Trust teachers to set their own training needs - Martin Hoskin
By Martin Hoskin, Research Further scholar and head of teaching, learning and quality at HSDC
“It is not enough that teachers’ work should be studied: they need to study it for themselves.” - Stenhouse 1975, p. 143
Considerable time is spent delivering continuing professional development (CPD) in schools and colleges with the routine expectation that staff will not only engage, but also be able to improve their practice based on their experiences of CPD. The general purpose of CPD is to develop effective teaching and learning strategies, share good practice and improve the overall quality of provision. However, the value placed upon CPD by practitioners is mixed. This raises questions of whether traditional approaches to CPD are working for all.
Teachers are constantly reminded that they should differentiate between learners; consistently meeting the unique needs of each and every learner. However, it is striking that we do not appear to take the same approach to the professional learning and development of teachers (Taylor, 2017), who are often offered questionable “off the shelf” solutions to enduring educational issues with little empirical research or evidence to warrant such one-size-fits-all, “quick fixes”. The main point I want to make here is that theories, ideas and concepts about what constitutes a good education need to be put into practice by teachers in the contexts of their work and that this is neither a straightforward nor an easy process. As Sennett (2009) points out, the development of any craft inevitably involves problem-finding, problem-solving and critique as well as modification, adaptation and improvement in context.
The most important aspect of CPD for me is that teachers are given a choice, taking ownership of learning based upon their own interests and what they think might enhance teaching and learning for them and for their students. As head of teaching and learning and previously as a teaching and learning coach in an FE college, I am tasked with designing, delivering, facilitating, and evaluating professional development for teaching staff. Personally, I have often struggled to engage with CPD when “asked” to attend and not given a choice. As a teacher, I have found that I need to be able to identify the purpose and relevance of the content of the training, especially when the time taken to engage with CPD can be to the detriment of other responsibilities and competing priorities. As an experienced teacher, it is hard not to scrutinise the credibility of those charged with “delivering” CPD. Training must be well presented, the trainer must be knowledgeable and trust in their integrity is essential.
Personally, when I attend a CPD event, I want to know that those standing in front of me know what they are talking about because they have had first hand experiences of putting the idea, theory or concept into practice and that they have made it work in the contexts of their practice as well as evidence that it has resulted in improvements in the educational experience of students and teachers alike.
One of the biggest problems with transforming CPD delivery is that we are constantly competing with organisational imperatives and changing priorities, and it is clear the top-down agenda routinely overrides the needs of practitioners (Ball, 2003; Coffield, 2017; Ball, 2018). This approach perpetuates an obsession with data-driven, prescriptive learning and a risk-averse culture in education with a consistent need to fulfil the demands of external bodies such as Ofsted.
There is a certain paradox inherent within current CPD models which follow top-down approaches, i.e., managers telling staff how they can achieve “best practice” based upon the judgements of people generally very far from the everyday realities of front-line teaching. The concept of best practice is itself deeply contested as it implies that there exists somewhere out there a platonic world of “perfect practice” in which one size, always and everywhere “fits all” regardless of context. My argument is that it is the neglect and deprivation of considerations of context that can lead to misrepresentation of Ofsted’s current preoccupations, the intent and implementation and impact of teaching practice.
Objective judgement has often been regarded as being essential by managers in their endeavours to create a workforce that will successfully pass an inspection. But to what end? The paramount concern for educators and education providers and others charged with responsibility for educational improvement must not only be the experience of students but also the experiences of their teachers, yet this does not, always, appear to be the case.
My argument is that the top is the wrong place to start and downwards is the wrong direction in which to travel for anyone who is genuinely interested in the improvement of educational practice. Instead, I want to argue that improvements in educational practice need to start from the bottom up, beginning with the experiences and concerns of teachers, rather than trying to conform to a dubious and constantly changing pre-set list of requirements imposed by external regulatory/investigatory bodies. It is understandable that a certain level of accountability for the articulation of organisational objectives is important in any publicly funded system of education. However, this does not preclude the case for the development of a supportive practice-focused approach to educational research and improvement which allows teachers to take accountability for their own professional development and the improvement of educational practice. Things do not have to be like this and there may be another way to pursue and achieve good practice in education whilst still meeting organisational imperatives and objectives.
A Case in Practice
In October 2019, as part of a Certified Google Innovator project, I started to explore the concept of gamification and to what extent this may influence the meaningfulness of professional development. I really wanted to address the issues of a lack of agency in CPD as well as encourage more people to engage in CPD activities outside of prescribed events. It was hoped that this would be mutually beneficial to both teachers and the organisation. Through the ETF Practitioner Research Programme (PRP) at the University of Sunderland, I was able to make this the focus of an MPhil study. This led me to a much deeper critique of current approaches to educational improvement in the education system in an “age of measurement” (Biesta, 2009).
The emphasis of my research was and is very much focused upon the meaningfulness of teachers’ professional learning and development. However, I have now come to see that the concept of gamification (the original focus of my research) may have been something of a red herring, disguising the deeper issues behind the low levels of teacher enthusiasm and engagement as well as a widespread apathy among teachers towards traditional “transmission” and “cascade” models of CPD. This has been a valuable lesson for me as an early career researcher and something which has encouraged me to look beyond the ‘silver-bullet’ solutions to complex, long-standing and persistent educational problems.
In October 2021 we launched “HSDC Projects”, a year-long initiative which encouraged teaching and support staff to identify something within their practice that they could improve or develop. There was no specific directive. This meant that teachers participating in the projects were free to pursue whatever they felt best served their students. This culminated in over 160 separate projects across the college, with an end-of-year showcase event in July 2022 to celebrate and recognise the work. This example helps to illustrate the power and potential of agency and collaboration and plays a key role in justifying other educational improvement initiatives going forward. Further projects have since evolved with the intention of subverting traditional top-down prescribed “development” activities, including a focus on collaborative teaching in place of peer observations, practice development groups in place of ‘Best Practice’ workshops and most notably a shift away from graded observations of any kind, in favour of teacher requested lesson visits. The latter being the most significant in leading educational change and improvement from the ground-up by creating conditions through which agency can be attained. This is something we will continue to pursue in the coming academic year.
Across the education sector, there are numerous accounts from teachers of CPD that is not fit for purpose. Most of us have experienced this first-hand. However, the future of CPD does not have to be as bleak as it may at first seem. It is about getting the offer right. The vast majority of teachers are highly committed to being the best teachers they can be. They have a significant impact on the lives of their students, and they continue to strive for improvement. They do not want or need to be tripped up by an observer with a clipboard and a list of boxes which demand to be “ticked”. They do not deserve to receive criticism for their actions from remote and detached outsiders who claim to have objectivity and science on their side (Coffield, 2017). Instead, by providing an opportunity for the voices of teachers to be heard and their experiences of practice shared in honest thought and reflection and in mutual engagement in the interests of educational improvement, we may be finding practical examples of what a different model of educational evaluation and improvement might look like in practice.
Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher's soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of education policy, 18(2), 215-228
Ball, S. J. (2018). The tragedy of state education in England: Reluctance, compromise, and muddle–a system in disarray. Journal of the British Academy, 6, 207-238.
Biesta, G. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: On the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability (formerly: Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education), 21(1), 33-46.
Coffield, F. (2017). Will the Leopard Change its Spots?: A New Model of Inspection for Ofsted. London: UCL Institute of Education Press.
Coffield, F., (2017) TES Letter to Amanda Spielman...
Fielding, M., Bragg, S., Craig, J., Cunningham, I. A. N., Eraut, M., Gillinson, S., & Thorp, J. (2005). Factors influencing the transfer of good practice.
Gregson, M., & Spedding, P. (2020). Practice! Practice! Practice! In Practice-Focused Research in Further Adult and Vocational Education (pp. 1-19). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
Priestley, M., Biesta, G.J.J. & Robinson, S. (2015). Teacher agency: what is it and why does it matter? In R. Kneyber & J. Evers (eds.), Flip the System: Changing Education from the Bottom Up. London: Routledge.
Spedding, P. (2020) Chapter 10. Re-dressing the Balance: Practitioner-Research as Continuing Professional Development in Gregson, M., and Spedding, T. Eds. (2020) Practice Focused Research in Further, Adult and Vocational Education: Shifting horizons of educational practice, theory, and research. London: Palgrave-McMillan
Taylor, S. (2017). Contested Knowledge: A Critical Review of the Concept of Differentiation in Teaching and Learning. Warwick Journal of Education–Transforming Teaching, 55
The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.