The Problem With Professional Development

In Uncategorized by Alex Quigley5 Comments


I recently had the great pleasure to read a paper called, provocatively and insightfully, ‘Professional Development: A Great Way to Avoid Change’. It was published in 2004, by an Australian educator, Peter Cole. Though over a decade old, the messages about the deep rooted flaws in much of the professional development undertaken by teachers still stands, on an international basis today. It crystallized many of the issues with professional development for me and helped guide my ideas in moving forward.

Please take the opportunity to read the paper – see here.

Cole structures his paper around the following ten contentions:

1. Much of what is termed professional development develops no one.

2. What we understand as professional development needs to be broadened.

3. Professional learning rather than professional development is a more helpful construct to drive teacher improvement.

4. The place for most authentic teacher learning is the school.

5. Teachers generally avoid using the most effective means for promoting professional learning within the school – classroom observation, feedback and lesson study.

6. School leaders need to take more responsibility for establishing a professional learning culture within the School

7. Generally it is teams, not individuals, who change schools.

8. Individual professional learning plans should start with identifying the teacher’s change intentions.

9. Greater clarification of the support teachers actually need to implement changes is required.

10. Development plans need to be practical, action-focused and time-bound.

I am a school leader leading on Continuous Professional Development, and as contention six states, I need to establish a deeply supportive professional learning culture. So how do you go about doing that? I think Peter Cole gives us many of the answers.

Put simply, part of what I need to do as a school leader is provide teachers with time to develop their professional learning… and then get out of the way! One strategic change we have deeply embedded in our school is fortnightly Teaching and Learning Forums (TLFs), that supplement training days and various Twilight training. The vast majority of the hours for TLFs are in departments. Teachers learn and make the most sustained changes to their pedagogy and practice in collaborative teams. We need to give teams the time to reflect and focus on learning.

With time, I believe that any team of teachers can move from “enthusiastic amateurs“, as termed by Michael Fullan, into truly great professionals.

We do have some whole school TLF time. We offer staff the choice to focus on different strands of pedagogy: Differentiation; Creativity and Challenge; Questioning and Feedback; Behaviour for Learning; and Memory for Learning. We spend some time watching coaching videos and sharing best practice across subject domains, before working individually to reflect upon our teaching and to develop our planning with an obvious subject specific focus. Then teachers return once more to their subject area to develop their practice in teams.

The reality is that professional learning is squeezed by endless cycles of marking and planning. If a teacher on a full timetable makes a couple of small changes to their practice annually then that is a great step forward. Finding the time, space and resource for those small tweaks to our learning can make all the difference. School leaders need to create flexible tools to allow teachers mired under piles of books to make small changes.

If you want to make deep, systematic changes to things like assessment and curriculum then you need to remove the time-expanding training day items that block their path. Steer with a clear direction, then support subject leaders, with the requisite time and resources. We have been offered opportunities to innovate, such as the removal of National Curriculum levels, but how many schools have devoted hours of time, into double figures, to help teachers build something better? Once more, time is the magic ingredient to good CPD.

At Huntington, we have devised a website for teachers, by our teachers – see the Huntington Learning hub – that allows for sharing of resources, best evidence, videos of best practice and more. We will look to find as many creases of time for teachers to reflect on their practice as possible. We want to use the support mechanisms provided by the likes of the National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN) to initiate ‘lesson study‘ and to grow that in a small, but well-formed way. We want to offer teachers video equipment (we use IRIS Connect) to reflect on the minutiae of their practice. Genuine professional development is a real challenge, but there are tools that can help.

We want to strip away as much of the bureaucracy that attends PRP, OFSTED etc. as best we can.  Can we remove lesson observation grades? Can we remove the excessive marking policies erected in fear of OFSTED?  Can we make PRP into something that is sensible, fair and doesn’t demeans teachers? Can we ward off the snake oil salesman by making school-wide developments rooted in the best evidence available?

Yes we can.

A culture of learning is stymied by fear. A culture of professional learning is fueled by purpose and it needs time to grow. We are in control of that, regardless of what national changes we are subjected to by the Department for Education or OFSTED. Professional development isn’t easy and the pressures of the job mean that it is easy to plateau as a teacher, but nothing really worthwhile ever was easy.

The legion of problems with professional development listed by Peter Cole are solvable. Primarily, as George Harrison once sung, the answer is “it will take time – a whole lot of precious time…to do it right child”.


    1. Author

      Ha, good point! Call it preparation! I’m reading your backward planning recommendation by the way (a highly useful read) and I purchased the Science dept. two copies of the children learning science book. Thanks for the recommendation, the help and the support!

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  3. Thanks……A really good article that’s made me re-consider what we offer in our school as CPD and more importantly how / when these “professional learning” opportunities can occur.

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