Effective CPD: A guide to professional learning networks

Written by: Michelle Barker | Published:
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This article tackles five questions to help you evaluate whether your school is making the most out of professional learning networks. Michelle Barker also shares recommendations for leaders on how to establish, grow and sustain networks that work

There is growing recognition for the potential of teacher collaboration, both as a key component of and catalyst for the positive school working conditions that are associated with student attainment.

This drive for structured collaboration with expert guidance and networking both within and between schools is reflected across the system, for example in the Department for Education’s new Teaching School Hubs programme (2020a) which seeks to “create a national network of centres of excellence for teacher training and development”.

At the Teacher Development Trust (TDT), a charity for effective professional development in schools, we work with schools to support effective collaboration that builds staff learning environments and strengthens cultures.

As part of our CPD diagnostic review process, a key question we ask pertaining to collaboration opportunities is whether staff engage with networks which enrich their professional practice – and whether these are set up by the school or pursued independently. We have seen that collaboration, when done well, strengthens professional practice.

So how can all leaders ensure that the knowledge their teachers gain through external networks is high-quality, shared and improves the learning experiences of both pupils and teachers?

Here I will address five questions to help evaluate your use of professional learning networks before offering some recommendations for establishing, growing, and sustaining effective networks.

Are professional learning network options available for all staff?

Reading or listening to others does not require the same level of engagement as sharing and discussing individual learning and practice. It should be a staple of any CPD programme for networks to be signposted to all staff, and for leaders to actively engage in informal conversations which highlight the benefits to their own learning of these networks.

These might take the shape of national networks such as subject associations, or local networks such as hubs, local authority clusters, or specific subject groups. Professional learning networks have many benefits. They present the opportunity for structured support and challenge and allow colleagues to share and examine examples of best practice in similar or opposing contexts.

Consider local connections with other schools which might enable staff to collaborate with peers addressing similar priorities. This has the potential to build local capacity, present opportunities for sharing expertise and even for sharing the costs of external CPD.

Other ideas include collating a list of recommended professional development programmes to support effective local commissioning or considering potential career development opportunities that can be forged through job-shadowing and school visits.

Do all staff engage with, discuss and debate research?

When it comes to more passive engagement with external expertise, for example through social media such as Twitter, this can be used to inspire informal conversation where staff are engaging with key voices and participating in online discussions.

However, while this form of networking provides access to a wider bank of evidence-informed ideas, it can also fall prey to the sharing of misinformation and the creation of echo-chambers, which negates the constructive challenge offered by structured professional learning networks. Engaging with your local Research School or Teaching School Hub will help contextualise research to local needs.

Maria Cunningham, the TDT’s head of education, talks more on this and the importance of promoting research scrutiny in her 2017 Headteacher Update article, Teachers on Twitter: Is it CPD?

Using internal CPD sessions to invite structured discussion and debate on new research and emerging evidence-based practice will support staff’s confidence in sharing their knowledge, opinions and practices. It is important that time for debate and discussion is consistently created by leadership to prevent staff losing autonomy and potentially even confidence in their own expertise. Leaders openly and explicitly valuing this will encourage it to become a culture that permeates through the school.

Upskilling colleagues in facilitating these discussions will support the creation of learning environments in which all staff feel their input is valued. When supporting schools with this we often refer to the work of Professor Helen Timperley on the enablers of professional conversations and Professor Viviane Robinson’s work on building relational trust.

What structures are in place to drive autonomy?

At TDT we are keen advocates of a distributed culture of leadership of CPD, with middle leadership increasingly recognised as the area of a school with the most potential for driving collective ownership. Increasing autonomy among middle leaders while maintaining whole school cohesion is challenging, but there is substantial evidence to show that this has the potential to change cultures by championing middle leaders as drivers of professional development.

Knowledge gained in external networks often needs to be harnessed, applied and refined for teachers to be able to see its value, and those who are trusted with the time and space to do this are more likely to believe that their learning and expertise is valued by their organisation.

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) report on teacher autonomy provides evidence that autonomy is a key factor relating to job satisfaction and the retention of teachers (Worth & van den Brande, 2020). The TDT’s accompanying resource provides guidance on how goal-setting through the appraisal process can be used to cultivate autonomy while maintaining coherence with whole-school priorities (see further information).

When we carry out our diagnostic reviews, we see how this area varies hugely across organisations. Our recent conference on this subject highlighted that structured opportunities for collaboration is an effective way to regularly revisit the goals set by teachers in these formal meetings.

With the Headteachers’ Standards (DfE, 2020b) and NPQ frameworks (DfE, 2020c) updated only recently, thoughts shared by speakers Nick Brook (National Association of Head Teachers) and Emma Knights (National Governance Association) echoed the importance of valuing and investing in staff through cultures of collaboration.

Performance development systems should provide space for collaboration through shared objectives, and place collaboration above competition.

How much do meetings include a teaching and learning focus?

A principle for all professional development is that meeting time between colleagues needs to be maximised for activities that specifically focus on pedagogy and address pupil learning issues. Time is the most common barrier to all school staff engaging meaningfully in CPD. In our experience, in many cases this is not solely a fact of time constraints, but of how the time available is used, and how responsibility for this time is distributed.

Reflect on your own school: how effectively are group and one-to-one meetings generating shared understanding, clarity, confidence, focus and impact? It can be helpful to think of time not just in terms of the activity itself, but also of what needs to be protected for preparation and follow-up (implementation and evaluation of new strategies).

Middle leaders come into focus again here as these individuals can be provided with the autonomy to utilise department or phase meetings to highlight the learning of individuals in their teams and promote the bringing in and sharing of new knowledge and expertise.

What opportunity is there to follow-up on ideas gained through networks?

Whether the CPD activity takes place in person or remotely, there needs to be additional opportunities for teachers to trial and refine pedagogical strategies if they are then going to be able to share and embed this more widely with colleagues across the school. CPD is all too often viewed by staff as external courses, but networks present opportunities for championing internal expertise too.

Model and encourage risk-taking in classrooms through implementing a model of collaborative enquiry. This will invest teachers in research that is immediately relevant to their practice and the pupils they teach, while developing a culture of high challenge, low threat from the ground up and giving teachers consistent opportunities to revisit the learning and knowledge drawn from their external networks.

Not only do collaborative enquiry models have the potential for greater engagement with external research, but if implemented effectively, with teachers leading this learning process, they create and sustain collegial cultures.

Finally, to support accessibility for a range of colleagues and place importance on the sharing of work, invest in the infrastructure around CPD by establishing physical spaces that are conducive to effective professional learning as well as utilising effective ed-tech.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many organisations have taken to using Zoom, Teams, or other video-conferencing software to continue meeting regularly with colleagues. Utilise the possibilities presented by these programmes to set regular opportunities for colleagues working in bubbles to engage with others. Continuing these networks online increases the likelihood of colleagues accessing and discussing their learning regularly.

  • Michelle Barker is network programmes lead for the Teacher Development Trust. She led on TDT’s collaboration with the National Foundation for Education Research’s work into teacher autonomy. She is a school governor and regular podcast host for Naylor’s Natter.

Further information & resources

  • Cunningham: Teachers on Twitter: Is it CPD, Headteacher Update, June 2017: https://bit.ly/2UorD8A
  • DfE: Teaching school hubs and system leadership: How you can get involved, February 2020a: https://bit.ly/3kEdD5v
  • DfE: Headteachers’ Standards, October 2020b: https://bit.ly/31j4eJq
  • DfE: National professional qualifications frameworks: From September 2021, October 2020c: https://bit.ly/3eWfmBQ
  • TDT: If you are interested in joining the TDT network of school leaders, and benchmarking your practices nationally, you can learn more about the membership and programme options at www.tdtrust.org
  • Worth & van den Brande: Teacher autonomy: how does it relate to job satisfaction and retention? NFER, January 2020: https://bit.ly/38HUMUL (schools can access the accompanying TDT resource via www.tdtrust.org/autonomy20)

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