2. Plan from need

Rather than starting with how to do professional development, we should be clear what we hope to achieve and what teachers already know and do.

Before teacher educators select the features of their professional development programmes, it is helpful to be clear about the goals. Features, such as duration, are less important than what teacher educators do in the time available (Kennedy, 2016). It may be unsurprising, for example, that a professional development programme designed to promote collaboration between schools had no impact when what schools collaborated to achieve was left entirely to them (West et al., 2017). Just as teachers start from identifying what they hope students will learn, teacher educators should begin with what they hope teachers will learn or do differently, then select the approaches to achieve this. This entails:

1. A clear goal

Dylan Wiliam (2011) notes that teacher educators often begin with a commitment to a particular form of teacher development, such as coaching, rather than with a goal in mind. He notes the need to “focus on what we want teachers to change, or change about what they do, and… to understand how to support teachers in making these changes (p.188)”. Identifying what we hope teachers will learn “has to be the first step: content, then process (p.201).” Identifying clear goals relies on the existence of clear, shared goals for teachers: a sequence of knowledge and skills which they are to develop (see Deans for Impact, 2016; Ericsson and Pool, 2016).

Teacher educators need to begin by identifying a clear, worthwhile goal.

2. Clear needs

Even with a clear goal, there is still no simple recipe which will necessarily ensure it is achieved. For example, Harland and Kinder (1997) suggested nine areas through which teacher development might support change in teaching practice: resources, information, awareness, motivation, feelings, institutional support, value congruence and knowledge and skills. Change in teacher practice is more likely the more of these nine areas are met for a teacher or school, but many teachers will already have strengths in many of these areas. Professional development therefore needs to be tailored towards teachers’ and schools’ needs therefore: a teacher with resources, motivation, excitement and support may need a limited amount of training focused on skills in order to change, for example. More recent empirical work has drawn similar conclusions: one report on an ineffective programme reached strikingly similar conclusions, noting the need for leadership support, curricular and teaching materials, and meeting teachers’ existing needs (Jacob, Hill and Corey, 2017). Teacher educators therefore need to be able to identify both the knowledge and skill of teachers and the broader support needed in schools (see ‘What affects teacher development?’).

Teacher educators need to identify teachers’ existing strengths, and focus their work on the training and support still needed to support teacher change.

3. Align professional development to goals and needs

With clear goals and an assessment of what is needed to achieve them, training can be focused on meeting those needs. The most successful professional development systems align their support, training and systems around their goals (Jensen et al., 2016); the most effective teacher education programmes align their work around shared goals (Deans for Impact, 2017): schools need to achieve similar alignment around purpose (the value of considering all aspects of school culture and practice in designing for teacher change is discussed further in ‘What affects teacher practice?’).

Teacher educators need to ensure that schools’ training, resources and approach are aligned to achieving their goals.


Deans for Impact (2016) Practice with Purpose: The Emerging Science of Teacher Expertise. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact

Deans for Impact (2017) Building Blocks. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact

Ericsson, A., Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. London: Bodley Head.

Harland, J. and Kinder, K. (1997). Teachers’ continuing professional development: framing a model of outcomes. Journal of In-Service Education, 23(1), pp.71-84.

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

Jensen, B., Sonnemann, J., Roberts-Hull, K. and Hunter, A. (2016). Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems (Washington, DC: National Center on Education and the Economy).

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

West, M., Ainscow, M., Wigelsworth, M., Troncoso, P. (2017). Challenge the Gap: Evaluation report and executive summary. Educational Endowment Fund.

Wiliam, D. (2007). Content Then Process: Teacher Learning Communities in the Service of Formative Assessment. In: Reeves, D., ed. 2007. Ahead of the Curve: The Power of Assessment to Transform Teaching and Learning. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree. pp.183-204.


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