Forthcoming changes will require education professionals to engage with and influence policy. Cliff Jones presents a framework to help CPD leaders develop a comprehensive approach to these challenges.

I want to begin by looking once again at the notion of a framework. I guess that most of us assume that frameworks are there to support something. It might be a set of arguments each relating logically to the other so that when combined they constitute a powerful and coherent school of thought. It could be plants that are trained to grow in particular directions. But a frame can constrain as well as support. We also, for example, talk of ‘framing’ questions so that they elicit the desired response. And what may be intended as a climbing frame may become a prison. The framework presented here is curved. It is not a loop as that would imply a single start and end point. It is an unending spiral that continuously leads into new professional learning.

The origin of what follows is a paper prepared two years ago for the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET) setting out the nine basic components for a thorough and well founded evaluation of the impact of accredited CPD, although elements of the framework can be traced back to a Master’s level assignment designed 12 years ago called the Record of Continuing Professional Development (ROCPD). It also formed a basis for a series of articles in last year’s CPD Update on the subject of impact evaluation.

What I want to do here is to show how the same nine components can be employed to underpin a more comprehensive approach to what I now see as critical professional learning. I have been trying to develop this notion because I see just how much we have needed to move from in-service training to continuing professional development and how forthcoming pressures and/or opportunities such as the national standards and performance management require professionals in education to develop their ability to engage with and influence policy. Simple implementation of policy may force development into a box, and while I am aware that the Training and Development Agency (TDA) for schools hopes that the combination of standards and performance management will have a more positive effect I believe that it is wise to be wary.

This, then, is about more than just impact. It sees places of education as requiring an overall, wide and institutional approach to professional learning.

In what follows I have made use of a number of different personal pronouns. I hope this does not confuse because I believe that the framework can be made to work for institutions, institutions working in partnership, individuals and individuals also working in partnership. Read it, therefore, from your own perspective.

1. Making sense of professional learning needs

It is sensible to begin by working out how we come to know what we need to know, understand and do. I guess that this should be done on two levels. The first is institutional: the school or college. The second is the individual professional or small groups of professionals.

Institutional professional learning need is likely to be driven by target setting and the fulfilment of policy. Making sense of the needs of individuals and small groups of individuals, although it is not disconnected from institutional need, is often more dynamic and involves interpersonal skills; just like teaching in fact.

We are about to encounter, after more delay than government had bargained for, a noteable change to how systematically we try to make sense of professional learning needs. During this academic year in schools, but not yet in FE colleges, we shall learn what happens when national standards meet performance management. Add to that mix a wider and remodelled workforce, extended schools and the need for schools to collaborate with each other and with colleges on the implementation of 14-19 and we have a lot of sense-making to undertake if the professional learning needs of individuals are not to be brushed aside in the rush to implement policy and reach targets.

There will be pressure to simplify the process of making sense of professional learning needs and to link it very tightly to national targets, expectations and standards. In the interests of doing something better than this, perhaps we might adopt the slogan, ‘Thinking Professionals in Thinking Schools and Colleges’. It might also be wise to remember that before policy can be formulated or our approach to its implementation decided upon we should have some idea of our underlying values.

Expressing our professional learning needs without considering our values is to build without foundation – or, maybe, to build upon the foundations laid by others according to their blueprint.

‘Relating professional learning needs to professional learning outcomes’ is a needs analysis activity that can be used for a whole institution or for an individual or a small group of individuals.

The complete activity might take 45 minutes, although if it is customised and adapted to your own circumstances you may vary this. The activity is designed to help you and colleagues to articulate your professional learning needs and the factors affecting them and also to gain an early understanding of the kind of impact that might result from addressing them.

a) Make a simple list of what you consider to be your professional learning needs. This list could be any set of skills, knowledge, understanding, experience, qualification or career change. At this stage you need to be as free as possible to include what you like. You may be influenced by overall school plans, national standards, performance management, National Strategies, NCSL programmes in which you are participating, postgraduate professional development (PPD) or the GTCE’s Teacher Learning Academy (TLA); but allow your list to be really wide-ranging so that you begin to see if there might be potential relationships between different aspects of professional life. Do not confine yourself to what is easily measurable. In other words, you can include items relating to self-confidence, motivation and self-esteem.

b) Now try to classify the items in your list by identifying their source. In other words, are they:

  • entirely personal (or, where applicable, institutional)
  • derived from institutional plans or policies
  • in response to local government policy
  • in response to government policy
  • representative of particular beliefs, concerns and values
  • a combination of any of the above
  • or derived from some other source?

c) Next try to classify the items in your list in terms of timescale. It may help to see these as short-term (say, a few weeks); medium-term (say, a few months); long-term (say, a year or more); and continuous (these are the kinds of needs that never go away). There is, by the way, no compulsion to confine yourself to these definitions of the timescales. This activity is designed to support and not constrain you. When, however, you check over your list you should be able to see that some items can be achieved quickly. This may give you a psychological lift but, perhaps more importantly, it makes the point that sometimes professional learning is a natural process that can start at any time and that sometimes the way to achieve the longer-term targets is to see how they relate to the shorter-term ones.

d) Now move on to consider what you expect to be the nature of the evidence for the impact of professional learning that might help you to demonstrate that you have met or addressed your needs. Before you do that, however, remember that not all evidence for the impact of professional learning will be tidy, targeted and tangible. If, for example, one of your identified needs was improved professional self-esteem, then the evidence may be somewhat intangible. Sometimes the only way that you can present such evidence is to write a convincing account of what it felt like to, say, lead for the first time a working party of colleagues and how this has led to a gain in professional confidence that has encouraged you to do more as a professional.

e) So, the next step is to classify your expected evidence for the impact of professional learning as either tangible or intangible. This should help you to avoid any tendency to ignore any evidence that is not straightforward and solid. You are beginning to establish here what you consider to be the signals of success.

f) The next stage is to consider the conditions controlling the generation of evidence for professional learning. In other words, although as an individual you may have identified as a professional learning need the spending of a great deal of money it is unlikely for an individual to control much resource.

g) It will help if you can record your completion of this activity. A useful table for setting this out would look like the one below, with as many rows as you require for each professional learning need.

Now that you have completed this analysis of professional learning needs you should be in a better position to decide upon a set of intended professional learning outcomes. But first you need to think about contexts and baselines.

2. Establishing contexts and baselines

For years we have said it is important that teachers should set their intentions in context; that knowledge of learning is diminished if we are ignorant of its context. The same applies to the professional learning of teachers and related professionals. If we can describe how we came to our understanding of professional learning needs we can say something useful about the context in which we operate.

Institutions and individuals may be concentrating their professional energies on particular fields. They may be working collaboratively. They may be doing something for the first time. Experiments may be taking place with a variety of modes of delivery and assessment. The professional learning context may involve particular local circumstances such as re-organisation. It may, for example, be different for a school with a high or low percentage of NQTs.

In order to establish a baseline for professional learning simply describe usefully the circumstances in which you operate.

3. Intended professional impact

What, in other words, at the outset of a professional learning cycle, did you intend? For most people this process will begin close to the outset of an academic year. However, it will become more satisfactory when the cycle has revolved once, as the completion of one cycle will prepare the ground for the next.

I have used the word ‘intended’ deliberately because we are talking about a natural learning process and I think that life gets interesting when, eventually, we start to examine unexpected evidence for unintended outcomes. Simply measuring the distance between target and achievement can easily become sterile, unintellectual, not what we signed up for and boring. All sorts of interesting things may be discovered that were not ‘targets’ at the outset. The word ‘intended’ may also allow us some freedom to show that, even if some targets were tied closely to improved pupil performance, the way to achieve that can be tortuous and indirect.

Go back to the activity at 1 above, and think about what you have written at 2 above. Now list your intended professional learning outcomes. Remember that too many can overwhelm you and may be expressed in too much small detail and that too few may mean that your language is rather bland and grand.

4. Expected evidence for impact

In other words, what did we think would happen when we began this period of planned professional learning? We can do this with some confidence because we have an idea of need, of baseline, of values and of intention. In other words, we have a basis for reflection upon the significance of actual evidence when it is generated. But I suggest not being too prescriptive here. The word ‘expected’ has been chosen as a match for the word ‘intended’. Both are somewhat tentative and allow for other things to happen and to be considered.

I guess that evidence for the impact of professional learning might be classified in different ways. It could be seen in terms of: different timescales (in other words, some impact can be seen quite quickly but some takes a long time to develop); individual, collective or institutional impact; pastoral or academic; research output; inspection results; formation of partnerships; and many others.

At this point it is useful to match the intentions listed at 3 above with the kind of evidence that you can visualise for demonstrating outcomes.

5. Planned activities

What, in other words, did we plan to do to carry out our intentions? It is likely that there will be a range of such activities: internal and external; formal and informal; and individual and collaborative. Professional learning is not always tidy, timed and targeted. Often it is untidy, untimed and untargeted. Nevertheless, it is possible to look back at our intentions and describe how we intend to carry them out.

As with 4 try to line up dedication action to be taken against each intended professional learning outcome.

6. Monitoring and observing professional learning

How did we observe what happened? In other words, we need to have an indication of how evidence was collected.

We actually collect evidence of the impact of professional learning in all sorts of ways. There is some very formal collection of evidence, particularly when it relates to inspection and the achievement of targets. The significance of such evidence may, however, be rather narrow. The danger is that we fall into the trap of only compiling for consideration evidence that is tangible and considered to be unproblematic. There can be considerable significance in evidence that is problematic or not easy to classify.

Again, look at the original list for 3 above and set out how you intend to monitor and observe.

7. Reviewing evidence of professional learning for impact

Here we look back at what happened. This is often the point at which what might have appeared to have been successful now seems less so having been examined critically. By the same token what may look like failure to carry out planned intentions may, after the same critical examination, be a significant and useful unintended outcome.

Evidence is something to be very careful about. It is important to make sense of its nature, strength and significance. It may be tangible and unassailable but not significant. It may be intangible, weak or highly problematic but highly significant.

Reporting on the impact of professional learning should not become a pass/fail exercise. People in the education business are always making discoveries that they did not expect to make and examining them for significance and value before deciding to adopt or discard them. We should do this for professional learning.

It is also important to bring to the surface apparent inconsistencies between what institutions, institutions working in partnership, individuals and small groups of individuals have found to be significant that differs from what government has required them to do. This an opportunity to legitimise a collective professional voice: not a uniform voice but an authentic and possibly dissenting voice. So, if this process of critical review of the impact outcomes of professional learning shows that needs are being addressed that are, as yet, unarticulated by government and its agents we should find the voice to say so.

Try asking the following questions.

  • Did we do as we intended?
  • Do we now understand our intended professional learning outcomes differently?
  • Were our intentions practical?
  • Were our intentions as appropriate as we thought at the outset?
  • If we have not achieved any intended professional learning outcomes, are they, nevertheless, worth pursuing in the future?
  • Have we done more than intended?
  • Have we any unexpected evidence for unintended professional learning outcomes?

8. Impact claiming

This is where we tell the world what we have achieved. In doing this, of course, we will be making claims about what we believe to be significant. This means that when departing from the original set of intentions it is important to show that all claims for the impact of professional learning can be shown to have undergone the kind of examination set out in the questions at 7 above.

Action Schools and colleges have to think twice about the verifiable nature of any claim laid before an inspector. It is the same here. What has been achieved as a result of professional learning? Remember what was said about the nature, strength and significance of evidence at 7 above.

Now list everything that you believe you can attribute to professional learning. 

9. Follow-up plans

Rationale and action
This is simply what you might reasonably wish to do next. Because this framework is a spiral it becomes natural after a while to see the past as a foundation for the future. There are unforeseen events that pop up and have to be dealt with. Nevertheless, working like this allows you to build momentum from the experience and dynamic of your or your institution’s own professional learning experience.

So, put simply, where and what next?

This article is adapted from a section  of Cliff Jones’s forthcoming book Leading Professional Learning, which was published by Philip Allen Updates, part of Hodder Education.