What should the next step for your CPD policy be? Now that the central role of CPD is recognised in schools, Philippa Cordingley looks at how professional learning can progress even more in the future

At long last the central role of CPD is widely recognised. It is the key driver for change and is at the core of pupil learning and school development at every level across the system. It features prominently in the Children’s Plan and schools and local authorities across the system are getting to grips with the latest evidence, ideas, sources of funding and initiatives.

Professional learning also reaches right into the heart of effective leadership. A new and rigorous review of the effects of various leadership models has found that active leadership of professional development, including the modelling of learning, has twice as much effect on student learning outcomes as any other leadership activity.

So where might all this evidence and attention take us to in the future? First there is the big challenge of taking existing best practice to scale. In The Logical Chain (2006), Ofsted pointed out how far the generality of practice sits from best practice and they highlighted a number of obstacles to be overcome. These include the development of more systematic and challenging coaching and mentoring practice. It is revisiting its thematic study this term to see how far its recommendations have been taken on board so we will soon have some idea of how far practice on the ground matches our enthusiastic descriptions of innovations and our aspirations.

But this is about more than taking the best of current practice to scale. I believe that focusing on professional learning represents an important new challenge, one with enormous potential. This is easy to say and, from the extensive discussions I have been having with practitioners, makes sense on the ground. It has, though, wide ranging and quite radical consequences for how we organise and support CPD. Here are a few of the challenges and opportunities which a focus on professional learning presents.

The first thing focusing on professional learning might mean is being prepared to pay as much attention to the process of professional learning as we have learned to pay to the processes of pupil learning. We recognise that deep learning in classrooms happens when we move our attention from the teaching to how teachers facilitate learning. A recent systematic review of research on what specialists contribute to effective CPD has suggested that a parallel development for teachers would be timely. What’s needed is a twin focus on what we can do to help teachers become increasingly independent learners and on refining and deepening the forms of support we offer. The review highlights the skills and role of CPD facilitators as encompassing knowing how and when to:

  • offer instruction and coaching
  • encourage/expect teachers to collaborate with each other to sustain and embed specialist contributions
  • move into the background in order to increase teachers’ sense of control of and responsibility and accountability for their learning.

This isn’t to say that teachers don’t need specialist inputs. Indeed, as yet we have no evidence of CPD that’s effective for students’ and teachers’ achievement without such inputs. Rather, it suggests that facilitators of CPD, like teachers in classrooms, need to know how to create activities and challenging tasks that move teachers beyond the area of development that they could reach alone. They need to accompany this with tools that offer a scaffold for early learning steps – when trying new things creates unexpected disturbances in existing practice. They also need to know how to remove such scaffolding and to recognise and promote the growing independence of the professional learners as they collaborate with each other. These are challenging expectations. They demand a degree of planning, skill and attention that is at least as complex as the thought which goes into making a difference for younger learners. In rising to such challenges there may be a risk that we will focus only on the inputs from the specialists who support the teachers.

Instead, we should simultaneously concentrate on understanding in depth what effective professional learning looks like. CUREE’s most recent work on mentoring and coaching has begun to take us down this route. We have identified, with the many teachers who participate in our programmes and who work with us as partners in our research and development, the skills we, as professional learners, need to make effective use of mentoring and coaching opportunities. We have taken the abstract skills identified in the National Framework for Mentoring and Coaching and broken them down into the detailed, practical skills, tools and behaviours that bring these to life in day to-day professional learning. It helped us and seems to help practitioners to know that understanding your own learning needs involves:

  • building awareness of internalised knowledge, skills and beliefs
  • using your coach to identify what you don’t know you don’t know
  • asking an appropriate mix of open and closed questions
  • identifying opportunities you would value
  • identifying appropriate goals and steps towards them.

When we were interviewing teachers to develop this detailed breakout of all of the skills, we were intrigued to notice that few, if any, thought that asking questions of coaches or facilitators was a professional learning skill. Everyone responded to queries about this along the lines of: ‘If I ask my coach/mentor/tutor a question I’ll never get a word in edgeways….’ But in practice, asking closed questions as a professional learner helps to direct and focus the support you get and signals to those supporting you that you have planned and prepared your learning.

I hope this article has whetted collective appetites for exploring professional learning. We know a great deal about learning in general, our challenge is to understand what it looks like for adults in professional contexts. You can find out more about CUREE’s work through the link below.

Philippa Cordingley is founder and CEO of CUREE