1. The consensus view

1.1 What is the consensus view?

A consensus view exists about what makes professional development effective

Recent reviews have suggested a consensus around the features of effective professional development. Laura Desimone (2009) describes a “research consensus”; Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues argue that “Positive findings have stimulated a general consensus about typical components of high-quality professional learning for teachers (Darling-Hammond, Hyler and Gardner, 2017)”, and Cordingley et al., (2015) suggested that the “most rigorous” claims of the consensus are sufficiently well evidenced to merit “four padlocks” on the EEF Toolkit: which is to say, they are highly secure. The features proposed are similar in each case, and can be exemplified by the conclusions of Timperley (2008) who suggested that professional development should:

  1. Focus on important student outcomes
  2. Develop teacher knowledge and skill which leads to improved student outcomes
  3. Integrate knowledge and skill in practice
  4. Be guided by the assessment of student learning, leading to teacher self-regulation
  5. Offer multiple opportunities for change, in an environment of support and trust
  6. Engage with and challenge teachers’ existing theories.
  7. Provide for collegial interaction to support learning
  8. Draw on external expertise
  9. Benefit from leadership support
  10. Benefit from long-term support

1.2 Theoretical problems with the consensus

This consensus is not always helpful in designing professional development.

The research consensus is not necessarily helpful to those designing professional development however. The consensus is rarely specific enough to be useful (Wayne et al., 2008): for example, successful programmes include collaboration, according to Darling Hammond, Hyler and Gardner (2017), yet their definition of collaboration ranges “from one-on-one or small-group interactions to schoolwide collaboration to exchanges with other professionals beyond the school.”  A list of best practices may not help make design choices: best practice of sustained coaching implies either significant cost or limited beneficiaries (Wayne et al., 2008): knowing it is best practice may not help leaders make decisions about professional development therefore. Studying professional development programmes provides evidence on the effectiveness of a package of measures (programmes which are sustained, subject-specific, knowledge-focused and so on); this offers no answers to specific questions, such as whether training is more effective online or in-person (Hill, Beisiegel and Jacob, 2013). This is acknowledged in one recent review, which accepted that “Because studies of PD typically examine comprehensive models that incorporate many elements, this paper does not seek to draw conclusions about the efficacy of individual program components (Darling-Hammond, Hyler and Gardner, 2017).”  The research consensus is not sufficient to answer many questions teacher educators have.

Moreover, guidance from carefully-designed research may apply poorly in practice. Most studies which show an impact on teaching are delivered to small groups of teachers by the designers of the programme. These efficacy trials are designed to give the programme a good chance of working; when applied at larger scale, without the support of programme designers, the effects may not hold (Wayne, et al., 2008). Most professional development is short and local: big randomised-controlled trials take too long to provide answers. Careful, small-scale testing of specific design features might be a more helpful way to begin studying a programme, (for example, what difference individual coaching makes to a programme), with a move to more formal trials once there is a clear sense which aspects of the programme work: this would be quicker, cheaper and provide more robust answers (Hill, Beisiegel and Jacob, 2013). Ultimately, a focus on programme design features has proved unhelpful (Kennedy, 2016): design features are important, but focusing on them in isolation from the context and desired goals is unhelpful.

1.3 Practical problems with the consensus

Moreover, the consensus does not lead to successful professional development.

Randomised-controlled trials testing consensus approaches to professional development have struggled to show they are effective, and have suffered significant implementation difficulties (Hill, Beisiegel and Jacob, 2013):

  • One maths teaching professional development programme lasted a year, employing a summer course, collaborative discussion and video coaching; it led to significantly improved mathematical knowledge and changed teachers’ behaviour, but no significant change to student achievement (Garet et al., 2016).
  • A two-year professional development programme offering summer training, coaching and follow-up seminars influenced subject knowledge for teaching and improved teachers’ elicitation of student thinking in one year but did not lead to significant change in student learning (Garet et al., 2011).
  • A three-year study including problem solving and examination of student work and misconceptions showed positive reactions from teachers, increases in maths content knowledge, no changes in instruction or in student achievement (Jacob, Hill and Corey, 2017).

Conversely, other programmes have proved successful without including all of the ingredients suggested by the consensus around effective professional development. One study found an impressive impact of coaching, even though the programme lasted only four to five weeks (Kraft, Blazar and Hogan, 2016). Numerous studies of interaction coaching have proved successful without any subject knowledge component (see e.g. Allen et al., 2011; Allen et al., 2015). This highlights the limited usefulness of the consensus guidelines; an issue recognised by one recent review which stated that the authors were:

“Unable to comment on the elements of PD models that did not yield positive results on student achievement. It is conceivable that these ineffective models share one or more elements with those highlighted in this study and yet fail to produce positive effects on student achievement, perhaps due to weaknesses in content, design, or implementation (Darling-Hammond, Hyler and Gardner, 2017).”

The authors are right to highlight the importance of effective implementation, but their comment also emphasises the limited value the consensus view has for teacher educators.

Many carefully-designed research studies have failed to demonstrate an impact on student learning; professional development in schools has often had similarly disappointing effects. Although a significant sum of money is being spent on professional development, it is having a very limited impact. Teachers judged ineffective in specific skills tend to remain ineffective in those skills; teacher growth cannot be linked to almost any observable characteristic, except self-assessment (TNTP, 2015). In England, most professional development observed in a 2011 audit was designed to inform or influence, but not to transform practice (CUREE, n.d.). It seems therefore, that we lack both research guidance and demonstrably-effective practical examples of successful professional development. The rest of this paper suggests more effective ways to design professional development, based on the existing evidence.

No recipe for effective professional development exists.

Want to read on? Have a look at the next section of Harry’s professional development paper on the importance of planning from need.


Allen, J., Pianta, R., Gregory, A., Mikami, A., Lun, J., (2011) An Interaction-Based Approach to Enhancing Secondary School Instruction and Student Achievement. Science. 333 (6045) 1034-1037

Allen, J., Hafen, C., Gregory, A., Mikami, A. and Pianta, R. (2015). Enhancing Secondary School Instruction and Student Achievement: Replication and Extension of the My Teaching Partner-Secondary Intervention. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 8(4), pp.475-489.

Cordingley, P., Higgins, S., Greany, T., Buckler, N., Coles-Jordan, D., Crisp, B., Saunders, L., Coe, R. (2015) Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Teacher Development Trust.

CUREE (n.d.). Evaluation of CPD providers in England 2010-2011 Report for School Leaders. http://www.teacherdevelopmenttrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/CPD-providers-report-school-leaders-final.pdf

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., Gardner, M. (2017). Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Desimone, L. (2009) Improving Impact Studies of Teachers’ Professional Development: Toward better Conceptualizations and Measures. Education Researcher 38(3) 181-199.

Garet, M., Wayne, A., Stancavage, F., Taylor, J., Eaton, M., Walters, K., Song, M., Brown, S., Hurlburt, S., Zhu, P., Sepanik, S., Doolittle, F., Warner, E., (2011) Middle School Mathematics Professional Development Impact Study: Findings After the Second Year of Implementation. Institute of Education Sciences.

Garet, M. S., Heppen, J. B., Walters, K., Parkinson, J., Smith, T. M., Song, M., Garrett, R., Yang, R., & Borman, G. D. (2016). Focusing on mathematical knowledge: The impact of content-intensive teacher professional development (NCEE 2016-4010). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Hill, H., Beisiegel, M., & Jacob, R. (2013). Professional development research: Consensus, crossroads, and challenges. Educational Researcher, 42(9), pp.476-487.

Jacob, R., Hill, H., Corey, D. (2017) The Impact of a Professional Development Program on Teachers’ Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, Instruction, and Student Achievement. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, DOI: 10.1080/19345747.2016.1273411.

Kennedy, M. (2016). How Does Professional Development Improve Teaching? Review of Educational Research, 86(4), pp.945-980.

Kraft, M.A., Blazar, D., Hogan, D. (2016). The effect of teaching coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta-analysis of the causal evidence. Brown University Working Paper.

Timperley, H. (2008). Teacher professional learning and development. Educational Practices (18). International Academy of Education.

TNTP (2015) The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development.

Wayne, A., Yoon, K., Zhu, P., Cronen, S. and Garet, M. (2008). Experimenting With Teacher Professional Development: Motives and Methods. Educational Researcher, 37(8), pp.469-479.


Harry leads our Fellows course. He is a former English and history teacher and has taught internationally. He has been head of careers, history and professional development in schools and has trained teachers for Teach First, Teach for Sweden and Teach First Denmark. He has recently published Ticked Off: Checklists for Students, Teachers and School Leaders.

Harry Fletcher-Wood

Associate Dean, Institute for Teaching