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We need to talk about subjects – and to know what great subject-specific professional development looks like

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 19 February 2018

Philippa Cordingley and Toby Greany.

We need to talk about how teachers become expert – not just at teaching, but at teaching across different subjects.

All too often in education we get side-tracked by debates about issues such as high stakes accountability systems, assessment reforms, recruitment and retention, anxiety about the breadth of learning experiences and funding.  Even when we do remember that it is the quality of teaching that matters most, we tend to focus on the challenges, such as teacher recruitment shortages.  Yet, as Professor Dylan Wiliam has argued, the biggest priority should be to ‘love the teachers we have’ by investing in their professional development and learning.Our 2015 review of research evidence highlighted that subject-specific Continuous Professional Development (CPD) – by which we mean programmes which enhance teachers’ subject knowledge and/or their ability to teach in specific subjects – has a greater impact on pupil outcomes than generic pedagogic CPD.  Our more recent review for the Wellcome Trust focusses on how far teachers and schools across the UK are actually accessing subject-specific CPD, what this looks like at its best and the barriers that can get in the way.  Worryingly, the review highlights that teachers in England engage in less CPD overall and are less likely to engage in subject-specific CPD than in most other high performing countries.

The Big Issues

We see the big issues that policy makers must address as follows:
Changes in curriculum and assessment policies are key drivers of demand for subject-specific CPD. But responses to such policy driven changes are often limited to, for example, exam board briefings attended by one or two members of staff rather than extended professional development programmes. Policy makers have stopped the worst cases of exam boards selling CPD linked to their qualifications in recent years, but there is still more to do to raise the bar in terms of quality provision.  Our recommendations about quality assuring CPD and the current DfE consultation look promising here.
Perceptions shape expectations of CPD and how it is applied for subjects within schools. For schools where there is no established culture of high quality subject-specific CPD, and where external challenge and support for subject development is fragmented, there can be limited awareness of the potential for subject specific CPD or of what “good” looks like. Such schools might have limited internal subject expertise to draw on (for example, where staff retention is an issue) and, perhaps as a result of this, can appear less confident in seeking out external expertise and challenge. Low expectations arising from low investment or poor provision set up a vicious cycle of reducing quality and resourcing. While teachers in England rate subject specific or contextualised CPD more highly than generic pedagogic CPD, their leaders are less convinced – and both groups see it as much less common and desirable than do their peers in high performing countries. There is an urgent need to identify what great – and poor – practice looks like. Here again a quality assurance/recognition system could help – so long as it addresses what is done both within and beyond school and the practices that connect the two.
Budgets and resources are consistently raised as the most significant challenge by teachers and leaders. Backfill costs for staff are an important consideration; they often significantly exceed the actual fees for an external conference, an invited speaker or consultant, or a professional development programme, especially if schools do the sensible thing and enable teachers to learn together. Schools and CPD leaders need help in understanding the real costs of CPD and to be able to spend their money more effectively on things that last and work. For many different reasons the CPD market isn’t providing this. The information needed to model such costs lies in different hands. So we need a partnership between different players. We also need government to step in to create some stepping stones.
Competing priorities for resource and attention are real and lead to a desire for quick fixes. External accountability metrics dominate the minds of school leaders. New policy initiatives and demands, such as Prevent, call for staff development time too. Even where subject-specific CPD is prioritised, the pressure on time and resources can mean that schools adopt sub-optimal approaches, such as a single member of staff attending an external event and then cascading the learning to colleagues in a single twilight (i.e. after school) session. A significant number of Department for Education-funded Strategic School Improvement Fund projects are focussed on supporting longer term, research-based approaches to CPD and school development. We need to capture and distil the process and the learning formatively. Just evaluating impact will leave us with an empty black box. This is a genuine opportunity for the self-improving system to learn about how the process of system improvement works at scale. We do want know whether and how subject specific CPD in SSIF projects works (and doesn’t work). National evaluations will help us achieve that. But we also want to know how we cope with the inevitable messiness of working in many different, vulnerable contexts. So we need forums for learning across projects and regions and form the formative evaluation support that is informing projects development and implementation.
Leadership: School leaders play a significant role in shaping how subject specific CPD is prioritised, supported and integrated with other internal initiatives. Leaders – including middle leaders, heads of departments and senior leaders – also play a key role in enabling staff to participate in CPD and to implement what they learn from it, creating the necessary conditions for effective subject-specific CPD to flourish. Many school leaders do work to build a strong professional learning environments and systems for developing depth in content knowledge at the heart of school improvement, as the case studies in the report show. But there is a long way to go to make this practice widespread.  Effective leaders use performance review to identify and balance CPD needs for the school as a whole and for individuals. Primary and secondary schools with a strong CPD offer and a focus on how teachers learn through deepening subject knowledge work hard to sustain support and make it systematic, using different kinds of evidence and making sure there is a clear logical connections between analysis of the needs of individual and groups of teachers, school self-evaluation, improvement and CPD activity. Offering teachers choices and ensuring breadth in the CPD offer are also common mechanisms for achieving a balance. CPD processes that make explicit space for teachers to pursue their own goals and experiences in the light of their aspirations for their pupils, such as enquiry, coaching and lesson study, also help some schools to achieve this balance too. There is a need for more professional development for school and CPD leaders to help them understand the evidence about what effective CPD looks like, especially the evidence about the nature and impact of subject-specific CPD; and how to judge the quality of CPD opportunities provision suggested to them by heads of departments/phase and/or external providers including other schools.
School to school networks have become an increasing part of the school improvement landscape in recent years, particularly in England where Teaching School Alliances (TSA) and Multi-Academy Trusts (MAT) are supporting groups of schools.  Some of these networks are developing strong subject networks across their member schools, in some cases supported by dedicated subject experts, but there is a long way to go to build this capacity so that all schools can and do benefit.  The new funding available for MAT development and CPD should seek to enable school networks to develop sustainable and inclusive models for supporting school capacity in this important area.

Why does it matter?

Perhaps we should finish where all good learning starts, by being clear about why subject specific CPD matters. It isn’t that we are saying that teachers don’t know enough. Many do. But, for example, in a fast-changing world subject knowledge grows rapidly and many teachers are being asked to teach beyond their own core interests and specialisms – especially, of course, in primary schools. We think the broader evidence shows us that by locating CPD in different subject contexts we give teachers the opportunity to enrich their own and their pupils’ learning. It helps them consider and make deeper links between subjects and the wider world. Opportunities to learn about, for example, metacognition through working on Thinking Through Geography or History as David Leat and colleagues at Newcastle University have advocated for years, contexts creates powerful stepping stones into demanding pedagogies whose full potential is rarely realised. Contextualising CPD for subjects helps teachers explore the skills and capacities that subjects enhance and depend upon. Above all this kind of CPD helps teachers push beyond narrow assessment and exam requirements to work in ways that help them bring knowledge and subjects to life for their pupils.
This was originally posted on the Curree blog.  Philippa Cordingley is Chief Executive of CUREE; Toby Greany is Professor of Leadership and Innovation at the IOE.

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