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Supporting professional development in primary maths: Applying the EEF guidance

6 min read
William Gray, Deputy Headteacher, Westerhope Primary School, UK
Kirstin Mulholland, Assistant Professor, Northumbria University, UK; Local Leader of Mathematics Education, Great North Maths Hub, UK

The research is clear that teachers’ professional development (PD) can positively impact pupil outcomes (Cordingley et al., 2015; Rauch and Coe, 2019; Sancar et al., 2021), with some sources suggesting that teacher quality accounts for up to 40 per cent of variance in learning (Sutton Trust, 2011). Despite this, until recently, research on what PD is, what it looks like and how it should be delivered has been relatively limited (EEF, 2021). In their guidance report, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF, 2021) emphasises the importance of a balanced approach to PD design that incorporates mechanisms to build knowledge, motivate staff, develop teaching techniques and embed practice. From our perspective as primary mathematics subject and PD leads, this article provides a case study of the ways in which this guidance has influenced our practice. We hope that this example provides insight into some activities that a subject leader can use to support professional learning and promote sustained school improvement.

Building knowledge

In reading the EEF’s (2021) guidance report, we were struck by the extent to which the recommendations reflect what we would consider to be effective pedagogic practice with our pupils in the classroom. Put simply: much of what works with our pupils is also relevant for supporting teachers’ professional learning. In particular, our own reflections highlight the importance of considering colleagues’ cognitive load to ensure that any new learning can be properly considered and understood. Providing opportunities to retrieve and revisit prior learning is a key element of our teaching, and we must equally apply this to the delivery of staff training.

In our own practice, we have found this to be particularly pertinent following the disruption caused during the COVID-19 pandemic, where a reduction in staff meetings inhibited professional learning. We have needed to build on prior knowledge, rather than start from scratch. For example, in one of our schools there has been a continued focus on embedding understanding of the ‘Five big ideas in teaching for mastery’ (NCETM, 2017), and using this to underpin lesson planning. Although colleagues have participated in PD activity on this subject on multiple occasions, sessions are always planned to begin with a review of the core concepts, including low-stakes quizzes for staff to complete together. These ask teachers to give a definition of key principles and ideas, and to support these with examples from their practice. Incorporating opportunities for retrieval and building on prior knowledge in PD have deepened colleagues’ understanding of the foundational concepts within teaching for mastery, thereby supporting the transfer of these into their own classroom practice. This was both self-reported by teachers and noted through monitoring.

Motivating staff

Once teachers have built initial knowledge of a specific teaching technique, the EEF (2021) highlights the importance of motivating staff to increase the likelihood that this is implemented within classroom practice. They identify three key mechanisms that can support this: setting and agreeing goals, providing information from a credible source, and providing affirmation and reinforcement after progress. One way in which we have achieved this is through forming small ‘working groups’ to explore and trial any new initiatives prior to implementing these more widely across school. These incorporate opportunities to engage with key research to ensure strong understanding of relevant evidence, including both potential benefits and limitations, before using this to inform our practice.

We have found that trialling any new initiatives within small working groups provides an opportunity to develop deeper understanding of focus techniques and concepts, and to identify barriers and challenges. This approach has been particularly beneficial in helping to tailor the introduction of new techniques to our specific school contexts, ensuring that these fit within our existing systems and routines. Working groups have also been extremely valuable in supporting the wider dissemination of ideas. Because working group members are trusted colleagues who are immersed in the day-to-day realities of the same working context, we have found that other colleagues can be more receptive to the ideas shared through PD, as well as more confident that these can be successfully implemented in their own classroom practice.

Developing teaching techniques

The EEF (2021) guidance emphasises the importance of modelling, developing and rehearsing key techniques, as well as providing ongoing social support as teachers seek to adopt new approaches. One way in which we have achieved this is through adopting a teacher research group model. This is used widely within the Maths Hub network as part of the PD provided for teachers and schools seeking to embed the teaching for mastery approach, and consists of opportunities to observe teachers and peers, discuss practice, and give and receive feedback on teaching techniques.

We introduced teacher research groups to build upon ideas shared during an initial PD session. For example, in a recent PD programme to develop procedural fluency, William modelled lessons for colleagues to observe, teaching a lesson in Year 1 and another in Year 5 to demonstrate how techniques could be applied across the primary age range. Each teacher was given an observation format that focused solely on the mathematical content of the lesson, based around the five big ideas in teaching for mastery (NCETM, 2017). Following the lesson, teachers participated in a structured discussion around each aspect, providing an opportunity to ask questions and address any gaps in understanding or misconceptions.

While we acknowledge that, even as a school leader, having colleagues observe you can sometimes be daunting, from our experience of observing other teachers it is an extremely valuable and practical way of modelling a technique. We have also found that having to explain and justify the decisions that we make during lessons has further supported our reflections upon our own practice. This has deepened our metacognitive understanding of how and why we make particular pedagogic choices, and has ultimately made us better teachers through providing opportunities to develop our own professional knowledge and skills by engaging with our colleagues’ ideas and challenges.

Embedding practice

To ensure that any changes to practice are embedded and sustained, the EEF (2021) emphasises the importance of providing prompts and reminders to support colleagues’ ongoing use of focus techniques, as well as encouraging self-monitoring and action planning. One way in which we achieved this is through structuring PD activity to allow frequent opportunities to revisit our chosen focus. For example, in some recent work with schools to develop the use of worked examples to manage pupils’ cognitive load and promote metacognitive talk in problem-solving, we introduced a series of short, regular opportunities for ‘show and tell’ during staff meetings. Time for staff to share on what they had implemented was planned in the half term following initial PD. We revisited these techniques in five subsequent staff meetings, as well as more informally through email reminders and conversations throughout the school day. This encouraged colleagues to reflect upon their own use of worked examples, including through sharing samples of tasks, pupils’ work and pupil voice.

We have found that approaches such as this help to open up discussions around successful techniques, as well as identify challenges and consider how these can be overcome. We also found that incorporating these opportunities into our routines and existing staff meeting structure provided a measure of gentle accountability; colleagues had a concrete date for when a focus technique or concept would be revisited, encouraging them to trial new ideas and reflect upon their progress within a specific timescale. To support this, we asked colleagues to identify personal priorities – small, personal actions that they would take to implement focus approaches in their own practice. This prompted informal action planning and self-monitoring, increasing the likelihood that colleagues would adopt new practices, while also providing a degree of ownership and autonomy through allowing the self-direction of targets.

Final thoughts

In our own work, we have found that the EEF’s (2021) emphasis on ensuring a balanced approach to PD design has supported us to increase the likelihood that the PD we provide results in sustained, positive changes to practice. Building knowledge, motivating staff, developing teacher techniques and embedding practice all have a vital part to play in the design and delivery of effective professional development (EEF, 2021). Considering prior learning, establishing working groups, using teacher research groups and ‘show and tell’ staff meetings provide just a few examples of approaches to PD; we know that there are many other approaches that can be employed. Despite this, we hope that the practical examples shared in this article can aid subject leaders seeking to employ similar strategies to support teachers’ professional learning in their own school context.

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