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The importance of evidence and a professional environment for teacher development

Written by: Henry Sauntson
Photo by paul mocan on Unsplash
7 min read

The best thing we can do for disadvantaged students is to give them-high quality teachers. Research from the Sutton Trust in 2011 showed the significant impact that the effectiveness of a teacher has on student progress for disadvantaged pupils in particular. Papay and Kraft (2017) show us the quality of the professional environment for teachers has a great impact on student outcomes over time: support the teachers, help them grow, and you improve outcomes for students: ‘In supportive schools, teachers not only tend to stay and be more effective in their classrooms, but they also improve at much greater rates over time.’ (p. 24)

We know from the DfE standard for teacher professional development (2016) that there is support for the use of evidence to underpin sustained (key word) professional learning programmes, with a focus on improving outcomes for students as well as providing challenge and opportunities for collaboration. The publication of the ‘ITT core content framework’ by the DfE (2019) has provided us with an excellent set of evidence and research-informed statements and learning goals related to each teaching standard, and these I feel could form the backbone of teacher development regardless of career stage or experience. In their recently published paper entitled ‘Bounded Decision Making’, Cain et al. (2019) argue that ‘research can inform bounded decision-making, teachers’ reflection and organisational learning’ and that ‘practitioners can also use research without being aware that they are doing so’ (p. 1072); the key is in the culture of the environment and fostering the informed growth of teachers at all levels. Cain et al. go on to argue that research can be used in three main ways: to inform bounded decision-making, to inform teacher reflection and to inform organisational learning.

However, there are caveats. We have to be brutally aware of context, need and appropriateness; we should be informed by the consensus of evidence, and not led by it. As Harry Fletcher-Wood notes in Designing Professional Development for Teacher Change (2018), ‘the consensus is rarely specific enough to be useful’ (p.3) and ‘a list of best practices may not help make design choices’(p. 4). He concludes that ‘no recipe for effective professional development exists’ (p. 5). That may be so, but we have the raw ingredients. The challenge faced by school leaders and designers of professional development is the key issue of suitability in the face of contextual factors, resource challenges and desired impact on outcomes; the dishes created from the ingredients and methods available must suit the consumer, with the need for that empathy with the end user at all phases and stages. As far back as 1992, Fullan and Hargreaves commented that ‘the teacher as a person has also been neglected in teacher development’ (p. 5); we have to be sensitive to the needs and experience of teachers in order to maximise their motivation and engagement. Are they new teachers or experienced teachers? Novices or experts? To look back to Westerman (1991), ‘expert teachers [think] about learning from the perspective of the student’ and perform ‘cognitive analysis of each learning task during planning, which they [adapt] to the needs of students during teaching. In contrast, novices [use] specific lesson objectives to form structured lesson plans that they [do] not adapt to meet student needs during teaching’(p. 292). We need to think about what this means for their professional development needs.

This leads us to another aspect cited by the DfE: the need for ‘expertise’ in delivery. Professional development opportunities need to be delivered by those who have the appropriate expertise and contextual understanding to do so. Professional learning must be planned carefully in the same way as a curriculum: opportunities for retrieval and embedding learning in the memory; sequenced approaches supported by modelled examples; clear understanding of the end goal and the actuality of ‘success’; and awareness of (and therefore catering for) a range of needs. In their latest edition of their implementation guide, the EEF (2018/19) have published a summary of evidence surrounding professional learning, and state clearly that ‘professional development should be viewed as an ongoing process rather than a single event’(p. 6) in order to facilitate development and sustain practice over time. One-off input or ‘knee-jerk’ reflex sessions have little impact, as in a curriculum; what is needed is sustained, responsive delivery of content over time, with a clear link to overall improvement. In their ‘Developing Great Teaching’ report from 2015, the TDT tell us that the most effective professional learning programmes ‘which aim to bring about significant organisational and cultural change need to last at least two terms’, ensuring that the offer ‘features multiple, iterative activities following the initial input’ (p.4) – sequenced professional learning planned to have impact.

Ethos is what happens when no one is looking; we need to ensure that a rich, relevant and iterative offer of professional learning enables staff to make connections between their own learning and development and the positive impact that it can have on interactions with – and outcomes for – students. We need to instil that understanding of the difference between ‘compliance’ and ‘self-actualisation’ – we don’t want teachers to think that they are doing something because everyone else is doing it but that they are doing it because it is right, it works and it is the right thing to do. We have that moral imperative to do what is right for the students in our classrooms, and what they can expect from us day to day should help to facilitate their learning needs and give them an equitable chance of success.

Getting better at teaching is as much about environment and value placed on the learning as it is about the learning itself: collaboration to ensure quality; monitoring and support to ensure sustained impact; and evaluation to inform development. A culture of collegiality, as Hargreaves (1994) reminds us, is imperative: ‘Teacher collaboration can provide a positive platform for improvement’(p. 11), but this collaboration has to be managed. Established common goals ‘strengthen teachers’ sense of efficacy, their beliefs that they can improve the achievement of all their students, irrespective of background’. Hargreaves goes on to point out that ‘Culture carries the community’s historically generated and collectively shared solutions’ and that ‘it forms a framework for occupational learning’. Essentially, if professional learning programme designers want to fully understand what a teacher does and why they do it, they must ‘therefore also understand the teaching community, the work culture of which that teacher is a part. Cultures of teaching help give meaning, support and identity to teachers and their work.’(p. 165) (Hargreaves, 1994).

Helen Timperley (2008) states that ‘Professional learning is strongly shaped by the context in which the teacher practises. This is usually the classroom, which, in turn, is strongly influenced by the wider school culture and the community and society in which the school is situated. Teachers’ daily experiences in their practice context shape their understandings, and their understandings shape their experiences.’(p. 6).  She goes on to remind us of the need for iterative, supported and sustained programmes: ‘teachers need extended time in which to learn and change’, ‘to understand how existing beliefs and practices are different from those being promoted, to build the required pedagogical content knowledge, and to change practice’. Timperley again: ‘Time, however, is not a sufficient condition for change: teachers also need to have their current practice challenged and to be supported as they make changes’(p. 15). Teachers who are learning need to develop self-efficacy and, in doing so, understand in greater depth their own development. To return to Fullan and Hargreaves (1992), ‘teacher development means enabling teachers to develop, to voice and to act on their sense of purpose’, and ‘teacher development and implementation go hand in hand’(p.1).

Merely rolling out an evidence-informed programme with no consideration of different needs and approaches will not solve problems. We must consider, as Fullan and Hargreaves remind us, the teacher as a person, the teacher’s purpose, the context in which they work (including experience level) and the culture within the institution. We must not forget the importance of culture, agency and personalisation in professional development. Not much of our CPD is sufficiently tailored: it’s a one-size-fits-all experience for most but, as Ohanian (1999) points out, ‘one size fits few’.

If a strong programme of professional learning is established and valued from the minute a staff member walks through the door for their first day of teaching, we can be more sure that their practice will develop positively and that the ethos of support will grow – it takes time for seeds that are planted to blossom and grow, but it is a richer soil that they flourish in.

References

Cain T, Brindley S, Brown C et al (2019) Bounded decision-making, teachers’ reflection and organisational learning: How research can inform teachers and teaching. British Educational Research Journal  45(5) 1072–1087.

Department for Education (DfE) (2016) Standard for teacher’s professional development. Available at: gov.uk/government/publications/standard-for-teachers-professional-development (accessed 22 March 2020).

Department for Education (DfE) (2019) ITT core content framework. Available at: gov.uk/government/publications/initial-teacher-training-itt-core-content-framework (accessed 22 March 2020).

Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2018/2019) Putting evidence to work – a school’s guide to implementation; Appendix Theme ‘Professional Development’ (2019 addition); Available at: educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/a-schools-guide-to-implementation (accessed 22 March 2020).

Fletcher-Wood H (2018) Designing Professional Development for Teacher Change.

Fullan M and Hargreaves A (eds) (1992) Teacher Development and Educational Change. Abingdon: Routledge.

Hargreaves A (1994) Changing Teachers, Changing Times – Teachers’ Work and Culture in the Postmodern Age. London: Cassell.

Ohanian S (1999) One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Papay JP and Kraft MK (2017) Developing workplaces where teachers stay, improve, and succeed. In: Quintero E (ed)Teaching in Context: How Social Aspects of School and School Systems Shape Teachers’ Development and Effectiveness. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, pp. 15–35.

Sutton Trust (2011) Teachers Impact Report. Available at: suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/2teachers-impact-report-final-1.pdf (accessed 22 March 2020)

Teacher Development Trust (TDT) (2015) Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Available at: /tdtrust.org/about/dgt (accessed 22 March 2020).

Timperley H (2008) Teacher Professional Learning and Development.

Westerman DA (1991) Expert and novice teacher decision making. Journal of Teacher Education 42: 292.

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