Developing people, developing schools

Two things strike me these days as I work with teachers in schools; 1) is that CPD is high on the educational agenda again, and 2) that besides for a notable number of enthusiasts, CPD seems to make many teachers sigh, while some get downright anxious or uptight about it.

I need to say straightaway, therefore, that I am passionate about Continuing Professional Development (CPD). Whereas some people see CPD as a chore or a constant pressure put upon them by the powers that be, I see it as a positive process by which you can learn and develop in your own way, at your own pace. To my mind, CPD should be at least manageable, and, ideally, even an enjoyable part of working life.

CPD is an approach to learning which puts the emphasis on on-going development rather than on sporadic training events.  Repeatedly throughout my own career I have noted the limitations and mixed results of training per se, for myself and others. I have often ended up concluding that a particular training event was either ‘good’ or ‘bad’; if training was ‘good’ then that meant it catered to my needs, what I needed to learn in the way I needed to learn it; if it were ‘bad’ then it did not. It would be ‘bad’ when it has been pitched at the wrong level, progressed at the wrong pace, was not personalised enough, or could not be applied immediately to my day-to-day working life.  Trainers and course designers might put more and more effort into ‘needs analysis’ and strive to deliver training for a group of people as closely pitched to individual needs as they could, but the results were still often hit or miss.

What strikes me now on reflection is how long it took me to work out what I concluded the root of the problem was. ‘Good’ training didn’t primarily depend on whether it was conducted by a competent trainer who carried out a great ‘needs analysis’; good training occurred when the content of the course was equally relevant and immediately applicable to all participants, and delivered in a way that addressed the learning needs and styles of all attendees. The second thing that struck me then - and this was pivotal - was just how difficult it is to get this training recipe right.

Head and Taylor (1997) in ‘Readings in Teacher Development’ (Heinemann) succinctly sum up the differences between teacher training and teacher development in this table which I reproduce here:

Compulsory Voluntary
Competency based Holistic
Short term Long term
One off On going
Temporary Continual
External agenda Internal agenda
Skills, techniques and knowledge-based Awareness based, focused on personal growth and the development of attitudes and insights
Top down Bottom up
Product weighted Process weighted
Means you can get a job Means you can stay interested in your job
Done with experts Done with peers

What Head & Taylor are saying here in effect is that training is appropriate when all attendees need to receive the same skills or knowledge that an authority wants them to have, or they need to pass a practical exam. Given the diversity of learning needs of individuals and thus the limitations of this model, why is it, therefore, that training, or INSETT, remains the core component of training and development programmes in many educational contexts? Surely, it is a better idea to put in place a comprehensive CPD programme, one by which learning is personalised, relevant to one’s needs and attained in a timely way?

As my thoughts started to formulate and consolidate, I began to see CPD as the best answer to address teachers’ varied professional development requirements. I could see that training provided a vital service when a training event met the needs of all the participants, but that training, per se, needed to fit within a wider more flexible programme of developmental opportunities for all teachers.

When it came to introducing such a CPD programme for teachers in the school that I worked in, I thought this would be greeted with widespread positivity for the flexibility it offered. But it wasn’t - at least not immediately - and that was given the fact that they had themselves asked for a more flexible programme! At first this confounded me, but I was determined to try and work out what was wrong. Following further investigation and analysis with the teachers in the school, I concluded that there were three clear barriers standing in the way of establishing a successful CPD programme.

The first was that teachers had understandably concluded that if you widen the developmental programme then you are making things even more difficult and complex. The notion of CPD was simply a devious method by which to get teachers to do even more professional development, taking more and more time, which teachers did not have, and were loath to sign up to.

The second barrier was the exposure factor. Yes, it seemed good to personalise CPD, but in reality the plan was really to shine the spotlight directly at yourself, potentially showing up the warts and all in your teaching. At least if you are a teacher buried within a group of trainees at an INSETT session it is easier to blend in and remain unexposed. Training will provide you with the ‘tick’ you need for having attended, so training remains the easiest, safest option to stick to, and is certainly less stressful then this personalised CPD idea. But the thing is, and this is with my quality assurance hat on: you can keep accumulating the ticks next to your name, but how do we know if these ticks result in any improvement in your professional performance in the classroom?

The third barrier is that in addition to the threat posed by the spotlight approach, even within a supposedly flexible CPD programme, teachers are still predominantly being told what to learn and how to development. The standards of teacher performance are typically set by external professional bodies or internal trainers and managers; there are set benchmarks and expectations about how you should teach and what an expert teacher looks like. The authorities decide what is right or wrong, what is useful or irrelevant for you and you are expected to take the advice and the guidance you are given and basically do what you are told to achieve excellence.

Now the guidance, instructions or advice you get may be spot on. But I have come to appreciate that even if this is so, not everyone wants to hear it, or even if they hear it, they don’t necessarily follow it. And even if they try to take advice on board, it doesn’t mean it will work for them in the way it is expected to.

So, what can we change in the formula of training and development in order to make CPD more effective, less threatening and less time-consuming?

Well, I believe a CPD programme is enhanced when these 3 considerations are born in mind:

  • teachers are encouraged to take charge of their own CPD
  • CPD is directly related to or embedded within actual classroom practice
  • the ‘external’ judgement approach to assessment and feedback is replaced with a coaching approach

 In line with Carl Rogers, I truly believe that human beings strive to reach their full potential. If teachers do not strive to be an ever improving teacher throughout their professional lives, then there must be reasons for it. If teachers are happy to be teachers, and are not in fact simply in the wrong profession, then perhaps it is possible to reason that their reluctance or even resistance to CPD is due to one of the reason given above.  A coaching approach will help to discover what limits a teacher’s engagement with CPD and can perhaps offers a way to turn the situation around. (This is not the place to go into the coaching approach within CPD but is something we can come back to in a future article.)

CPD is not just about identifying weaknesses and working on them. In fact it needn’t be about this at all. I prefer to see CD as expansion; through CPD you can expand on what you know and do, and deepen your thinking and knowledge. CPD should be about growth, stimulation and developing an effective learning mind-set that holds you in good stead throughout your professional life. It shouldn’t be painful.

Over the years, I have met plenty of teachers (actually not only teachers, but people in a variety of work contexts) who were initially resistant to professional development, but who gradually changed their attitude towards CPD when they were encouraged to set their own developmental agenda based on their own interests in teaching and learning, and could explore ways to do this that were not a burden on their time. On-going development is simply that – on-going. I do believe, from the observational evidence I have gathered over the years, that teachers who are positively engaged in CPD and who have developed good reflective practitioner skills, do in turn become more expert teachers, resulting in numerous benefits for students. The crux of CPD success lies in the willingness to get on board a development ship that steers you forward at a steady pace, keeping your mind alert to learning and professional growth within an ever-changing world.