Designing professional development for teachers – 1. Challenging the consensus

Harry Fletcher-Wood, Associate Dean at the Institute for Teaching

It seems there’s a consensus when it comes to what effective professional development looks like.  Reviewers, like Laura Desimone and Linda Darling-Hammond, argue in favour of this consensus when considering what should be included in the design of professional development for teaching, on the grounds that it’s backed by strong evidence. It includes priorities like focusing on student outcomes, offering sustained development and prioritising collaboration.  However, there’s a problem: the theory isn’t watertight, and the practical guidance it offers isn’t always effective.

Why the consensus isn’t always effective?

Most professional development programmes include the whole consensus recipe: they are collaborative, sustained, subject-specific, and so on.  But which of these aspects really makes a difference?

The consensus is particularly problematic for a teacher educator.  It’s rarely sufficiently specific to be useful: if ‘collaboration’ means any time teachers are working together, what kind of collaboration works best?  

If – for example – sustained, individualised coaching is the most effective choice, but we can’t afford it, should we try short coaching, coach fewer people, or give coaching in bigger groups?  What would happen if we moved our coaching online?  The consensus view can’t answer the questions that matter most to teacher educators.

Lots of studies seem to work when the designers implement them in a few choice schools, but the effects diminish or disappear when the programme tries to grow.

What happens when it’s applied in schools?

When researchers apply the consensus in schools, the results are unpredictable.  Many trials have struggled to show professional development works and have suffered implementation difficulties.  One year-long maths professional development programme offered summer training, collaborative groups and video coaching: teachers’ behaviour changed, but student achievement didn’t.

Another trial lasted three years. This focused on problem solving and the examination of student work: teachers liked it and reported learning more maths content themselves, but their teaching didn’t change and nor did their students’ results.

The opposite appears to be true too. Other programmes which haven’t included all of the consensus ingredients have proved successful.  Individual coaching has had an effect on teachers in a matter of weeks, and interaction coaching has proved extremely powerful despite including no subject-knowledge element.

If programmes which follow the consensus view of good professional development sometimes don’t work, and programmes which don’t follow the consensus view sometimes do, surely we have to question whether the consensus really offers teacher educators the guidance they need?

We are enthusiastic about professional development, but we have to recognise that it tends not to have the impact we want.  Has following the consensus view created guidelines of doubtful usefulness, and led us to focus on the design features, rather than our goals?  Do we have the guidance we need to be equipped to offer effective professional development?  

If you’re interested in reading about this subject in a bit more detail have a look at the first section of my paper, Designing Professional Development for Teachers, What Is the Consensus View? 

In our next blog….

We suggest some alternative ways of thinking about professional development design.

Find out about how we're putting our research on professional development into action on our Fellowship in Teacher Education, run by Harry.

How Big Change funding is helping five different organisations to improve teacher wellbeing

Rosie Clayton, Big Change

Here at Big Change we think teaching should be seen as the best and most fulfilling job in the world – after all, nothing’s more important than nurturing the talents and capabilities of our next generation. Yet barely a week goes by without the issues surrounding teacher wellbeing, recruitment and retention making the news; and whilst demand rises, talented individuals continue to leave the profession in droves.

So, what can be done?

Many complex and interwoven factors impact on teacher wellbeing, motivation and retention: from the way change is implemented, to the environment, workload and culture in schools. We’re working with five different organisations at the forefront of shaping new ideas, including The Institute for Teaching (IfT). Together we’re finding solutions and strategies that will improve things for teachers across the sector. Here’s a snapshot of what we’re doing:

1) The Institute for Teaching – By drawing on psychological expertise from different fields and teaming it with the psychology around habit building the IfT are creating a programme for teachers that will support their wellbeing. Learning taken from this research will be turned into a practical and evidence-informed 'toolbox' for teachers as well as being used in the design of other IfT programmes, and to inform research papers and articles which the IfT hopes to share.

2) How to Thrive are specialists in practical resilience training, and run courses for teachers and parents in developing the skills and resources needed to build resilience, both in themselves and in children and young people. Their work is focused around developing six competencies that underpin the skills of resilience: Emotional Intelligence, Impulse Control, Flexible and Accurate Thinking, Self-Efficacy, Optimistic Thinking, Connecting and Reaching Out.

3) Whole Education have identified HR as a particularly acute area for improvement in schools, which often have to set up ‘back office’ functions from scratch. In response, they have developed a training and development programme for MATs, working in partnership with leading HR experts and the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development. This will include face to face support from expert strategists, mentoring from peers, and pairing with an HR expert to develop bespoke strategies linked to specific organisational goals. The programme will officially launch in March 2018.

4) Achievement for All have designed a research programme investigating the practical and positive changes that schools and other settings can make to improve teacher wellbeing. Initial research has identified eight key themes which will form the basis for ten school led action research projects: reducing workloads; increasing work-life balance; managing lead-times for change; better planning for career development; managing retention and succession; better sharing of good professional practice; developing inclusive school cultures; and developing schools as ‘healthy workplaces’. Each project will produce a set of findings which will be translated into real-life tools and materials to be shared with other schools and organisations.

5) The Difference – School exclusion rates in England have risen by 40% over the last 3 years, and those excluded are four times more likely to be born in poverty and nine times more likely to experience mental health challenges or have special educational needs. Once excluded, children in alternative provision settings often receive the poorest education - only 1% leave school with five good GCSEs including in English and Maths, and 80% end up NEET.

This is an urgent challenge, and The Difference has been set up to create a new professional development and leadership route through teaching to train exceptional teachers as mental health specialists, and place them in the schools which need them most. These leaders will then take their expertise back into the mainstream school system to support both students and staff to prevent school exclusions, and improve inclusive practices in a virtuous circle.

The Future

We’re really pleased to be working with such an innovative and diverse group of organisations. Collectively we are investigating the root causes of teacher burnout and attrition, as well as low morale at system, school and individual levels, and coming up with much needed solutions. By working collaboratively, we hope to develop new and better ideas and strategies which can be adopted and adapted by others across the sector – raising the profile and importance of teacher wellbeing.


Catch up with last week's 3 min wellbeing blog on the potential risks of being passionate about your work – from Jacynth Bennett, Associate Dean at the Institute for Teaching

The other side of passion – why you might be at risk of becoming disengaged from your work...

Jacynth Bennett, Associate Dean at the Institute for Teaching

Through our work we are trying to understand the complexities of teacher wellbeing. We know teachers choose to teach for a reason. They’re driven by a desire to improve the life chances of young people. Most feel their job is a big part of their identity and something that’s incredibly important to them as a person. In the field of occupational psychology, this would be considered a passion and should surely be viewed as a good thing, right?

Not always. Passion for work can manifest itself in two very different ways, both of which are captured in the work of Vallerand, a psychologist who developed a theory called the Dualistic Model of Passion.

This model is used when investigating the causes of work engagement and likewise its opposite, burnout, and might be helpful for teachers who work in a purpose driven but hugely challenging profession.

Passion takes two forms: harmonious or obsessive.

What do we know about harmonious passion?

It’s a good thing. Research shows those who experience harmonious passion display high levels of work engagement and are protected against burnout. They enjoy challenges and whilst they can feel tired by them, crucially, they are able to ‘switch off’. They feel in control of their work, rather than controlled by it and are therefore able to enjoy external activities without it interfering with that all-important recovery time. A teacher experiencing harmonious passion would, for example, be able to say no to supervising a lunchtime activity or put aside an extra load of marking in order to ‘switch off’ for the day.

What about obsessive passion?

Those experiencing obsessive passion still feel a sense of purpose and would be likely to express a love for their work, however, they struggle to ‘switch off’. They find engaging with activities outside difficult, and would find fully immersing themselves hard, instead being distracted by thoughts or ‘rumination’ about work. A teacher might for example, find themselves saying yes to additional work as a result of a sense of duty or obligation. Psychologists have found this obsessive passion to be a predictor of burnout.

What can we do about it?

Psychologists have few practical suggestions of how to combat obsessive passion, but the simple act of identifying and understanding the theory and reflecting on it can have significant impact. It’s a concrete way for a teacher to reflect on their role, their love of it, and the boundaries they might want to develop in order to be the best teacher they can possibly be for their students in the long term.

Through our wellbeing programme, we hope to better understand the complexities of wellbeing and begin to develop a tool kit that will support teachers addressing any barriers that stand between them and a sense of harmonious passion for their work.

We’re working with Big Change to make sure that our programmes address not just technical teaching skills, but psychological elements of teaching as well for all round personal and professional development.


To find out more about the research behind this blog have a look at Robert Vallerand’s 2007 article, On the Psychology of Passion: In Search of What Makes People’s Lives Most Worth Living.

Wellbeing – what do we actually mean by it?

Wellbeing is a topic firmly at the top of the 2018 national agenda, and remains a buzz word for teachers too against a backdrop of poor retention and low recruitment levels. Whilst the word itself may get used a lot, it’s actually quite tricky to define. This year, as the Institute for Teaching teams up with Big Change to embark on a new project to develop approaches to wellbeing, it’s important we come to an understanding about what we actually mean by it.

Attempts at definitions range from dictionary references to feeling happy and contented, to principles from psychological research. In fact, it’s something psychologists and philosophers have been attempting to pin down since the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle presented the idea of Eudaimonia back in the 3rd century B.C. So, it’s helpful to look to the field of psychology for more concrete definitions.

While many psychologists discuss and research wellbeing widely, an actual definition is still hotly debated. Dodge et al. (2012) weigh up the varying thinking and research in this field and suggest a definition that they argue offers psychologists and laymen alike a simple, optimistic definition that can be universally applied, and offer a basis for measurement. They propose that wellbeing is ‘the balance point between an individual’s resource pool and the challenges faced’:


Ultimately, when you are equipped with the right psychological, social and physical resources to tackle any psychological, social and physical challenge you may face, you’re able to achieve a balance or equilibrium which equates to the experience of wellbeing.

This definition feels helpful, providing us with a concrete basis from which we can begin to think about what the psychological, social and physical challenges a teacher, for example, might face. In turn, it allows us to explore what psychological, social and physical strategies, approaches and processes we might employ to allow us to reach that state of equilibrium. If we take this as a definition for wellbeing, we are then able to start to pin down the things we can do to tackle the challenges being faced by teachers. It is this understanding that will provide the framework for the Institute for Teaching’s work on teacher wellbeing.


Towards a Useful Definition of Teacher Expertise


Teaching quality is important. It is arguably the single greatest lever at our disposal for improving experiences and outcomes for pupils. If we want to increase the levels of quality across the system, we’ve got to have a clear picture of what teaching expertise looks like and how we might develop it.

There are several ways we might think about this problem. Firstly, we could look at expertise from an impact perspective. How pupils change as a result of having an expert teacher. We could argue that expert teachers are those who have a transformational impact on the lives of their pupils.

This definition is compelling, particularly because it focuses squarely on the thing we want to improve. However, the relationship between teaching and learning is noisy and ethereal. Teasing out which aspects of teaching influence learning is a tricky business, and insights into impact offer limited guidance for how we might help teachers get better.

An alternative is to think about what expert teachers actually do that leads to this impact. Expert teachers appear to do several things differently to their more novice colleagues (Berliner, 2004), but one of the most interesting is how they ‘see’ their classroom. Expert teachers are highly attuned to the subtle cues of learning, and so are able to infer accurately whether pupils are making progress or not (Wolff et al., 2017). They are able to devote significant mental resources to this ‘watching’ process because much of their practice is habitual.

Defining expertise by what teachers do makes our picture of expert teaching more tangible, but it still doesn’t tell us much about how to help teachers get there.

For a definition of expertise that has the power to guide teacher development, we need to look at how expert teachers think. More specifically, we need to examine their mental models: what teachers know, and how this knowledge is organised to guide decision and action in the classroom.

Expert teachers appear to have vast, complex and refined mental models for the domains of their practice. They don’t know everything, but few others will know as much as them about their subjects, what their pupils know about their subjects, or how to help their pupils learn their subjects (Schempp et al., 2002).

In short, teacher mental models determine what teachers do, and what teachers do drives the impact they have. If we want to help teachers get better, we must strive to develop a greater understanding of all three of these components, and how they relate to each other. Without this, our vision of expertise will be incomplete and our power to develop it will remain limited.

Berliner, D. (2004) Describing the behavior and documenting the accomplishments of expert teachers. Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, 24(3), 200–212.

Schempp, P., Tan, S. & McCullick, B. (2002) The practices of expert teachers. Teaching and Learning, 23(1), 99–106.

Wolff, C., Jarodzka, H. & Boshuizen, H. (2017) See and tell: Differences between expert and novice teachers’ interpretations of problematic classroom management events. Teaching and Teacher Education, 66, 295–308.

Teacher Learning - It's Just Learning

Scene 1

My colleague, Camilla, had taught trainees the four criteria for clear ‘What to do’ instructions and had asked them to practise during her session.   I wanted to build on this the next day, so I began by asking trainees  to recall the four criteria without looking back at their notes.  Thirty trainees were able to recall only two of the four criteria between them.  I could pin this on Camilla, but I watched her lesson and it seemed to work.  Yet twenty-four hours later, they’d forgotten everything…

Scene 2

I’m checking feedback after a session with a group of Newly-Qualified Teachers.  One complains that ‘At no point was a hinge question explained’.  My first reaction is to discount this: the whole session was about hinge questions and I paused repeatedly to ask if anything was unclear.  Why wouldn’t an adult, a colleague, ask?

Teacher learning…

Reflecting on what I’d learned this summer, I realised I had made two discoveries, with powerful implications for teacher learning:

  • People forget things
  • Some people won’t tell you if they’re confused

It’s hard to spend a week teaching students without discovering this.  So why do we forget this when we work with adults?  I’ve often been told that adult learning is different from student learning, but when I’ve asked why, the only substantive answer I’ve heard is that adults enter the room with a range of prior knowledge and experience.  This sounds awfully like students, who “can learn quite different things from the same classroom activities because they begin the activity with distinctly different background knowledge and experience the activity differently (Nutthall, 2007, p.55).”  Knowles (1984) adds four more ‘assumptions’ about adult learning: motivation, orientation to learn, increasing self-direction and a desire practical learning.  These criteria fit many students I’ve taught; they also fit many, but not all, adults.

I’ve been wondering for a long time why teacher training doesn’t stick, and have come up with some tentative answers.  Here’s another one: perhaps we need to treat adult learners more like student learners.  I’m primarily thinking about learning design, but I think the same principle applies in facilitating learning too: treat adults like you treat students.  This does not mean patronising adults, it means treating students with the same respect adults deserve.

Designing teacher learning

These two flashes of ‘insight’ led me to adapt the training I offered this summer for Teach for Sweden’s new teachers, by:

  1. Spacing practice – Instead of doing one ninety-minute session on classroom management, another on assessment, another on planning, I mixed things up.  I split sessions to spend forty-five minutes on assessment and then forty-five minutes on classroom management one day, the same mix the next.  Doing so meant that key ideas were repeated across sessions.  And given that people tend to dislike varied practice, even if it’s more effective (Brown, Roediger and McDaniel, 2014, p.54), I kept explaining why and how I thought they’d hate it (to my surprise, I didn’t get a single complaint in the feedback).  By the end of the sessions every key idea had come up in more than one session, sometimes in several.
  2. Retrieval practice  – Having realised quite how much trainees were forgetting, I introduced retrieval practice at the start of each session.  This gave everyone the chance to recall what we’d covered previously.  Here’s an example:
  3. Check for understanding – I’m convinced that teachers must use tools such as hinge questions to gauge how the thinking of the whole class rapidly.  If teacher learning is just learning, the same principle applies.  Leading a workshop of teacher-educators, I tried a hinge question for adults for the first time:
    The responses clearly showed I had failed to convey the argument I was making: a failure for my training, but a vindication of the use of hinge questions.
  4. Metacognition – If metacognition benefits students, it should also benefit teachers.  Increasingly, I go out of my way to explain what we’re doing and why (more about how I’m doing this here).  Partly, this helps to carry the group with me: it creates and maintains motivation.  The second benefit of explaining the reasons for my session design choices is that, it’s another way to share principles of learning with teachers.  In my final session with Teach for Sweden this year, I discussed the ‘six strategies’ derived from cognitive science (Pashler et al., 2007).  I asked trainees how we had used each one in our training and they were able to name examples of each, the best response being, ‘Repetition, you have definitely said that twenty times.”

One current focus in my approach to teacher learning is following the same principles that seem to work for student learning.  This includes:

The thing that frustrates me: is that this was so obvious (although I shouldn’t be surprised: knowledge transfers from one problem to another with the utmost reluctance, if at all).

The thing that excites me: is that, as experienced teachers, teacher educators already have effective approaches to learning they can transfer to teacher learning.

Teacher learning is just learning: plan accordingly.

Brown, P., Roediger, H. and McDaniel, M. (2014). Make it stick. 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Knowles, M. (1984). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (3rd Ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.

Pashler, H., Bain, P., Bottge, B., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., and Metcalfe, J. (2007) Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning (NCER 2007-2004). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Nuthall, G. (2007). The hidden lives of learners. 1st ed. Wellington, N.Z.: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

What do Expert Teachers Need to Know?

Experts are people with vast, complex and refined ‘mental models’ of their domains of practice. Mental models refer to what someone knows and how that knowledge is organised to guide decision and action in a specialist context. If we wish to systematically develop expertise in teaching we need to have a clear understanding of the mental models that expert teachers possess and how they are developed.

How might we go about gaining such insight? One way is to look sideways to other sectors who have made progress on this problem. One such field is medicine. There are clearly important differences between teaching and being a doctor, but there are also sufficient similarities to make it worth exploring what medical expertise looks like and how it is developed.

In very general terms, doctors develop expertise by learning a body of knowledge (human biology, anatomy etc.) and then re-organising that knowledge around the day-to-day practice of being a doctor (Schmidt & Rikers, 2007). This process is called knowledge encapsulation, and over time, consistently produces professionals who can take a highly complex and subtle set of cues about a patient, and make an accurate diagnosis about how to help them get better.

The process of knowledge encapsulation requires significant investments of study and deliberate practice, and in reality is much messier than the crude model outlined above (Kalyuga et al., 2012). However, it appears to be a relatively reliable approach for enabling expertise in a highly complex practice at scale. The practice of teaching is at least as complex as medicine, but our understanding of and systems for developing expertise are less developed by comparison.

Developing teacher expertise is important. It’s our strongest lever for improving the experiences and life chances of the pupils in our care. If we are to increase the prevalence of expertise across our profession we need to get serious about understanding the mental models that expert teachers need, and how they can be developed (Deans for Impact, 2017). As part of this, we need to think hard about what teachers need to know and in what order, alongside the pattern of experiences that will help them encapsulate that knowledge around their practice.

Deans for Impact (2017) Practice with purpose: the emerging science of teacher expertise.

Kalyuga, S., Rikers, R. & Paas, F. (2012) Educational implications of expertise reversal effects in learning and performance of complex cognitive and sensorimotor skills. Educational Psychology Review, 24, 313–337.

Schmidt, H. & Rikers, R. (2007) How expertise develops in medicine: Knowledge encapsulation and illness script formation. Medical Education, 41(12), 1133–1139.