Our research shows the consensus view of how best to conduct effective professional development in education is flawed, write Sam Sims and Harry Fletcher-Wood

Effective and sustained professional development is collaborative, subject-specific and practice-based, and should be supported by external expertise and teachers’ buy-in. So goes the consensus view of the research community. But in a recently published article in School Effectiveness and School Improvement, we question the evidence underpinning this consensus.

We began our investigation when we came across examples of professional development that included all these features, but didn’t seem to improve student learning. We wondered why, and dug into the evidence underpinning the claims.

We worked our way back to an early, influential review, but found it was based on just a handful of professional development trials. Some trials looked at the experience of fewer than 20 teachers; others employed weak research designs, examining the effect of professional development on one group of teachers without showing the similarities with the group they were compared with. We felt these trials would not now be accepted as robust evidence.

Additionally, reviewers had looked for the features these trials had in common. This is problematic, because a professional development programme might include a feature that doesn’t contribute to its success. I might ask teachers to collaborate, for example, but if my programme works, that doesn’t mean it was because they collaborated.

These features are not essential to the success of a professional development programme

We concluded that there is not yet enough evidence to expect school leaders and teacher educators to provide professional development that is collaborative, subject-specific, and so on. We simply lack evidence. For some features: collaboration may contribute to professional development; or it may just be common in successful and unsuccessful programmes. For other features, we are more suspicious – some effective professional development programmes are not subject-specific, for example.

To be clear, we’re not saying that collaboration or subject-specific professional development are necessarily bad, we’re saying that they are not essential to the success of a professional development programme.

So what should we do next? We suggest that we can be confident that something is an active ingredient – that it contributes to the success of a professional development programme – if we see two things:

  • Programmes that include the active ingredient tend to work, while programmes that don’t include it tend not to work
  • We have an explanation for why the active ingredient works, which shows that it works in many different domains.

Here, we want to illustrate that kind of reasoning and some of the active ingredients it suggests. We’re not claiming certainty, we’re illustrating the kind of thinking we suggest school leaders, teacher educators and researchers pursue to design and learn more about professional development.

First, what programmes work? The type of professional development for which there is the best evidence is instructional coaching. A recent meta-analysis found consistent evidence of improvements in teaching and student learning as a result.

Second, what active ingredients explain this? Usually, in instructional coaching, an experienced teacher visits classrooms regularly, but briefly. They identify a specific way to improve, discuss it with the teacher, practise together, and visit the next week to see if it’s worked.

There are several possible active ingredients encouraging the teacher to act:

  • Focusing on specific changes – attention and working memory capacity are limited, so it’s easier for people to improve one thing at a time
  • Setting goals – people are more likely to act if they have a clear aim
  • Implementation intentions – planning when and how to act makes action more likely
  • Deliberate practice – necessary for mastering a new skill
  • Feedback – helps people adjust their efforts.

We can be confident that an active ingredient contributes to professional development if we see it in many successful professional development programmes and we know how the active ingredient tends to influence people, in schools and beyond. We believe that identifying active ingredients in professional development could powerfully improve our ability to make it work for teachers and students.