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

In previous blogs in this series I’ve described a series of steps we can take towards effective professional development design:

Firstly – Identify what we want our teachers to be able to do (and their existing strengths)

Secondly – Plan to follow general principles of learning, like offering support that is suited to their needs, be they newer or more experienced teachers

The challenge now is to establish how to design the professional development itself. What kind of training and experiences support teachers to improve?

What works and what doesn’t

Mary Kennedy has reviewed the evidence on professional development and identified four types of professional development. Two, she argues, don’t work:

  • Prescription – just telling teachers what to do
  • Knowledge – presenting teachers with an abstract body of knowledge

Two are much more promising:

  • Strategies – conveying goals and ways of achieving them, helping teachers work out how to fit them to their practice
  • Insight – provoking teachers to re-examine what’s familiar: to reach ‘Aha’ moments!

Effective professional development should avoid the extremes of prescribing exactly what to do or offering knowledge without guidance on how to apply it. Instead it should help teachers to:

  • Act differently – through sharing strategies
  • Think differently – through fostering insights

This post explores how this can be done.

Supporting teachers to act differently through deliberate practice

Deliberate practice makes perfect. Many of us practise in an attempt to improve our cooking, musical or sports performance, but Anders Ericsson has examined elite performers in a range of fields – including chess, memorisation and violin performance – and describes their deliberate practice as being what really helps them to improve,

Deliberate practice means targeting specific skills, improving our mental models of those skills, and receiving feedback from a skilled coach. For teachers, this means going beyond discussing what we’re doing and planning how to teach differently, and actually practising the changes we intend to make.

This allows us to become more fluent in our basic skills. Gradually, we automate simple tasks and can focus our attention on bigger challenges: as we take the register, we are concentrating, not on the register, but on how students seem to be feeling and what this means for them and for our next activity.

This matters because the best of intentions can prove hard to stick to under the pressure of daily classroom life: if teachers have already practised what they intend to do, they are ready to act upon it. We know that training which simulates what doctors will be able to do significantly improves patient outcomes: we need to normalise this approach in education.

That said, this kind of training is challenging and unfamiliar for many teachers: it demands teacher educators plan their priorities and the order in which to achieve them, and support teachers to feel comfortable practising.

Supporting teachers to think differently

It’s even harder to design professional development that creates those ‘aha’ moments for teachers: teachers’ ‘aha’ moments will depend on what they already think and their interpretation of their training. A maxim like ‘Plan backwards’ can be repeated many times before teachers make sense of its application to their own work.

Designing training to promote insight means we need to expose teachers to provocative ideas, both as abstract ideas and through practical experiences, and give teachers time to make sense of those ideas. One powerful way to do this is to ask teachers to discuss student work with their peers, focusing on what it shows about what they have learned.


The support teachers receive is particularly important in helping them to practise and think differently. Coaching –expert guidance in how to improve – can be a very powerful way in helping teachers to improve. It can focus teachers’ attention on specific areas of their practice (facilitating insight) and offer them guidance, models and feedback in how to change (new strategies).


These three sources of support all have relatively strong evidence supporting them. Ultimately, they should be seen together, not separately: for example, a new insight may lead teachers to try something differently; trying something differently may lead teachers to fresh insights, and coaches can facilitate both.

If you’re interested in reading about this subject in a bit more detail have a look at the fourth section of my paper, Designing Professional Development for Teachers, Designing training for teachers

In our next blog….

We’ll explore the practical concerns teacher educators may have in making this work.

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