Better Teacher Professional Development Now!

A 2015 study by the Teacher Development Trust (UK) found that just 1% of teacher professional development was high quality. Let’s just pause for a moment to let that sink in. It also, unsurprisingly, found that the typical pattern of going to a two hour or one day workshop or conference and coming home did little to shift the needle of teacher effectiveness. It is a sad irony that some of the worst education to be found anywhere is deployed in teaching teachers how to be better teachers. All this is echoed by the recent report from the education-reform organization TNTP. Among their shocking findings, only 3 out of 10 teachers in a survey of 10,000 improved over the course of 2 or three year’s professional development, while 2 out of 10 actually got worse. TNTP also put an approximate price tag to this “achievement”: $18,000 and 19 days per teacher. And any reasonable person must surely ask, “surely we can do better than this?”

It can be no surprise that research links high quality teacher professional development to increased student achievement. For example, Kraft and Papay (2014) suggest that in schools with a poor professional development culture, teacher effectiveness (as measured by student achievement), and plateaus after 3 to 4 years of experience. Beyond this, they do not get better at improving student achievement. However, in schools with good professional development cultures, teacher effectiveness keeps increasing with experience. If we think about other “professions” – medicine and law, for example – we would hope this would be the case. We just cannot imagine a doctor’s peak performance being reached after just three years – beyond this they never get any better at being a doctor. Would you want this person as your primary care physician or heart surgeon?

So what is good teacher professional development? What makes a difference? TNTP’s report sets up a question that needs and merits a well thought out, research informed answer. And this answer needs two prongs: what “content” should great teacher professional development focus on, and how should it be “delivered.” Fortunately, we have answers.

First, “content.” Teaching is unique amongst professional professions in how it ignores its research base. This is particularly sad because education has never had the quality of research evidence about what works as it does now. My lasting image from the New York Learning and the Brain conference is from one of the smaller breakout sessions that featured an eminent brain imaging scientist at MIT and an eminent psychology professor at NYU. As our small group walked out, like a tight audience from a black box theater after a gripping performance, it became clear to me that these two people, from very different academic fields that traditionally live on different islands, were aware of each other’s work, respected each other’s work, and seemed to share this utopian conviction that somehow this could all possibly fit together in a way that would help our ailing education system. We are at a remarkable point in time, a coming together of disparate research based fields, coalescing on ideas about what the most effective teaching and learning should be. Education now has a solid research evidence base to work from – but little if any is making its way into teacher training or professional development. This is our content.

Publications exist that try to translate this academic research for teachers to use, and below is a great (and free), though not exhaustive, list for those wishing to delve further.

The research, however, only gets a teacher part of the way. Exactly how it works in the myriad pieces of context that shape a particular classroom, exactly how it works for the “voice” of a particular teacher, has to be figured out by each teacher. And that is the challenge of it, but also the intellectual joy of it. We are indebted to one of our mentors, Dr. Christina Hinton at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, for the insight that we are talking about research informed teaching – because the word informed leaves room for the art and craft of teaching. To help make this work, we need to create a model of reflective, iterative, collaborative, research informed practice. Building a framework to facilitate this must also be part of our content.

Onto the second part: “delivery.” What should great teacher professional development look like? Here, too, there is research to suggest what this might look like. A good starting point is the 2015 report “Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development” from the Teacher Development Trust. We’ll summarize the findings below, but it barely does justice to the excellent report which is well worth a read. As you read through this list, it is important to resist “of course!” syndrome – yes, many of these things may seem obvious, but they are often not applied, and it is worth remembering that they have not been merely pulled from people’s minds, but are practices supported by evidence from research studies. Again, we want to make teaching a research informed profession!

(1) “The duration and rhythm of effective support.”
At least two semesters to a year. But the rhythm of the time and how it is used is important too, not just the amount of time.

(2) “Designing for participants’ needs.”
Create relevance to teachers’ day to day experiences, and their aspirations for their students. Create opportunities for teachers to work with their peers. Create a shared sense of purpose.

(3) “Alignment of professional development processes, content and activities.”
The professional development should be logically sequenced, and delivered in a manner that aligns with the principles of good teaching that it promotes.

(4) “The content of effective professional development.”
It is not sufficient to focus on general pedagogy. Both subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogy – what could be called pedagogical content knowledge – should be included too. Teachers also need to learn about how students learn. Our content strand discussed above will play a crucial role in this point, as it will in point (3).

(5) “Activities associated with effective professional development.”
Teachers need to be taught how to translate this professional development knowledge into classroom practice; they also need to be taught how to experiment with its implementation – the type of iterative practice that we discussed above.

(6) The role of external providers and specialists.
Schools should set high expectations for their professional development providers, and, if they are external, determine how they will provide the ongoing mentoring/coaching support that research suggests is necessary for successful implementation.

(7) Collaboration and peer learning.
Collaboration is one key part of successful teacher professional development – but collaboration alone is insufficient and needs the other supports discussed above. Collaboration should be focused on problem solving that leads to improved student outcomes.

(8) Leadership around professional development.
Effective leaders become involved themselves – they do not just leave the learning to their teaches.

So, we have the research informed content, and we have the research informed method of delivery. And, unsurprisingly, there are common characteristics of the two. Great learning for teachers should mirror, in many ways, great learning for students. Potentially effective professional development is dead on arrival if participants are seated in rows and treated as “empty vessels” whose heads need to be filled with new ideas, then returned to their schools. This instructional practice of fill-and-move-on does not work for most students, why should we think it might work for teachers? Fortunately, the Teacher Development Trust’s work is based on good research informed principles of teaching. For example, we know from research that creating relevancy is important for engagement, which point (2) gets at, and that it is critical for long-term memory to have students recall and apply knowledge, either “use it or lose it,” which is addressed in points (1), (5), (6) and (7).

To this we might even be bold enough to add one further research-informed teaching strategy – using low stakes formative assessments to help teachers and their supervisors gauge what they currently know and what they don’t know, so they can plan accordingly so that the high quality professional development they have experienced is not forgotten or does not go unused. The ultimate goal, remember, is improved educational outcomes for all students.

Our solution of research informed professional development content and delivery may only seem radical in the context of teaching, but is one that has been embraced by other professional fields that have decided to place a high value on continued professional growth – and in a ways that are based on, and which contribute to, a growing base of research evidence. The TNTP report framed a pressing question for education. I believe we have the answer.

Ian Kelleher,
Head of Research, the CTTL

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