Across the education sector, there is a new wave of enthusiasm for change and reform. While rapidly adapting to the online world due to COVID-19, teachers have had new opportunities to experiment in their lessons and be creative about teaching practice. To successfully build on this progress, schools must offer opportunities for high-quality professional development. I wish to propose some recommendations on how schools can achieve success in teacher training.
Continuous Professional Development
Training must not be a series of one-off events. ‘Seminars’ are one of the least effective modes of training in terms of sustained impact on classroom practice. Teacher training must instead be regarded as a continuous process integrated into a school’s ecosystem. This is the rationale behind the idea of continuous professional development (or ‘CPD’). The following sections detail how schools can successfully conduct CPD.
For CPD to be successful, a school must be clear on what it is training teachers for. Teachers are extremely busy and cannot afford to spend time in training that will not result in a significant impact on their classroom practice. Schools should therefore make training needs-targeted rather than generic for all.
Teaching is multi-faceted, and teachers’ skill levels may vary across different aspects of teaching. A single teacher might be excellent at content delivery, mediocre at facilitating group work, and poor at maintaining classroom discipline. Another teacher might be a good user of teaching resources in class but an ineffective provider of feedback in homework. A primary teacher might teach great Maths lessons but poor Geography lessons, and a teacher might have strong digital literacy but faulty spoken English.
Recognising these complex variations, training needs can be identified from multiple data sources: primarily from lesson observations, but also students’ marks and even direct student feedback. Coaching sessions, workshops, or other interventions can then be set up as per the needs of the school and its teachers.
Training for School Improvement Goals
When there can be so much to train in so little time, schools must know what training to prioritise. After gathering relevant data, it is possible to identify priority areas for improvement in the school. Ideally, a school’s whole team should come together before the start of an academic year to agree on goals. Those goals should be relevant to the school’s improvement needs, ambitious yet achievable, and measurable. A very simple example of such a goal might be “improve reading attainment levels in Class 6 by an average of 10%”, but goals may vary in scope, complexity, and specificity.
This process establishes a mutually agreed framework for deciding the school’s priorities. Accordingly, the school’s leadership can determine which training needs should be addressed on priority, and which can be postponed for later.
One of the most effective modalities of teacher professional development is coaching. When the training needs of a teacher or group of teachers are identified, an effective way to help them to improve is by discussing their challenges with them, offering direct advice, and modelling good practice. This is most effective when it occurs in cycles: for example, after observing a teacher’s class the coach can identify a specific aspect of his or her teaching that can be improved, conduct some coaching, and then follow up with a repeat observation a week later to further evaluate and support progress.
Anyone can perform the role of a coach. Principals, middle-level leaders, subject heads, and external evaluators can all conduct supportive observations and provide cycles of positive guidance. Furthermore, peers can act as coaches. Teachers can observe each other’s classes, and all are likely to have particular strengths with which they can meaningfully support the professional development of their colleagues. Coaching thus becomes the central part of the CPD ecosystem.
Collaborative and Research-Informed Professional Development
The power of collaboration cannot be underestimated. Each teacher has a unique set of experiences, circumstances, and strengths from which others can benefit. Collaboration also keeps teachers engaged with and enthused about teaching and learning discourse. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), wherein teachers come together to share their experiences and good practices, have been gaining popularity lately. They are undoubtedly a powerful way to generate enthusiasm for change among teachers, to facilitate the creation of a collaborative environment, and to initiate the sharing of practice between peers as a form of professional development.
However, PLCs can also be limited due to the fact that sharing good practice in meetings does not always translate into improved practice in the classroom. A teacher hearing of a useful technique from a colleague may intend to incorporate it into his or her lessons but may struggle to do so effectively without having the same experience as the colleague who suggested it. Good practices do not easily spread through descriptions alone: in order to take hold, good practices must be observed, interpreted, tested, and experienced.
PLC meetings, then, maybe a good starting point for collaborative CPD, but real impact arises when they are accompanied by peer observations, coaching cycles, and other collaborative methods of CPD. For a school to be really successful in collaborative CPD, ‘transferring good practice’ should evolve into ‘joint practice development’ (JPD), in which colleagues mutually co-construct new practices. This facilitates experimentation, reflection, and feedback, which can result in excellent, contextualised pedagogy.
JPD can be achieved through learning walks followed by joint reflection sessions on what was learned and what can be tried, or methods such as ‘lesson study’ wherein teachers decide on specific goals and plan ‘research lessons’ in which they take turns to observe responses of students in each other’s classes and then reflect together to iteratively improve.
Schools committed to quality teacher training can take the research elements of JPD even further by having teachers engage in regular action research. Teachers engaging in research-driven processes of professional development are generally found to be more motivated to change. Research also enhances teachers’ skills and gives them sound professional knowledge, generates curiosity, and helps them to independently evaluate new practices and initiatives.
Quality research-engaged professional development would involve teachers connecting actual published academic literature to their own action research. This can be challenging for a number of reasons – lack of time, lack of training to use research, lack of access, etc. – but it is by no means impossible. School administrations can create filtered repositories of knowledge with clear summaries. Highly skilled teachers can help others translate academic evidence into implementation tools. Schools have even had success with ‘Journal Clubs’ where teachers read and discuss academic papers together to mutually improve their understanding of how to connect research with practice.
School leaders also play a crucial role in facilitating the transition to a culture of research-engagement: for example, by creating time for research-oriented discussions in staff meetings and by personally making reference to research. When a teacher asserts something in a meeting, a leader committed to research can respond by asking them to back it up with evidence. A school committed to research-informed professional development would not have much difficulty in creating the time to do all these things, as a research-orientation becomes an embedded part of the school’s culture and processes rather than an additional time-consuming burden.
Evaluating the Impact of Training
Training can only be said to be effective if it results in tangible improvements for students. The school improvement plan can be the basis of a framework for judging whether teacher training initiatives have been successful. The chances of success can be increased if impact evaluation is factored in from the very start of CPD initiatives, rather than added post-hoc.
Schools must understand how to evaluate impact. Here I would cite Thomas Guskey’s (2002) five levels of impact evaluation, which are relevant for most schools:
It is worth noting that these parameters for evaluation may be applied not only to students’ marks, but also to student outcomes defined more widely: their progress, participation, enjoyment of learning, engagement in activities, wellbeing, and more.
These ideas about successful teacher training might seem complicated, but they are achievable for any school. However, no school should expect to enact all of them overnight. A school will be most successful in teacher training if it plans for all of these things as a vision but breaks them down into manageable steps. They must be implemented over a period of several years: gradually enough that the culture of the school evolves to embrace these ideas. If training is approached correctly, all schools have a huge potential to become self-improving, innovative systems full of outstanding teachers.
About the author: Roshan Gandhi, Chief Executive Officer, City Montessori School
International Ed-Tech Consultant & Start-up Mentor
MBA (Educational Leadership), University College London (UCL)
BA (Hons), PPE, University of Oxford
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