CPD that is driven by pupils’ learning needs

Written by: Jessica Brosnan | Published:
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How can you ensure that your teachers’ professional development is being driven by your pupils’ learning needs? Jessica Brosnan advises

Many school leaders struggle to create a CPD programme that is relevant and engaging for all staff, while also ensuring it has a strong pupil-focus – lots of excellent ideas have limited impact without staff engagement.

Schools in the Teacher Development Trust’s Network receive an audit of their CPD practice against our CPD Quality Framework. We have identified that a key aspect to engaging staff is ensuring that a strong focus on pupil learning needs runs coherently throughout CPD processes. Our framework has been informed by the research report Developing Great Teaching, which highlights the importance of focusing explicitly on student learning in order to design and deliver high-impact CPD that improves student outcomes.

What do we actually mean by ‘pupil focus’?

Many schools we visit claim to have CPD that is pupil-focused, driven by the learning and development needs of pupils. However, as a part of our TDT Network CPD Audit, we survey attitudes of staff. One of the statements we ask staff is whether they believe that “my professional learning is targeted at improving the learning of specific pupils in my class”. Often school leaders are surprised by the results.

Although many schools include a performance management target related broadly to student outcomes, the link between staff’s own professional development and the pupils they teach, is often not explicit.

In schools where we see a truly strong pupil focus, broader pupil outcomes at a macro-level are broken down so all staff have specific, planned student outcomes to address. In some of the most successful schools, participation in some form of collaborative enquiry has been explicitly linked to appraisal, ensuring a professional development target with a clear pupil focus.

In a school where there is a demonstrable pupil focus, CPD activities will include an “intention” for specific pupils that each member of staff expects to benefit – and what success would look like for that child.

There would also be a follow-up session asking staff what pupil needs were identified and which pupils did they expect to benefit? Did they meet these expectations? How did they know? As teachers, we are driven to meet the needs of our pupils, and where CPD is closely linked, it will be more engaging.

Improving the focus

Research clearly shows that the most effective professional development focuses on specific areas of pupil learning or behaviour, rather than simply aiming to change the way the teacher practices.

For example, “improving the use of tier 2 vocabulary for Pupil Premium boys through targeted use of formative feedback” rather than simply “improving literacy in boys” leads to more focused professional learning which makes it easier for the participant to evaluate and refine their approach. It is important to try and help teachers and staff see the link between the CPD they are taking part in and the impact it will have on their pupils.

However, when we look at our national “trip advisor for CPD” database, TDT Advisor, we see a large number of courses that are based around practices for teachers. This is mirrored in the approaches we see in schools, where CPD programmes tend to focus on techniques that teachers use, or the way they perform.

This is at odds with the strong research base on professional development which shows that, if you want students to benefit, you need to link each activity to specific learning goals (ideally subject-based) for a defined cohort of students.

The trend to judge teachers’ practice as generically “good” or “outstanding” has compounded this issue and led to a proliferation of “how to be Outstanding”-type training along with generic lectures on “feedback” and “questioning”. Our best schools have ditched these labels and are designing professional learning that starts with clear identification of learning issues and spends time diagnosing the underlying causes. They then proceed to identify techniques that may help to deal with these issues.

So what are schools doing to ensure that professional learning is driven by pupil need?

Addressing pupils’ needs

It is important to communicate clearly the school priorities to staff. In addition to communicating general pupil trends, it is also important that colleagues can identify the needs of individual pupils and feel that their professional learning is relevant and pertinent to the specific pupils they teach.

Many school leaders will already be using aggregated student data to inform decisions around the focus for professional development – but is this always done in the most useful way? Whole-school, headline, quantitative data only tells part of the story for students’ learning needs and can only give a high-level overview of the areas that would benefit most from additional resource or support.

If a cohort of pupils appears to be underperforming against chosen targets, on average, then we realise that action must be taken. However, this analysis reveals vanishingly little information about the specific issues and needs for individual pupils that teachers need to address.

Similarly, it seems tempting to use observations of teachers as a key data-gathering technique to inform professional development plans. Not only is this, on the face of it, a logical approach but it is also very common across the sector.

However, research is increasingly calling this into question. It seems that observation is very helpful as a developmental tool, for dialogue and discussion, but much less so at gathering reliable information about how successful the teaching is at improving learning.

Indeed, our review findings would suggest that if professional development is explicitly focused on improving an observed teacher’s practice instead of being focused explicitly on addressing a pupil need, then it is less likely to be effective at improving outcomes for students.

Instead, why not consider how you can use richer, more granular data from closer to the ground. As a result, each member of staff and their line manager will have an in-depth, contextualised understanding of their professional development needs, which can then be fed upwards to identify trends and ensure a balance between whole-school and individual development needs – all the while maintaining a focus on the specific and varied needs of students across the school.

This is best met through very focused and sustained development, such as through teacher enquiry or Lesson Study.

Lesson Study and teacher enquiry

Fawbert and Barnard’s Primary School in Essex engaged in the Teacher Development Trust Network to implement Lesson Study within their school.

With our training and resources they have enabled staff to collaborate on a very specific pupil issue, to research around it and to evaluate the impact of their approach.

Similarly, at Cleveland Junior School in Ilford, staff have engaged its learners in planning its vision and allowing pupils to feedback about the quality of education they receive. Through Lesson Study, the school is beginning to gather pupil views on more specific pieces of professional development.

The basis of Lesson Study is to observe pupils and their learning, rather than teacher practice, ensuring that professional learning is driven by a real pupil need. This also can allow staff to be focused on specific case study pupils in their class and their specific needs, but also to balance with school priorities.

For example, teachers may be focused specifically on the vocabulary used by children in their class, which also ties in with a broader school focus on literacy, reading and writing.

Formative assessment

As a school leader, it is possible to identify overall trends in pupil outcomes, and for this to inform any planning of professional learning. However, as a leadership team it is not possible to identify pupils’ specific needs in specific classes. It is crucial that staff can and do identify these for themselves, and are supported in using these pupil needs to direct their own professional learning.

The big question for colleagues engaging in CPD should be: “If I improve my skill and understanding in this area, which pupils will benefit and how will I check to see how well this is happening?” 

  • Jessica Brosnan is the network programme officer of the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for professional learning in schools.

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