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How does collaborative Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for teachers of the 5-16 age range affect teaching and learning? Teacher perspective

Written by Barbara Rundell, a recently retired teacher who was a member of the review team for the last third of the review, in partnership with Kathy Seddon, a practising teacher (who is also a member of the National Teacher Research Panel).

What does this review have to offer teachers?

Professional development is now part and parcel of a teacher's career. This review sought to find out to what specific features of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) helped improve standards for both teachers and pupils. The decision to conduct a research review on the impact of CPD which involved collaboration between teachers was largely influenced by the National Union of Teachers' collaborative Teacher2Teacher programme. The question which the review focused on was: 'How does collaborative Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for teachers of the 5-16 age range affect teaching and learning?'

We are presented with detailed evidence that sustained and collaborative CPD was linked with a positive impact on teachers' classroom practice. The findings indicated that teachers had developed both their subject knowledge and understanding of the processes of teaching and learning. There was an increased emphasis on addressing pupils' specific learning needs in many instances. Both teachers and their pupils reported increased confidence and motivation, and many teachers felt committed to continuing this process of learning and development.

How good is the evidence?

Systematic reviews are a means of providing the reader with instant access to extensive findings of good-quality research which addresses questions that matter. As the name implies, they work like other academic research in focusing on clearly defined questions and checking evidence very carefully. By examining the studies with 'a fine tooth comb', and offering clarity in reporting the various stages of the research, this means that others can replicate and test processes and outcomes. In this review many studies (13,749 to start with) were scanned initially for relevance and quality of reporting. A series of filters then provided a means of ensuring that these potential studies addressed explicit criteria relating to the review question.

The 17 studies selected for in-depth reviewing were closely examined by a team of nine reviewers which included several ex-teachers. This process was called data extraction and required reviewers to extract information from the study report in response to over 100 standardised questions designed by the EPPI-Centre for this purpose. Reviewers were also asked to reflect, in a very structured way, on how trustworthy the findings of each study were. Throughout this process, reviewers worked in 'blind' pairs, comparing answers and reconciling any differences of opinion, all steps to ensure that the evidence used was reliable once analysis was finished. The report is based on the findings of the 15 studies that provided sound evidence in answer tp the review question.

The review reported on studies from across the world. Over half were conducted in the USA. Somewhat surprisingly, only two originated in the UK. The most common curriculum areas for the focus of the CPD were maths and/or science, but literacy and ICT featured too. The CPD programmes took a variety of forms, including opportunities for: coaching, observation and feedback, and action research, where teachers undertook small-scale research studies in their classrooms. Professional conversations and focused workshops also featured in many of the studies.

What is the story about CPD?

In all but one of these 15 studies, the collaborative teacher development programmes were linked to improvements in both teaching and learning. However, there were drawbacks as well as gains. Things often got worse before they got better. The report describes teachers feeling vulnerable as they opened their classrooms to outsiders, losing their usual confidence and risking initial failure as they trialled new methods. The lack of time available became a frequent issue. However by working collaboratively with each other and with outside consultants, teachers developed a team spirit and sense of motivation that overcame these problems.

How did the collaborative CPD affect teachers?

The report provides evidence from observation, interviews and questionnaires showing that collaborative CPD was linked to enhanced confidence, including overcoming initial anxiety. The findings suggest that the process of collaboration provided a safe-to-fail environment and means of support in this respect.

Motivation

Greater enthusiasm for collaborative working and professional learning feature strongly and about half of the studies reported that teachers became more willing to take risks in trying things they had previously thought to be difficult. In the words of one teacher, 'I'm less apprehensive about trying new things and I'm more willing to explore'. The findings suggest that teachers became more motivated to explore new teaching styles and risked shelving old schemes and practices because of the safety net provided by the collaborative CPD team.

Making a difference

It was also reported that following collaborative CPD, teachers shared a stronger belief in their own or the profession's ability to make a difference (self-efficacy).The process of data collection provided proof of teachers' developing skills in new methods and approaches, together with associated benefits for pupils.

Changing attitudes

Reported changes to teachers' practice either related to lesson content or teaching skills. Changes to the content of lessons were mostly linked to the aims of individual studies and included, for example, greater use of computers for teaching and problem solving, helping students to be aware of critical features of a lesson or rethinking the process of assessment. In other cases, teachers collaborated to change schemes of work . This cooperative support in developing new programmes featured strongly in many of the CPD processes.

Interactions for student learning

As teachers became aware of the benefits of providing opportunities for more active student learning, this was reflected in their classroom practice, resulting in more dynamic teaching exchanges between students and teachers. Some studies reported that teachers used pupils' problems as a focus for learning, and encouraged pupils to explain their thinking. Other studies reported increasing use of suggestions, prompts and open questions to enable students to contribute more of their own knowledge. Teaching tended to become 'learning rather than task orientated'.

Theory and practice

It is interesting to note here that all of the studies examined provided some sort of review of research that had been already conducted in that field and this was frequently explored as part of the CPD process. For example, teachers, encouraged by 'outside experts', often used such research findings as the basis for professional conversations. Thus it could be argued that changes to teaching practice were linked with a theoretical understanding of the knowledge base, adapted for and tested in the particular contexts in which teachers were working. In fact, in one reported case where the CPD did not lead to the expected improvements, teachers were so convinced about the core ideas behind the programme that they committed themselves to an additional more highly focused year of action.

Tracking student impact

The difficulties of tracking the intervention through to teaching, and then pupils, were evident in the studies. Classroom teachers know only too well that teaching is a complex process, with many variables affecting student outcomes. Simple claims about cause and effect and safe knowledge are recognised as dangerous in this review. The review team worked hard to trace links between the CPD and teacher and pupil outcomes.

Seven studies used tests or questionnaires to report measurable increases in student achievement before and after the CPD programme. Many other positive outcomes for students were noted, including better organisation of work, improved reading ability or development of technology skills.

Student motivation

All but two studies reported observable improvements in attitudes to learning for pupils. A higher level of commitment to change and spirit of collegiality among teachers is matched by observable improvements for pupils in terms of attitudes to learning, active participation in lessons and enhanced motivation and enthusiasm. Individual studies reported that pupils appreciated 'being given a voice'.

What, then were the specific features of the collaborative CPD identified in the review that might be linked to these benefits?

External expertise

The use of an outside consultant was a feature in all of the studies. They provided access to relevant existing research, helped teachers to refine their learning or enquiry goals and make them manageable and, in the process, to collect and analyse evidence about their own and students' progress. They often provided a focus for debate, encouraging teachers to reflect on their own practice and consider viable alternative approaches, based on the research findings of others, that could be modified to suit their pupils. In many instances, CPD providers emphasised the need for sensitivity to ensure that partnerships between teachers and 'experts' were based on mutual respect and that professional learning was a shared process involving 'separate but complementary bodies of knowledge'.

Observation

Observation and feedback featured in nine of the studies, though the extent of these interventions varied. In some studies, this process was highly structured, where audio and video tapes from lessons enabled teachers and researchers to explore specific factors such as whole class teaching versus group teaching, or the use of students' existing knowledge. In one case this was quite 'low key', involving teachers visiting each others' classrooms and sharing their findings informally. One study comparing collaboration with and without observation found few gains where observation was omitted.

Peer support

Peer support was also seen as beneficial in many of the studies. Teachers were able to support each other through coaching; by means of joint lesson planning and preparation of materials; or through team building. In this way, cross fertilisation of ideas and shared activities helped to reduce the load on individuals while simultaneously enhancing the productivity of the group. Working collaboratively also helped to keep the projects moving when enthusiasm might have waned, supported by the presence of individuals who could drive ideas forward.

Teacher ownership

Teacher ownership of CPD was another significant feature. Seven studies reported that teachers had been given the opportunity to choose the focus of their research. Thus, projects often resulted from the genuine interest of teachers to explore a 'burning issue' or develop specific expertise. Sometimes teachers and consultants examined existing research outcomes together and then planned their own supplementary investigation, adapted to their own situation. In other cases, researchers offered teachers a menu of options from which they chose strategies to pilot with their classes. Sensitivity to teachers' needs also ensured, in some cases, that teachers had control over CPD sessions they attended, and when they introduced new methods.

Building on teachers' existing knowledge

There was evidence in many studies of the need to identify teachers' starting points. The process of observation enabled colleagues or consultants to understand 'where teachers were coming from' and to ensure that teacher learning was targeted at the needs and interests of individuals. In other cases, action research programmes enabled teachers to start at a level of enquiry they felt comfortable with and set the pace. One study found that beginner teachers needed more support and possibly a different type of CPD, as they were still learning the basic craft of teaching as well as researching new strategies. Although six studies provided some initial information on teachers' knowledge or perceptions, it was not clear whether the results were used to inform the programme design. Such 'baseline' information could be useful in ensuring that the design of the CPD was appropriately differentiated.

Implications

The review team highlighted several issues that teachers may wish to consider, such as:

  • whether working collaboratively, to investigate current practice and possible alternatives, could help them to work 'smarter not harder'.
  • whether the processes of coaching and action research enable teachers to work at their own level, responding to both individual questions and concerns and school priorities.
  • how best to access external expertise and forge useful partnerships. What sort of CPD arrangements might ensure that teachers are able to support each other and benefit from external expertise without feeling swamped by external agendas?
  • how to develop peer support within the process of CPD to enable cross-fertilisation of ideas. How to develop CPD that structures the planning and production of new materials for professional learning by promoting informed but open discussions, reflection on existing practice and reflective evaluation of possible new strategies.
  • whether classroom observation and coaching can be structured so that it overcomes initial embarrassment about observation and subsequent analysis of classroom practice. How can such observation and feedback be protected from the potentially damaging threat of appraisal and accountability?
  • whether developing a group of teachers as peer coaches, within a school, would enable teachers to take charge of embedding what they have learnt from 'experts' into school life in an ongoing basis.
  
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