Teachers must be learners

This article appears in the May edition of Education Investor magazine and the Teacher Development Trust blog

Better schools will need better teachers. And that means better CPD, says David Weston.

Research has repeatedly shown that the number one influence on the quality of student attainment isn’t leadership, buildings or IT: it’s the quality of teaching. Student background and quality of parenting are hugely important, too, of course – but schools struggle to affect such external factors. The most effective thing a school can do to improve the lot of its students is to improve the quality of its teachers.

However, most schools spend only small quantities of money and time on staff development. What’s more, the training they choose is often poorly chosen and ineffective, and the evidence about how to fix this is not widely known or understood. Here at the Teacher Development Trust we’ve been doing some digging to illustrate the scale of the problem.

English schools reported spending just under £200 million on staff development last year – equating to only £25 per student, or 0.5% of the national education budget. Of that, around half the money spent went on supply cover costs to free teachers from the classroom. In other words, just a quarter of one percent of the national education budget was spent on actual training or coaching.

As to how this money was spent, teachers most commonly reported they chose whatever course they fancied. (The next most common answer was that they went on whatever course they were told to.) The majority of these courses weren’t even very effective: of the training courses sampled by the recently-closed Teacher Development Agency, just 10% were able to embed new ideas in the long term, and just 1% were of the quality that could transform poor practice into more effective teaching. The most commonly reported method of training was sitting passively listening to a lecture or presentation – exactly the sort of thing teachers are taught to avoid doing with their own classrooms.

Once training was completed only 63% of schools evaluated its effectiveness. And just 7% of schools – and 3% of secondaries – considered the impact on student attainment.

It’s a grim picture – but it doesn’t have to be that way. We now have a strong evidence base for what constitutes good teacher development, and it doesn’t require vast sums to be spent.

First of all, let’s be clear about what good practice doesn’t look like. It doesn’t mean:

  • forcing teachers to follow lists of ‘best practice’ methods and checking compliance through repeated observations and scrutiny of lesson plans;
  • mandating fixed structures for lessons;
  • bolting on ‘tips and tricks’ to existing teaching;
  • buying in and parroting pre-prepared schemes of work and lesson plans.

Any one of the above methods could produce a short-term and limited ‘bump’ in student attainment. But what they won’t do is to create self-sustaining improvement. Ultimately, they just lead to lower staff morale.

Fortunately, there’s an increasing body of research to suggest that truly effective professional development follows fairly specific rules.

  • It must begin by identifying teacher development needs based on the learning needs of the students being taught, and it must build on teachers’ existing skill.
  • The coaching or training must maintain a balance of focusing on ways for the teacher to help these students while providing skills that transfer to the rest of the teacher’s work.
  • The development process must be collaborative, with teachers of similar skill and confidence supporting, observing and coaching each other.
  • The development process must be actively sustained for at least two terms for a large number of hours (i.e. more than 40). And it must follow cycles of trying, reflecting, and adjusting, while maintaining the focus on improved student learning – and not teacher behaviour.
  • External expertise is vital to keep the improvement on track, avoid false glass-ceilings and disrupt ‘group-think’ that can develop in departments and schools. This could be an expert teacher from a nearby school, or an external consultant.

Schools need to deeply embed these ideas in the day-to-day running of their schools. Time spent by school leaders engaging with teaching and learning is significantly more productive than any other activity in raising student attainment, so it follows that teachers should be viewing their own development as a much higher priority. However, it’s easy for such processes to be subsumed beneath every-day planning, marking, discipline, and bureaucracy.

At the Teacher Development Trust we’re putting in place three strands of work to support the education sector in adopting these practices. Firstly we’ve created the free GoodCPDGuide.com website, a quality-assured database of training and coaching that helps teachers assess their needs and evaluate the impact of training. Secondly, we are working with training providers to help them deliver higher quality courses, with resources, training and inspection processes.

Finally, we are working with schools to support them to change their working practices. The goal is to put high-quality teacher development at the heart of everything they do and create reflective, adaptive professionals who are confident and effective in their classrooms. That could do more to improve schools than any structural change.

David Weston is a former teacher, and the founder and chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust.

Building excellence in education.

How do you improve education? Everyone has a theory, arguments rage. Governments around the world are trying all sorts of exciting schemes, and we can all see that there are a few different possible levers we can try and pull. So, which to choose?
Do we crank up accountability? This is a great short-term solution for a sluggish education system. Every new measure results in a short fear-induced jump with people scrabbling to get out of the ‘danger zone’. Ultimately of course the majority of those in safety can and will revert to being just as sluggish as before. Witness the current scrabble to reinstate humanities and language teaching due to EBacc and drop the now frowned-upon vocational qualifications after the previous 5A*-C panic caused the opposite. This method of improvement is something akin to prodding a sleepy animal with a pointy stick, I think. The animal will rearrange itself to move out of the way of the prods where possible, and then settle back to sleep. Should it have a place in the system? Yes. Is it vastly and painfully over-used? Undoubtedly.o we crank up accountability?

How about imposing new rules and methods? The last government loved this one. We had national strategies and literacy hours, an upsurge in bureaucracy and teachers generally slapped about the face unless they were doing nice three part lessons with starters and plenaries with Assessment for Learning in place (even though most of them didn’t really know what this meant). This is another great method for producing a bump in results. Your lazy bottom 10% of teachers will probably improve a wee bit, and the top 10% of enthusiasts will see the potential and incorporate it relatively happily. The rest will wearily comply just enough to avoid being prodded by the pointy stick and carry on the same as before. There will be dark mutterings and resentment at the imposition into teachers’ ‘personal space’, and huge amounts of energy wasted on oodles of utterly superficial change nationwide. Effect on learning outcomes, minimal.

A current favourite is autonomy of course. How about this one? This is fantastic for all those innovative types who were straining at the leashes of all the bureaucracy and compliance. The enthusiasts will rejoice and start doing things differently. Some of them will try new and foolish ideas that turn out to be a bit rubbish, and some will hit on brilliant ones that will be revolutionary. The weary middle will look suspiciously around waiting for the next inevitable pointy stick and carry on teaching the old way. The lazy ones will sink gently bag into the bog of incompetence with a smile on their faces.

Everyone’s favourite though is structural change. Create whole new categories of schools, change legal designations, alter funding streams, add or remove layers of management. This is stunningly helpful for the small minority who were genuinely trying to innovate and enthuse but were blocked by bureaucracy (probably the ones who were shouting most loudly at the government when they came in to power). Some of the existing enthusiasts and innovators will dismay as they discover their existing growth base has shifted, while others will attempt to adapt. Plans will go on hold all over the country as people try to re-engineer their working practice, finances and development plans. Some of the enthusiasts will adore the new systems, the weary middle will grumble at being made the change, again, and assume that it’s a way of making a new type of pointy stick, and the lazy incompetents will remain blissfully ignorant. Potential for improvement for some? Yes.  Improvement for all? a guaranteed no. Lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth about ideology, rights, politics and change? You betcha!

So how do you actually improve education? Is it by tinkering, foisting, poking or restructuring? Well, ultimately each of these imposed top-down things either unleashes a small pent up need at one end of the spectrum or vaguely squashes a section of incompetence at the other. The only real way you can really improve things is by getting as many teachers as possible on board with improving themselves in a self-sustaining way.

I don’t mean smile winningly and say “off you go lads ‘n lasses” and hope the teachers will improve by magic, I mean system-wide evidence-driven change with teachers in the driving seat.

There are some great examples of all types of change, of course. Laptops for Teachers unbunged the improvement pipe who just needed the kit to get on with it. Banning corporal punishment stamped out an outdated and harmful practice. The London Challenge (and similar projects under the Excellence in Cities banner) created structures, funding and time with which schools could identify problems, collaborate, share expertise, and continuously work to improve outcomes for students. And it is this last one that I think provides the real model for radical school improvement for the UK.

We’ve all seen countless studies that show, time and again, that the biggest thing a school can do to improve outcomes for its kids is to improve its teachers. Apart from the statistically insane and wilfully stupid we’ve discounted the idea that we can simply fire all the incompetent ones and hire new ones. The weary middle, who grow remarkably tired of being poked with a pointy stick will shout about making parents sort it out, but the answer is actually really rather clear. We need systems in place that promote teacher professionalism, systematically grow and develop teacher expertise and sustain this in the long term. Teaching Schools, while a nice idea, are a drop in the ocean. Every school needs to embark on the journey to put in place proper professional development, and fortunately there is a very strong evidence base to tell us just what this looks like. I’ll be blogging more about what this means for schools, teachers and training providers quite soon over at the Teacher Development Trust.

Ok, clearly you still need the right number of working schools with non-leaking buildings, decent finance, a steady stream of new recruits and all the other bits. But on the whole, the English education system is doing reasonably well at those things. You could tweak of course, and I’m sure people will, but the really big changes in outcomes won’t come until leaders, teachers and administrators all start focusing heavily on creating better student outcomes using the lever of teacher professional development combined with the research on how to use it effectively.

Just, please, no more tinkering, prodding and poking.

As always, your thoughts and opinions are most welcome. Let’s start a discussion.

PS Here’s a link to a great recent Harvard research paper suggesting that the key factors affecting student outcomes are (wait for it)…. teaching and learning factors. http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/fryer/files/effective_schools.pdf