characteristics of effective PD that contribute to improved teaching and learning (Hill et al., 2013) and the mechanisms that increase the likelihood of effective professional development (Sims et al., 2021).

With teacher vacancies in February half-term being 93 per cent higher than pre-COVID-19, teacher recruitment for 2023/24 likely to be significantly below target (Worth, 2023) and research indicating job satisfaction among teachers in England as being the worst among English-speaking OECD countries (OECD, 2018), an in-depth understanding of teacher motivational research and how this translates to retaining teachers within both schools and the profession has never been more important. Blending insights from self-determination theory (SDT) with CPD planning could be a promising approach to address this issue.

This article provides a research-informed review of a large-scale professional learning and development programme implemented within the Swale Academies Trust, created and led by a research lead. The aim is to nurture learning organisations that prioritise effective, evidence-based professional learning and development for all staff, whilst supporting the working conditions of teachers during challenging times. By examining teacher motivational research, evidence-based CPD and pedagogical research, we aim to contribute to the understanding of effective CPD programmes and their implementation, offering valuable insights for school leaders and teachers.

Fostering teacher motivation through professional development

When teachers feel more motivated in their professional development, they are more likely to engage with the process and remain in a school, due to the correlation between job satisfaction and motivation (Sims, 2020). SDT explains that individuals are more likely to be motivated when their psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness are fulfilled (Ryan and Deci, 2017). Autonomy can be promoted through professional development pathways and choice, allowing teachers to decide which aspects of their practice they wish to prioritise. As Dylan Wiliam (2015) once said, ‘when teachers themselves make the decision about what it is that they wish to prioritise for their own professional development, they are more likely to make it work’. Teachers having choice in their professional learning is also reflected in the schools as a learning organisation literature (Kools et al., 2020). A more nuanced approach is needed wherein teachers are trusted to know their strengths and weaknesses and dictate their CPD, rather than leaders deciding what the entire teaching staff needs.

Our approach involved polling teachers on the main challenges for their students, and then developing CPD pathways that use research evidence to address these challenges. This led to the following options for teachers: memory, literacy, motivation and application of knowledge. Each pathway begins with a ‘threshold concept’. For example, we believe that teachers cannot truly embrace retrieval practice until they have a deeper understanding of the mind, including working memory, long-term memory and cognitive load theory. Professional learning then continues through optional dimensions for each challenge, e.g. retrieval practice, questioning and spaced learning.

Teacher motivation is further developed through nurturing teacher competence through instructional coaching, where teachers are paired with an instructional coach who provides specific praise and feedback on the teacher’s development in their chosen CPD pathway. This stage is important for creating new habits and nurturing a sense of competence. Another key focus is fostering relatedness, which is encouraged through the support of the instructional coach and through regular meetings of cross-curricular teacher learning communities (TLCs), where all members have chosen the same CPD pathway. Our staff have valued their time together to discuss their progress, ideas and innovation in a more holistic setting.

Implementing instructional coaching for effective pedagogical change

Instructional coaching refers to a partnership between a classroom teacher and an instructional coach to facilitate incremental improvements in pedagogical practice, through continual cycles of coaching and observation, targeting one specific aspect of classroom practice at a time. Our programme blends insights from Jim Knight’s ‘Coaching Cycle’ (Knight, 2018) and findings from a meta-analysis by Sims et al. (2021). While it remains unclear whether instructional coaching is the most effective form of teacher development, the approach can help to create new habits for teachers. Research suggests that teachers show the most significant improvements in the first few years. After this period, improvements slow down considerably (Kraft and Papay, 2014), likely due to habit formation (Hobbiss et al., 2021). 

To maximise the impact of instructional coaching, we have aligned the system with the insight, goals, techniques and practice (IGTP) model from Sims et al. (2021). This model, which informed the Education Endowment Foundation’s guidance on effective professional development (EEF, 2021), highlights 14 mechanisms that can increase the impact of CPD. ‘Insight’ aims to enhance teachers’ knowledge base by managing cognitive load and revisiting previous learning; ‘goals’ fosters engagement through the establishment of credible goals; ‘techniques’ caters to pedagogical development, offering strategies, modelling, feedback and strategy rehearsal, and ‘practice’ focuses on ingraining habitual practice. 

Challenges and opportunities in enhancing research engagement in schools

Usage data on the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit (nd) shows a substantial increase (from 11 per cent in 2012 to 69 per cent in 2021) in school leaders consulting the toolkit for decision-making (Higgins et al., 2022). This increase in consultation was likely driven by the policy decision requiring schools to document how research evidence is used in Pupil Premium expenditure decisions (DfE, 2022). Yet it remains unknown how well the research is utilised and whether consultations are used to defend pre-existing judgments (Higgins et al., 2022) or whether the evidence bases are evaluated adequately (Gorard et al., 2020). This concern is intensified by Pegram et al.’s (2022) finding that the current usage of evidence-based programmes and interventions in England is insufficient, with just 30 per cent having an evidence base and, in a few cases, evidence suggesting a harmful impact on outcomes (based on a sample of 242 interventions). This study also revealed that a year after leaders were presented with these findings, there was no discernible change in practice. This underscores the policy challenges that lie ahead to expand the use of evidence in English schools. One attempt to increase both research usage and the likelihood of impact from effective professional development is through the development of an internal professional learning platform. 

Enhancing research engagement through professional learning at scale 

The absence of clear professional knowledge makes teaching practice difficult to transfer (Schleicher, 2018). To combat this ‘indeterminacy’ (Atkinson and Delamont, 1985), a framework for knowledge could be provided – for example, through the Early Careers Framework (ECF) (DfE, 2019) for new teachers, or through the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit (nd). While these structures provide a common knowledge framework, caveats apply, such as the fact that providing this knowledge as text on a website is more of a ‘passive’ approach (Gorard, 2020), and recent evidence suggests that, at least in Australia, teachers value video presentations as a form of professional development (Khong et al., 2023). 

Our video research summaries present findings from relevant systematic reviews and context-specific randomised controlled trials to offer more objective, research-informed insights for teachers on how to overcome pedagogical challenges, whilst improving academic knowledge and using a more ‘active’ approach. These videos are complemented by continual revisiting of prior knowledge through quizzes and reflections, as informed by Sims et al. (2021). Additionally, further video presentations offer both evidence-informed strategies for specific dimensions of teaching and learning, and multiple explicit models of what this could look like in practice. Worked examples have long been recognised as supportive for novices learning procedural knowledge (Sweller, 2006) and more recently for learning skills (Sepp et al., 2019). When applying this specifically to teaching and professional development, modelling appears effective at least for newer teachers (Sims et al., 2023).

The platform aims to be credible for teachers and leaders by providing academic references and readings, allowing them to delve deeper into the literature. Within the previously mentioned IGTP model, credibility is a mechanism in the ‘goals’ category. These references and video presentations from the research lead also attempt to prevent the oversimplification of research evidence, resulting in a lack of research fidelity and misapplication (Kennedy, 2016), which is sometimes referred to as a ‘lethal mutation’ (Brown and Campione, 1996).

Conclusion 

The large-scale professional learning and development programme implemented within Swale Academies Trust by the research lead offers valuable insights for school leaders and teachers seeking to enhance teacher professional development and improve teaching quality. This comprehensive programme prioritises evidence-based CPD, ensuring that research-informed approaches are at the forefront of teaching and learning. By nurturing teacher motivation through supporting autonomy, competence and relatedness, the programme fosters a positive environment for teacher growth. This is achieved by offering choice in professional development pathways and providing instructional coaching based on an adapted model that combines Jim Knight’s Coaching Cycle (2018) with findings from Sims et al. (2021).

The programme includes a comprehensive professional learning platform that features a wide range of resources, such as video research presentations, quizzes and worked examples, to provide scalability and promote a more ‘active’ approach to CPD. The initial impacts of the programme include a significant increase in the frequency of evidence-informed strategies planned into the curriculum and classroom teaching, an improved culture towards research, and improved engagement with academic research. Our next steps are to rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of the implemented CPD programme and make necessary adjustments to maximise its impact on teaching and learning.

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