What are the common myths (and truths) about CPD?

Jen Barker summarises new US research on what works in CPD and adapts them to the English context - with pleasing results and pointers to improvement

Jen Barker summarises new US research on what works in CPD and adapts them to the English context - with pleasing results and pointers to improvement

2 May 2022, 5:00

Earlier this year, the Research Partnership for Professional Learning (RPPL) reviewed the evidence around professional development, with the goal of identifying “commonly held beliefs about professional development (PD) that were not supported by research findings”. They represented their conclusions in a report outlining six ‘myths’ and ‘truths’ of PD.

RPPL is a collective of individuals and organisations that aims to advance educational equity and pupil achievement by studying and sharing the features of effective PD. They are mostly from the US, so we’ve set out to apply their myths to the English context.

Myth 1: PD is a waste of time and money

Truth: evidence shows that PD can lead to shifts in teachers’ skills and instructional practice and significantly improve student learning.

England is undoubtedly ahead of the curve on this one. Recent reforms such as the ECF and new NPQ suite have systematically increased investment in PD. Grassroots communities such as ResearchEd and eduTwitter are also continually catalysing critical conversations about how we can make sure PD is a good use of resources.

Myth 2: PD is more effective for early career teachers and less so for experienced ones

Truth: PD has been shown to support teacher development at all levels of experience.

While England certainly has some examples of PD designed specifically for more experienced teachers, such as Ambition’s Masters in Expert Teaching, there’s probably more we can be doing to support, develop (and celebrate) this essential segment of the workforce.

Myth 3: PD programmes must be job-embedded and time-intensive to be effective

Truth: programmes of varying lengths and formats can produce wide-ranging effects depending on how time is used.

The tl;dr here is that quality beats quantity. The recent systematic review of PD by the EEF is a great example of how informed UK thinking is becoming on the quality side of things. Granted, PD is complex, and it will be decades before we have the level of nuance we want, but it’s hugely valuable to see progress happening in this area.

Myth 4: improving teachers’ content knowledge is key to improving their instructional practice

Truth: PD programmes that aim directly at instructional practices are more likely to shift student learning than those with a focus on content knowledge.

One of the things that the EEF review solidified for us is that effective PD needs to do both, and more. It requires know-how about effective teaching, examples of what this looks like in practice, opportunities for rehearsal with feedback, and support for habit building. This is no easy task, but nonetheless, PD programmes in England are increasingly weaving these ‘active ingredients’ into their offer.

Myth 5: research-based PD programmes are unlikely to work at scale or in new contexts

Truth: Programmes can have positive effects across a wide range of schools, but strong implementation can help sustain effects at scale.

We’re seeing this right now with the ECF and new NPQ suite. Scaling such programmes is possible, but it requires heavy attention to implementation. Implementation is notoriously difficult, but not all programmes fail to scale. There’s a lot we can learn from these when it comes to ensuring positive effects of PD at scale.

Myth 6: districts should implement research-based PD programmes with no modifications

Truth: practice fidelity first, and adaptation with guard-rails second.

The evidence around active ingredients of effective PD are helping to steer us in the right direction when it comes to how PD can be most effectively tailored to individuals and school settings without losing what is core to impact. A means of better capturing and sharing these insights would be of real value to the system.

If these myths are less prevalent in the UK than in the US, it is partly because reform in England is steering welcome attention and investment towards PD. It’s also thanks to the many generous individuals and organisations working hard to understand and optimise their PD offer for teachers and school leaders.

And that’s an encouraging sign for our burgeoning evidence-informed profession.

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