Beating the teaching plateau: Professional Inquiry Programme

Written by: Alex Beauchamp | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

New teachers often make rapid improvements in their practice before hitting a ‘performance plateau’. Alex Beauchamp explains how a professional inquiry programme has helped overcome this challenge

Drawing on lessons and research taken from Kolb (see Kolb & Fry, 1975), instructional coaching, disciplined inquiry, and Lesson Study, Hunter’s Bar Junior School in Sheffield has been trying out a powerful CPD model to strengthen teacher development, improve staff culture, and help everyone focus more deeply on impact for pupils.

Research confirms what many teachers know – that after rapid improvements in the first few years, it gets increasingly difficult to keep getting better.

Hobbiss et al (2020) support this notion by stating that teachers, on average, “become rapidly more effective during the early years of their career but tend to improve increasingly slowly thereafter”.

Disrupting teachers’ practice is one of the key levers to helping teachers break through this improvement plateau. Weston and Clay (2018), for example, highlight the importance of “challenging and changing the underlying thinking” of teachers.

Nevertheless, we must be cautious. It is a lever that must be sensitively pulled. The Professional Inquiry Programme (PIP), as currently being delivered at Hunter’s Bar, is one such form of CPD that can help teachers to keep getting better in their post-formative years.

I argue that, delivered in a sensitive, developmental manner, the PIP has the potential to strengthen and deepen a school’s culture of teacher development.

Inspired by the work of Mark and Zoe Enser (2021), David Weston and Bridget Clay (2018), and Dr Gary Jones (see further information) the PIP is a form of inquiry-led CPD. The programme, rolled over the full academic year, involves 17 teachers and is designed to meet the precise learning needs of the children in each classroom.

It aims to address the question: How do we support teachers to engage deeply with evidence-informed practices that disrupt their current mental models of thinking and help narrow the achievement gap in their classrooms?

Of course, there is no expectation that each teacher will “find the answer” to solving the identified learning problems. However, what it does do is help teachers diagnose an authentic problem, to look at evidence-based tools to help address it, and to provide robust ways to observe the impact. In a nutshell, it promotes teachers to think hard about what they do and why.

Informed and inspired by Kolb’s experiential learning model, we devised a model for each stage of the process as illustrated opposite. Let’s take a look at how it works in practice and view it through the lens of the Education Endowment Foundation’s implementation framework (2019).

Step-by-step: This model illustrates the key stages of the Professional Inquiry Programme (PIP)

Teachers explore the problem and define the inquiry

Let me introduce you to Pete Bainbridge. Pete is a talented and experienced year 5 teacher who is now into his 10th year of teaching. Early this year, Pete spent two months using the explore stage of the EEF’s implementation model digging deep into the learning needs of his year 5 maths class.

Using a combination of observation, pupil voice and book looks, Pete finally found a fundamental learning problem that was holding back his learners.

A coaching session, led by the lead practitioner, confirmed Pete’s hunch and supported him to design the following inquiry question: What pedagogical approaches can help to build consistent success for quiet girls with low confidence in maths? This question addressed a high-leverage issue in Pete’s class – one that could potentially unlock other areas of progress for the learners.

Teachers engage with educational reading

Pete engaged with background educational reading to support his understanding of the issues surrounding his inquiry. Blogs, publications and podcasts helped Pete to challenge his own biases and to understand why and how his strategy could work. Pete decided to use a pedagogical model involving explicit teaching, worked examples, and timely feedback to close the learning gaps for the novice mathematicians.

Teachers implement the approach in the classroom

Armed with a clear plan and rationale, Pete carefully implemented his approach into his daily maths lessons. To help the new instructional routine become habitual, Pete made sure that each maths lesson was delivered consistently so that the learners could focus on the maths content rather than the mechanics and novelty of a new pedagogical approach.

An active ingredient of the PIP has therefore been habit-building. By building effective instructional habits, pupils spend less time thinking about how routines work and have more time to think about what they are learning.

Teachers prepare for the PIP observation

After four weeks of implementing the approach and making incremental changes where necessary, Pete prepared for an observation by the PIP coach. Pete identified what he wanted to find out from the forthcoming support visit. What did he want to find out from the target group? How did he anticipate his pupils would react to his approach in the lesson? This pre-lesson planning provided the coach with precise places to look for impact and key features of the approach to evaluate.

Coach observes teacher impact on pupils

During the lesson, the coach directly observed two target pupils identified by Pete. The coach had a clear idea from Pete about how he expected these pupils to react and behave during the lesson and was therefore able to make notes on the impact using a granular minute-by-minute observation. A background in Lesson Study and looking through the lens of child experiences was particularly helpful during this stage.

Coach collects pupil voice

After a 20-minute observation, the coach withdrew from the classroom and conducted pupil voice interviews with the two focus children. Again, Pete had prepared some questions that allowed the coach to drill deeper into the nuances of the inquiry.

The pupils were asked about what success in maths looked and felt like, what precise emotions they experienced when being asked questions in the classroom, and what thought processes they go through when facing difficulty during independent work.

Coaching conversation

Using triangulation, the coach was then able to piece together evidence taken from the pupil voice interviews together with the teacher and pupil observation. The synthesis provided Pete with a clear summary of the observed impact of his approach in maths. Coupled with his own reflections and key findings taken from accessible research, this pool of evidence helped to challenge bias and keep dialogue rich and focused on improvement.

Concluding the coaching session, Pete then pulled together the points from the discussion to generate his own action plan involving an achievable and measurable action step that could be actioned and observed in the next round of observations. Pete was also signposted towards additional education reading designed to help and challenge him as he went forward into the next round of the cycle.

Final thoughts

Despite the obvious challenges of cover, staff absence and the need for plenty of internal expertise and collaboration, this model has done wonders developing the teachers and helping them to keep getting better in high-leverage areas of their practice.

  • Alex Beauchamp is a senior leader, lead practitioner and teacher in Hunter’s Bar Junior School in Sheffield. He would like to offer his special thanks to Pete Bainbridge and the staff at Hunter’s Bar. Alex is also an expert CPD advisor for the Teacher Development Trust and leader of the Sheffield CPD Hubs programme. Follow him on Twitter @albeauchamp and find his previous articles for Headteacher Update via

Headteacher Update Autumn Edition 2022

  • This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Autumn Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via

Further information & resources

  • Collin & Smith: Effective professional development (guidance report), EEF, October 2021:
  • DfE: Standard for teachers’ professional development, July 2016:
  • EEF: Putting evidence to work: A school’s guide to implementation, January 2019:
  • Enser & Enser: The CPD Curriculum: Creating conditions for growth, Crown House Publishing, 2021.
  • Hobbiss, Sims, & Allen: Habit formation limits growth in teacher effectiveness: A review of converging evidence from neuroscience and social science. Review of Education (9,1), 2020:
  • Jones: For more on the writing and work of Dr Gary Jones, visit
  • Kolb & Fry: Toward an applied theory of experiential learning. In Theories of Group Process, Cooper (ed), John Wiley, 1975.
  • Sims: Why do some schools struggle to retain staff? Development and validation of the Teachers’ Working Environment Scale (TWES), 2021:
  • Teacher Development Trust: The TDT is a charity for effective professional development in schools. Visit
  • Weston & Clay: Unleashing Great Teaching, Routledge, 2018.

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