Six Design Decisions for Effective Professional Development Programmes.

In our work supporting the development of excellent professional development programmes with our Walkthrus toolkit, we find that schools and colleges often go through a similar set of decision-making processes. As our experience has grown working in different contexts and across several large systems with multiple schools, we’ve been trying to capture this process in a way that will help to support future programmes. Each of these elements varies from place to place and they all interact but essentially there are six key design decisions for leaders to consider:

1. The Teams; The People.

At one end of the range, the main unit is the whole staff – mostly commonly in a primary school. Here the training and coaching largely happen when the whole staff gathers. At the other end, in comparatively few places, each individual teacher is coached with their own process and agenda. In between, most commonly in secondary schools, colleges and larger primaries, the key driving units are the curriculum teams or phase/year teams. Teams can vary from pairs to triads to small sub-groups and larger whole teams. There can often be a combination of teams with some supporting coaching. Within this decision lies an evaluation of who on the staff will serve as the coach for others. Some places try to pair people up – everyone a coach; sometimes it’s a specialist team of coaches; sometimes the team leaders are the de facto coaches. It all depends on capacity, confidence and commitment to training people to do the coaching and/or to lead the training.

2. The Teaching and Learning Focus

An important part of the process is to construct and communicate a framework that allows everyone to discuss teaching issues with a common language, focusing on the shared problems across the organisation or within each team. This is the main function of the Walkthrus toolkit but, of course, there are alternatives. We’ve designed our materials to help leaders assemble broad overview frameworks and for teams and teachers to make tight clusters of related techniques to focus on – and, underneath the headings, to spell out action steps within each technique. Some organisations engage teachers in shaping the agenda through a consultation process whereas in others leaders are more directive, shaping the agenda based on their quality assurance work or general overview of the common issues.

One important consideration is the interaction between Decision 1 and 2. It’s nearly always best for each team to shape its own agenda within a wider framework.

3. The Overall Time Structure

The evidence on effective professional learning suggests that frequent, iterative cycles are important – rather than one-off events with lots of time passing between them. Our recommendation is that processes have cycles spanning 2-4 weeks but we find models where teams meet weekly and others where they only meet every 6-8 weeks (which seems rather too far apart). The calendar is such a powerful planning tool – and it pays to get a programme scoped out well in advance so that everyone can see when the next session is at any time and how this maps out across a term and year. When goals are set in meetings, there’s some urgency; some energy in the process as teachers seek to make immediate changes during the next cycle with a focus on certain specific actions over the next days and weeks – not months.

4. The Training Inputs

A key part of successful CPD is that teachers have time to build their knowledge of the ‘why’ of teaching practices alongside the ‘how’. This needs a combination of inputs where expertise is shared and technique are modelled and practised, with some degree of social support by working alongside other colleagues. So, in planning a whole programme, we need to know when key CPD inputs will be delivered and how they will match the focus areas identified in Decision 2. There’s no point talking about ‘key focus areas’ and then adding ad hoc bits of training on totally different things. 

5. The Coaching Process

Once the teams and the cyclical time structure are identified, we need to look at what happens during those team sessions. It pays to plan an explicit line of CPD for leaders and coaches so that they know how to conduct a coaching/CPD/review session that explores what is happening in lessons and leads to teachers identifying the concrete action steps they will take to move on in the next cycle. In Walkthrus world we promote the Bambrick-Santoyo 5Ps approach – because it’s so good and so effective for individual coaching as well as with small groups and teams.  We find that where teams use a formalised process, there’s a clarity and discipline around the follow-through that is much more secure than where teams just discuss organically and make vague statements of intent.  Some light-touch documentation can help to keep track of a team or individual’s action steps and the progress made towards implementing them successfully.  

6. The Reality Check Process

The final decision is around the nature of all the activities that happen in between the key coaching sessions. How do teachers and leaders know how things are going? How do teachers get a reality check on their practice – so we’re going beyond the simple self-reporting that can often miss details of what goes on in the corners of the class. There are lots of options from teachers videoing themselves to peer observations or, very commonly, learning walks by team leaders. Is so much more productive when coaching sessions are informed by insights coaches and leaders gain from seeing practice first-hand. Of course other data can be useful – including information from assessment. 

We don’t need to decide the nature of reality-check processes in advance, in detail but we do need to explore what the general pattern might be – for example repurposing learning walks to feed into routine review cycles rather than generating emailed feedback that come from fly-through visits and bypass any discussion.  

Each of these decisions takes time and thought; they can change over time, flexing in light of outcomes and circumstances, developing as people’s expertise grows. Having some kind of overview of the process is conceptually very helpful and we’re hoping that framing it via these six decisions will help people to take things forward with confidence. 

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