CPD series: the leverage of professional discourse

In this final post of my CPD blog series, I promised that I would make some proposals around how schools might ensure that their teachers and leaders had access to a well-designed, well-aligned professional development provision to improve the quality of teaching, and as a consequence, outcomes for students. This is a blog that shares must of my recent ResearchEd Rugby session, which looked at the how of professional development at a local level, and sets out some tools which might be useful to use to establish the type of environment that would ensure that any type of professional development could flourish. Previous posts of the series are here, here, here, here and here and the slide deck from my session can be found here.

During the series, I have attempted to establish a definition of effective CPD, considered some of the pitfalls that we may have encountered historically, but also continue to experience presently around effective implementation of CPD; how we might look to ensure that we undertake a needs analysis before diving into the plethora of professional development available; the operational mechanisms that need to align with professional development for successful investment and implementation; to what extent we, as a sector, undertake effective evaluation of our professional development to ensure that it is continually fit for purpose; and whether we can ever design a system that attends to the varying start points, contexts and most importantly, the individual teacher in such a way that they are part of the process of improvement, as opposed to a passenger.

Here, I will try to bring this series to a close and perhaps, pose more questions again than provide solutions. I will revisit the issues if PD (and it’s problematic relationship with PM) and then provide an outline for how the way in which we use professional discourse in school might be our biggest leverage point to pre evaluate more in terms of CPD. I feel that by posing these questions, we can start to think carefully about how we access CPD in future, how we make decisions either as individuals or strategic leaders around CPD provision, so that moving forward, the choices that we make are not led by simply the next idea, but governed by value, and purpose, and current necessity.

What is the problem we are trying to solve?

Professional development is busy. This busyness intrigues and serves to distract us. It has the danger to become somewhat of a throwaway culture, as we discard one thing for the next because it is more interesting to give our attention to something we know very little about, as opposed to committing ourselves to understanding something deeply. We are creatures lured by the infinite nature of learning: the unfinished book pile; the buzz of many tabs; the chaos of thinking at the start of an exploration. For us to commit our time to understanding one aspect of practice or strategy is not only less thrilling, but it moves us on to higher stakes. It demands that we attend for longer, to the possible detriment of missing out on something else. It means that we must invest in long-term change, which whilst far more beneficial, might not appear with as frequent a milestone, or a sense of completion that will occur in the short term. By saying yes to only one thing, we are saying no to something else. But as Greg McKeown states, ‘by saying no to one thing, we are saying yes to something else.’ In the same way we purchase a capsule piece of clothing where we might invest in one expensive piece over ten pieces to throw away in six months, we could possibly look at the way we engage with CPD in the same way. And I wonder to what extent, we spend time to work out what we need first, before setting out to find it without a compromise on quality.

Because, when poorly planned or instigated, professional development often fails to meet later obligations. Without a considered, sustainable approach, we do not return to discuss the development, implementation or learning experiences of our CPD at a later point and evaluation of impact is lacking. Trawling through professional development from even the last year of a career, a teacher is highly likely to have dismissed more than they have used, because to absorb or utilise all CPD would make us a GP of education, as opposed to a specialist. It draws us away from the depth that we might hope to achieve, and yet it is so alluring, that we can often fall foul to giving our bandwidth to too much, and in doing so, utilise very little. In addition, there is a temptation to look for the ability of measurement, when the nature of teaching presents immeasurable features. How do we know that what we learn impacts improves what we do?

This is where it is worth mentioning that professional development and performance management hold a somewhat unavoidable tension within the sector. To speak of them as two separate entities, means that we refuse to value continual improvement by allowing it to form a relationship with the monetary worth of our role. To speak of them as one and the same entity, means we must ensure that the standard and process of professional development is sufficient to be able to say it holds both merit and value. Poor quality of CPD, and we trivalise the definition of what it means to improve. Insufficient time, and we trivalise the investment from teachers. Make professional development a tickbox exercise for performance management, and we trivalise the process of engagement, discourse and criticality by diluting it to outcomes. I also find performance management an unhelpful term, as it carries such connotations of falsehood, and I would argue, distorts the intention of professional development overall. Perhaps at this stage, we can look to The DfE Standards for Teachers’ Professional Development to provide us with the PD literacy that enables us to create both a shared language, but also a quality mark in schools:

The Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development summarises:

Professional development should have a focus on improving and evaluating pupil
outcomes.

Professional development should be underpinned by robust evidence and
expertise.

Professional development should include collaboration and expert challenge.

Professional development programmes should be sustained over time.
And all this is underpinned by, and requires that:

Professional development must be prioritised by school leadership.

Whilst these serve as a helpful standard for schools to use when evaluating their own professional development model, the first two only seek to address to content of professional development, as opposed to the mechanism. I would like to spend some time considering the element of sustainability to our local-level CPD offer, but also the sense of collaboration within that offer, and how this might serve to do so much more than simply improve teaching in our schools.

What are our possible options and what challenges do these present?

It could simply be to provide a better quality of professional development. By streamlining the offer, simplifying the way in which we master aspects of our day-to-day roles in school, reducing attention to give depth to learning would certainly help to reduce the noise created by varying standards of professional development and to what extent what we learn or think about contributes to what we do. Professional development would fulfil a series of most frequent needs across a school, which would meet the vast majority of teachers’ needs, however this approach does present tensions in regards to how much capacity a school would have to create such a provision, as well as posing challenges around whose needs are met, and how they were identified in alignment with the whole-school agenda- or even if that should be what governs such decisions. Inevitably, using this model would result in those more specialist needs would potentially be left unaddressed.

It could be to listen to research that seeks to inform us as to what makes professionals feel fulfilled, and ultimately, use professional development not just to ensure all teachers improve, but that all teachers stay in the profession. Looking at the teacher wellbeing index report from last year, if professional development was a core feature of school improvement alongside a concerted effort to reduce the pace of change, reduce the extent of unrequired paperwork and ensure that workload for teachers is accurately pre-costed, monitored and evaluated with regular, responsive adjustments, then perhaps teachers would have the time and scope to commit to developing their expertise. Whilst retention should be a key factor of professional development- we might aim to train professionals to a point where they are not only continually developed, but able to move on to serve other areas of the sector- clearing the way for professional development does not do the heavy lifting of professional development. It makes space, but fails to curate.

It could be that we speak of professional development as a shared entity as appraisal, and rid ourselves once and for all of the problematic term ‘performance management,’ helping to ensure that our education literacy remains in tact, on the basis that we know performance does not equate with long term change. However, to do so means to do so well, and the shift in mindset from the compartmentalisation of ‘this is appraisal and outcomes’ to ‘this will develop me as a teacher’ has much legacy that teachers and leaders require a blueprint for how to make that shift towards more meaningful conversations that aid development in schools.

Irrespective of the decisions that we make around analysing the need for professional development for our context, or asking teachers what would help to provide the time and headspace to commit to improvement, if the climate and culture does not match our intent, the what is futile. To bring even the very best professional development provision to life, or make sure that the CPD library in your school gets use, or that teachers engage with the work of your research group, or coaching is taken seriously, we need to carefully consider to what extent colleagues are equipped to modelling the essential discourse that all of these initiatives rely on for sustainable, successful impact.

Put simply, creating a culture where support, trust and useful feedback are social norms is our best bet to ensure that when we start to provide an offer of a CPD provision, teachers are invested in continual improvement. As a sector, for us to truly value professional development as a lever for change, as a tool for retention, but most of all, as a vehicle for sustained improvement, we must seek out ways to make it valuable, relevant, and manageable. To explore this further, I would like to move to a consideration of the ‘how’ of professional development. How do we create a climate that acts as a pre-mortem for sustainable change?

Creating a climate for continual improvement

At ResearchEd Rugby, I proposed a series of tools that could help teachers and leaders with professional discourse. Outside of the one-off courses or solitary act of reading around pedagogy, subject knowledge or organisational strategy, the conversations that we have in school act as our greatest lever for continual improvement. Trust, support and feedback are verbal transactions which must be carefully navigated within our professional dialogue so that they serve not only to improve the quality of teaching and learning, but also serve to build relationships, disintegrate the less useful elements of hierarchical structures and ultimately, retain teachers. I would urge you to consider to what extent the architecture of your day-to-day conversations are reflected within these three tools, which enable us to bring Kraft and Papay’s outline to life.

If we want to move professional discourse forwards as part of our developmental conversations, we need to ensure psychological safety is present. If the language we use within our discussions fails to identify knowledge gaps, learning gaps, micro-mistakes made in the classroom as valuable learning points for discussion to move us forward, we will never improve- but these discussions are only possible when it is safe to share these. Furthermore, if we ask that teachers invest in their professional development to improve, but then the language of our conversations and communication fails to enable them to recognise mistakes as necessary, problems as inevitable and solutions as simply possibilities rather than absolutes, then we fail to align what we endeavour to be the desire outcome – that being, improving teaching and learning- with the everyday language, and in turn, the social fabric of our school communities. Simply, we cannot say that we understand that improvement is a process of change, without allowing the ingredients of change to occur within our discussions. By placing a sense of safety so that error is seen as a collective problem to tussle with, decisions are made as a collegiate and learning is a welcomed consequence of these experiences, we not only continue to develop effective teachers, but we create meaningful relationships as a desirable by-product.

The second consideration around creating a healthy climate for professional development to take place draws from Robinson’s work around theories of action, a body of work that Kathryn Morgan introduced me to last year. Before we can even begin to attend to a needs analysis of professional development for our teams at a local level, we must first establish to what degree we agree on the problem that needs to be solved.

Robinson asserts that if a school leader identifies the problem, then a dialogical process should exist between them and the teacher to establish the narrative, and ultimately, determine the extent and nature of the problem. Through this process of pre-evaluation, the process of trust as a verbal transaction is relevant here: the leader is inviting the teacher to consider whether change is required, based on their theory of action, as opposed to demanding that it happen- and this often happens at a level of subtlety, even in the most effective coaching conversations. We tell our own narratives of what we perceive to be the problem we wish to fix, instead of jointly evaluating whether it is a problem, to what degree, before then agreeing on this evaluation and making the decision that a change is required. An example:

A subject leader walks through Year 8 lessons and feels that they did not see a great deal of tier three vocabulary being either used or revisited by students within study of The Tempest. As a result, student responses lacked the academic quality that the subject leader would hope to see. They discuss with their second in department, who disagrees, stating that only last week, the Year 8 teaching team discussed this very aspect of teaching, and the literacy lead ran a session which explored how to teach vocabulary as a pre-teach task. The subject leader asks the second in department what the next steps were that were agreed as a result of that session: the second in department states that teachers said they would trial pre teaching vocabulary that fortnight and revisit to discuss learning experiences. The subject lead can then ascertain that work is already underway, and notes that they visited most lessons at a mid-point, as opposed to at the start, and so would not have seen this in action.

By committing the time to engaging in a discourse to agree (or not) to change, both parties become involved in the process, the subject leader has the opportunity to see through a wider lens thanks to the dialogic process, and the second in department builds up a strong mental model of taking a line of enquiry as opposed to making assumptive actions, which they will be able to draw from when discussing initiatives or changes with the team. Again, it removes the sense of hierarchy, and instead pulls from a conversation where both parties are setting to establish the problem, forcing them to slow the pace of what could have resulted in rapid organisational change and instead, undertook this useful pre-mortem that had additional benefits for building professional trust.

The final tool that I explored is the ladder of inference, and this is something that has been invaluable to me over the past year in particular.

Creating mental models for effective professional dialogue to take place is hugely impactful in schools, because it ensures that on the whole, our conversations are showcase moments for teachers and leaders to see effective mental models for better conversations in action. I would argue that if we want to drive continual improvement in schools, we need to reduce the noisy, throwaway nature of CPD that I previously referred to, but that we can only do so if we incorporate this sense of critical curiosity to what we do. ‘Best bets’ is only as such, if we have been faithful to investigating research before reaching assumptions, just as noticing a possible issue within the classroom is simply noticing. if we shift from noticing to concluding, we miss the evaluative approach of establishing if it exists as a problem to resolve, what evidence we have to allow us to make inferences around possible reasons for it, and only then can we start to consider how to address them. An example:

A coach visits a teacher’s lesson to look at effective modelling in the classroom- the teacher has chosen the focus. The coach states, ‘I noticed that when you shared the prepared model with students, they were all making annotations initially, but then this tapered off as there was less of a scaffold.’ The teacher responds by agreeing, ‘I saw this- three students at the front struggled to annotate, even with the example. I think it might be because they could identify the terminology used, but couldn’t really work towards an interpretation without the necessary vocabulary. Next time, I could wait initially, then when recognising that students stop, provide one interpretation and ask students to consider a contrasting view, or to build on the interpretation I have provided.’ The coach asks, ‘how will you know that this is effective?’ ‘I might be able to see it in their responses, or by observing their engagement with the task, or asking them directly to what extent that provided enough support.’

Discussing these micro-changes to key moments in the classroom through a critical lens, informed by using measures that can be seen enables the teaching to develop mental models of how to tackle another such moment in the classroom, but also develop mental models of the conversation in itself: they are reflective, open in sharing the mistake (psychological safety) and both parties become fixed on the problem, as opposed to the teacher’s actions. Notice, the coach’s initial observations were of the task, not of the teacher. Argyris’ ladder enables us to move through the various points of preparing for change, but keeps us rooted in being informed by the evidence we have available, and not the teacher’s actions or choices in that given moment. Through this shift in language, we can start to create the climate where we know that, irrespective of the professional development offer (with an assumption of quality, of course), that the conversations which sit before or after it are equally as meaningful.

Improving the quality of our professional conversations might be useful, but I am not naïve to the belief that these may be perceived as the ‘soft skills’ of continual improvement: that, as long as we provide a standard of training to our teachers, then they will thrive. I would argue that these hold significance to our hope of even implementing sustainable change in terms of improving the quality of teaching- because, teacher belief is one of our biggest levers in regards to continual improvement.

When we start to see the impact of change derived from a shift in beliefs where that shift was self driven, not directed, and as a consequence of powerful discussions between professional academics, then we stand a chance in reducing the noise of CPD that teachers are currently facing in schools. It means that every day, the conversations and exchanges that they immerse themselves in are rooted in a genuine sense of care for collective improvement- and that moves us away from the one-off soundbites and closer to a series of transactions of trust, support and feedback that help teachers to get even better.

What does professional discourse look like in your school?

Is there a suitable climate for supportive, collaborative improvement? How do you know?

How are PD needs identified, scoped and revisited to ensure sustainability?

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