Principles of effective CPD: a research summary

Want to improve the CPD offer for teachers in your school? We summarise some of the research evidence on professional learning and development

Author details

Owen Carter is co-founder and managing director of ImpactEd, a not-for-profit organisation which exists to help schools and education providers understand and improve the impact of the programmes they run. A...

No matter what goals, targets or ambitions you might have for professional development, the end goal should be the same: professional learning that is of excellent quality and is focused on improving the outcomes for pupils.

Fortunately a substantial amount of research has focused on the question of high-quality professional development. Here I’ll summarise the top findings from some of the largest systematic reviews.

Collaboration matters

The CUREE report Understanding What Enables High Quality Professional Learning asked the question: ‘What are the characteristics of high quality professional learning for practitioners in education?’ 

One of their top findings was that CPD is most likely to benefit students if it is collaborative, involving staff working together over time, sharing evidence about practice and trying out new approaches.

The same finding was made by the Teacher Development Trust review Developing Great Teaching, which noted that peer support was a common feature of effective professional development. It stressed that collaboration on its own is not enough, however, and that CPD leaders need to play a role in embedding processes across the school.

The CUREE report suggests a few ways to embed effective collaboration:

  • learning from observing teaching and learning exchanges
  • immersion in exploration of pupils’ learning and teachers’ contributions to it
  • joint enquiry, coaching and mentoring, development of networks and structured dialogue
  • active engagement with professional learning through collaborative problem-solving and role play, practising, planning, experimenting, adapting, reviewing and debriefing.

Focus on pupil outcomes

In Helen Timperley’s booklet Teacher Professional Learning and Development, the first principle for effective CPD is to ‘focus on valued student outcomes’.

What this means is that focusing on what pupils need to learn, or the needs they have, is an effective way to direct professional development. Keeping outcomes in mind first of all avoids probably the most common problem with all CPD: ideas might be taken in, but practice never actually changes.

This is an idea strongly echoed in both the TDT and CUREE report, and it links to our next principle.

Make it relevant

Much CPD tends to focus either on generic pedagogy – ‘differentiation’, say – or on subject knowledge, without relating the training to the specific contexts and needs of individual teachers.

The research evidence suggests that this approach is flawed. CUREE recommend giving time for the synthesis of ‘relatively generalised, context-free theories and concepts with the specifics of the teacher’s working context’. The TDT report suggests that schools need to do a better job in helping teachers to identify and understand their needs, and making sure that training is relevant to them.

Just telling a teacher about something doesn’t make for effective CPD.

Training on teaching skills should be woven in with material on subject-specific pedagogy and knowledge, and much attention needs to be given to how it relates to a specific teacher’s practice. Just telling a teacher about something doesn’t make for effective CPD.

One way of addressing this is to make sure that staff know precisely how to contextualise learning.

  • What is it about your school that is unique?
  • How are staff currently supported in understanding their context and in synthesising that with new learning to best support pupil progress?
  • Could this usefully be developed?

Sustain CPD over time

Duration, rhythm and opportunities for feedback really matter for CPD to work. Joyce and Showers studied over 200 Inset programmes in Student Achievement through Staff Development and found that the vast majority of training programmes failed to make any changes in participants’ practice. Those that were successful were sustained over a long time, and provided multiple opportunities for practice and in particular peer coaching both before and after training.

This is a big emphasis in the TDT report as well, which went so far as to claim that ‘the most effective professional development lasted at least two terms – more usually a year (or longer)’. This can sound daunting, but what it means for the CPD leader is to embed any one-off sessions within a longer-term programme of support and engagement. Difficult, certainly, but not impossible.

Use specialist and external support appropriately

The research reviews all stress the value of external expertise, when appropriately put to use. Substantive professional learning often requires participants to have their preconceptions about teaching and learning challenged, and this sort of critical input can be easier from external sources.

The principles above apply to external training as much as internal: think about how it can be embedded into a long-term programme of change, how relevant it can be made to the needs of teachers, and how practice will be shared and implemented.

When thinking about any training or development work, consider if it fits the principles of effective CPD.

  • Is it sustained over time?
  • Does it make use of collaborative approaches?
  • Is it immediately relevant to context?
  • Is it focused on pupil outcomes?

If the answer is yes to all of these questions, the chances of the work really making a difference are greatly increased.

Written featuring insight from Elizabeth Holmes.

Last Updated: 
19 May 2016