Education Endowment Foundation:EEF blog: Maximising professional development

EEF blog: Maximising professional development

A balanced approach to Professional Development
Professor Rob Coe
Professor Rob Coe
Senior Associate

Professor Robert Coe, Senior Associate at the EEF, outlines the importance of taking a balanced approach to Professional Development opportunities.

Blog •3 minutes •

Having a well-planned, well-implemented, and well-resourced programme of professional development (PD) for staff is one of the most important things a school can do to enhance the learning of its pupils.

The argument for this is simple, teaching quality is the single strongest determinant of pupil learning; effective PD can enhance teaching quality significantly.

A clear explanation of why, how and when PD is likely to be most effective, can be found in the EEF’s review of the Characteristics of Effective Teacher Professional Development’, published in October 2021.

What does the evidence state about effective professional development?

The EEF PD review gives clarity about the mechanisms by which different components of professional learning experiences lead to authentic and sustained changes in the practices of teachers, which in turn result in better learning for pupils.

The review makes a strong case for the inclusion of four groups of mechanisms in a PD programme:

1. Build teachers’ knowledge, understanding and insights. PD must help teachers understand the why, how and when of the approaches being advocated, not just offer a simple recipe. In order to build this understanding, PD should use some of the same methods that work for building student pupils’ understanding, such as managing their cognitive load and revisiting prior learning.

2. Motivate teachers to want to learn and improve their practice. For example, like all learners, teachers need to be challenged with ambitious goals for their own performance, they need to trust the authority of the trainer and programme, and they should get encouragement and reinforcement from the learning process.

3. Develop teaching techniques in a structured and forgiving learning environment. Examples of this include providing clear, detailed instructions about how to perform a technique, modelling the technique with relevant examples, drawing on peer social support, providing feedback to teachers to guide their implementation of a new technique, and giving opportunities to try things out in simulated environments away from the pressure of the classroom.

4. Embed practice, to establish it as habitual, automatic and routine. The new approach must become automatic: the thing you do when you are not thinking about what to do. And it must be sustained beyond the training period: not just a temporary deviation that reverts to normal practice over time. Embedding can be achieved by providing prompts and cues that nudge and remind teachers, through action planning where teachers make detailed commitments to certain actions, by encouraging self-monitoring so teachers regulate their own behaviours, and ensuring that the target behaviours are repeated enough times in the target context to take root.

The implications for practitioners are obvious: anyone who is responsible for professional learning (their own or that of their colleagues) needs to ensure that an array of these mechanisms are included, with something from each of the four groups: a balanced approach to PD.

A professional development programme that does not address all the four requirements is less likely to be effective. In practice, this is very challenging, and may well be quite rare, so a useful first step is to audit your own plans and past experiences against this model: where are the gaps, and how might they be filled? Or, what mechanisms could we integrate into our existing PD approach?

Almost all school leaders will say that professional development is a high priority, but the reality is that few devote more than a tiny proportion of their budget or staff time to it. We cannot ignore budget pressures, but for some aspects of school improvement, such as PD, we cannot afford to compromise. Maximising PD may prove that vital lever to level pupil attainment.

Part of the reason for some PD scepticism could be that school leaders’ experience of PD has not been excellent, and their expectations that it will lead to sustainable transformation in the quality of teaching and learning are low. Focusing on the mechanisms and ensuring they are all present in a balanced approach may be a way to change that.