4. Designing training for teachers

Kennedy (2016) divided approaches to professional development into four:

  • Prescription – describing or demonstrating the best ways to address a problem
  • Strategies – conveying goals and sharing ways of achieving them, leaving teachers to choose what to do
  • Insight – provoking teachers to re-examine what is familiar, to reach ‘Aha’ moments
  • Knowledge – presenting a body of knowledge (which may not imply a particular action)

Kennedy found professional development programmes which effectively supported teachers to address all major aspects of teaching (using her categories: presenting content, getting students to engage, exposing their thinking and managing behaviour), she found evidence for only two of these four approaches to professional development worked: strategy and insight. Effective professional development should therefore avoid the extremes of prescribing exactly what to do, or offering knowledge without guidance on how to apply it. The rest of this paper focuses on strategy and insight; distinguishing, for the sake of convenience, between supporting teachers to:

  • Act differently
  • Think differently

Effective professional development is likely to combine these two features: new knowledge may lead to insight, insight may lead to intentional change in practice, practice may lead to new insight. Teacher knowledge can be increased, but this has limited impact on teacher practice and student achievement (NCEE, 2016). Focusing on specific teaching techniques is helpful, but it is important to link this with deeper enquiry and the social and cultural aspects of education: practice is necessary, not sufficient (Zeichner, 2012). Teacher educators therefore need to support teachers’ developing knowledge and changing practice.

  • Teacher educators may be best advised to begin focusing on either teacher thinking or actions, then to identify ways to integrate the other goal, for example, by adding pauses for reflection during practice, or practice during knowledge-building sessions.

4.1 Deliberate practice

Anders Ericsson offers the useful distinction between purposeful practice – trying to improve – and deliberate practice: intentionally-designed improvement. Deliberate practice entails:

  • Effortful practice
  • Developing specific skills
  • Oversight from a skilled coach
  • Developing (and relying upon) mental representations
  • Feedback and modification of effort (Ericsson and Pool, 2016).

Despite suggestions that Ericsson may have overstated the impact of deliberate practice (McNamara, Hambrick and Oswald, 2014) this provides a very useful framework, which has been applied productively to teacher development, albeit with the reservation that we lack shared notions of effective practices and sequencing of skills (Deans for Impact, 2016). Deliberate practice represents a conscious departure from approaches which prioritise discussion and teaching but not practice (see, for example, Garet et al., 2011; Garet et al., 2016). Simulation and deliberate practice are dramatically more effective than traditional clinical education for surgical procedures (McGaghie, Issenberg and Cohen, 2011); organisations which have made similar changes in initial teacher training report similarly impressive effects (TNTP, 2014). Deliberate practice supports teachers to automate simpler tasks: this allows them both to work more efficiently and to focus their attention on bigger challenges (see, for example, Berliner, 1988): when a teacher has rehearsed their explanation and is able to deliver it clearly and easily, they can focus on assessing how much students have understood.

  • Teacher educators must provide teachers the opportunity to practice: to rehearse and refine what they have learned before future performances (Lampert, 2010).

Effective deliberate practice provides scaffolded opportunities to master the most important teaching practices. This relies on the identification of specific ‘core practices’ – tasks which teachers face regularly, which are teachable, evidence-based and lead to student learning (Grossman, Hammerness and McDonald, 2009; Forzani, 2014; NCEE 2016; TNTP, 2013). Teacher training has tended to focus on supporting teachers to improve at ‘preactive’ tasks, such as planning, rather than interactive tasks, such as responding to student learning (Grossman et al., 2009): core practices should include how teachers behave in the classroom, not just how they prepare for it. Refining core practices supports teachers’ learning by providing teachers with common frameworks to discuss, refine and experiment with (Kazemi et al., 2016).

  • Teacher educators must identify the core practices their teachers should master.

Deliberate practice supports teachers not just to know about core practices, but to employ them in their schools (Grossman, Hammerness and McDonald, 2009; NCATE, 2010); (conversely, practice puts teachers’ knowledge to use (Ball and Forzani, 2009)). In designing effective practice, teachers need to:

  • Decompose the teacher’s work into units which are individually worthwhile, but are sufficiently small to learn and practise.
  • Collect representations: models which demonstrate these practices.
  • Identify approximations of teaching to practise.

This necessitates some artificiality: a good representation of teacher questioning may obscure other aspects of teaching, such as classroom management. Teacher educators need to remain aware of the distortions they have made, and integrate their decompositions gradually to approach increasingly realistic practice (Grossman et al., 2009). Practice relies on a culture which makes practice and analysis of practice public (Kazemi et al., 2016; Lampert et al., 2013).

Deliberate practice can help teachers gain new insights: it increases both teachers’ skill and their understanding of individual techniques and of learning generally (Lampert et al., 2013). Deliberate practice demands practise, but also preparation and reflection: one way this may be shaped productively is around specific instructional activities which form a teaching episode (McDonald, Kazemi and Kavanagh, 2013). Practice provides a fertile environment in which teacher educators can support and challenge teachers to improve: deliberate practice differs from microteaching in that teachers receive extensive, rapid feedback and gain communal understanding of key ideas through becoming accustomed to routines (Lampert et al., 2013).

  • Effective deliberate practice requires teacher educators to help teachers put core practices to use, through decomposing the work of teaching, sharing representations of effective teaching and helping teachers to practise approximations of that work.

Deliberate practice may also encourage teachers to reflect upon their knowledge and practice and provide a foundation for insight.

4.2 Gaining insight

Designing professional development to help teachers gain new insights is necessarily more complicated and less predictable than designing practice. For example, while deliberate practice can allow teacher to gain confidence in a skill, while it may be possible to reduce technical uncertainty some elements of personal and conceptual uncertainty will always remain: for example, a teacher may gain new knowledge about demonstrably effective assessment techniques, but they can never be totally certain that their choice of actions is completely correct (Hall, 2002). The work of deliberate practice may one day feel completed; the work of gaining insight never can. Promoting insight means helping teachers to reach fresh realisations about their work and student learning: such insights can motivate and drive intentional changes in their behaviour. For example, teachers may come to recognise the force of maxims such as:

  • “Memory is the residue of thought”
  • “Students learn more from what you do than from what you say”
  • “Plan backwards”

These bald statements can be repeated easily, but understanding them, and how to act upon them takes longer (Polanyi, 1962). Designing training to promote insight requires opportunities for teachers to be exposed to provocative ideas, both through abstract knowledge and practical experiences; it then requires time for teachers to make sense of these ideas. It may be helpful to view insights teachers may gain as ‘threshold concepts’: transforming, troubling and integrative changes in the way that people view the world (Mayer and Land 2003). It may also be helpful to see it as an aid to decision making.

  • Teacher educators can promote insight; they should accept that teachers’ responses will be individual, and that insight, while important, will have consequences which are hard to predict.

An important aspect of helping teachers gain insight lies in understanding the impact they are having on their students. This entails moving away from an interest in what is taught to a focus on how the teacher’s actions link to student learning. This process is aided by professional learning communities and by the regular discussion of video (Supovitz, 2013; Sherin and Han, 2004) which has led teachers to change their behaviour and teach more effectively. A focus on student learning has been identified as crucial in successful professional learning communities; (Vescio, Ross and Adams, 2007), particularly in leading to the kind of thinking which leads to greater collaboration, better ideas and teachers’ examination of their values (Popp and Goldman, 2016). Conversely, unsuccessful professional development has focused on teacher exposition not student learning (see e.g. Garet et al., 2016). Bringing together teachers from differing faculties and traditions to reflect collectively is challenging: attempts to do so have found that personality clashes and differences in subjects and beliefs pose significant barriers to collective understanding and improvement (Grossman, Wineburg and Woolworth, 2001).

  • Insight may be promoted through collective reflection about student learning, but what can be achieved has its limits: insight may usefully be turned back to action, through deliberate practice.

Ultimately, deliberate practice and insight should support one another: theoretical knowledge becomes organised and usable through experience of practice (Schmidt and Rikers, 2007).

4.3 Coaching

The support teachers receive appears particularly important in causing change. Coaching has a frustratingly wide range of definitions, but here it is used to describe the intentional, often directive support of a more experienced teacher, providing feedback and designing practice to support teachers to think or act differently (it is not referring to more general coaching behaviours). Regular coaching leads to significant changes in teachers’ behaviour and student learning, a finding which has been replicated in a variety of schools and areas (Allen et al., 2011; Allen et al., 2015). The coach is both the source of feedback and also may support teachers to act on their feedback, through planning and practice. A separate form of coaching offers daily feedback based around single suggested action steps and planning associated with them led to better observations and student ratings and spilled over around the buildings (Kraft and Blazar, 2016). A review suggests it affects instruction and student achievement – not enormously but affordably. Real-time coaching can foster greater awareness in teachers of what is happening and what is possible (Stahl, Sharplin and Kehrwald, 2016). The role of the coach, in providing feedback, designing practice and supporting insight for teachers is crucial.

Teacher development is supported by coaches who offer feedback and design practice to support their changes in practice and fresh insight.


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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