Understanding What Enables High Quality Professional Learning

This report from the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE) addresses the question, “what are the characteristics of high-quality professional learning for practitioners in education?”

The following extract is the executive summary taken from Curee’s 2012 report, 'Understanding What Enables High Quality Professional Learning'. This report was prepared and written for Pearson by Philippa Cordingley and Miranda Bell at CUREE with support from Kate Holdich and Mike Hawkins and editorial assistance from Paul Crisp.

Executive summary

This report draws on a range of published research and other evidence to address the question: “what are the characteristics of high quality professional learning for practitioners in education?”

The main focus is the features of professional learning, for teachers and their leaders, which lead to benefits for their pupils and students, but the paper also examines the nature of the learning experiences of the teachers and leaders themselves. In addition, it explores the literature for evidence about the relative merits of professional learning delivered by direct, face-to-face methods in comparison to distance/online learning approaches.

This study was undertaken in a few weeks in the early part of 2012 and was constrained by the time and resources available. It does not purport to be a comprehensive, technical review of all possible sources. We were, nevertheless, able to draw on an extensive and international body of research including a number of comprehensive, systematic technical reviews which themselves evaluated in considerable depth hundreds of other studies in relation to a single aspect of our focus.

As a consequence, we are able to say with some confidence that there is now a robust, settled body of evidence describing the characteristics of professional learning which leads to positive student outcomes. This would not have been possible ten or more years ago.

Although we did not find reviews or studies exploring the professional development of both teachers and their leaders, reviews of evidence in both fields reveal many similarities and some interesting distinctions between them. The evidence about the relative merits of different delivery modes is a much lighter touch and so exploration and conclusions are much more tentative.

Models of professional learning delivery likely to improve student outcomes

Taken together, meta-analyses of the evidence show that CPD for teachers is more likely to benefit students if it is:

  • Collaborative – involves staff working together, identifying starting points, sharing evidence about practice and trying out new approaches
  • Supported by specialist expertise, usually drawn from beyond the learning setting
  • Focused on aspirations for students – which provides the moral imperative and shared focus
  • Sustained over time – professional development sustained over weeks or months had substantially more impact on practice benefiting students than shorter engagement
  • Exploring evidence from trying new things to connect practice to theory, enabling practitioners to transfer new approaches and practices and the concepts underpinning them to practice multiple contexts.

CPD approaches which demonstrated the characteristics linked to effectiveness included:

  • Collaborative enquiry – peer-supported, collaborative, evidence-based learning activities taking place over an extended period coupled with risk taking (experimenting with new, high leverage, high demand approaches) and structured professional dialogue about evidence
  • Coaching and mentoring – a vehicle for contextualizing CPD and for embedding enquiry-oriented learning in day-to-day practice. Co-coaching in particular empowered practitioners to try out new things by providing a context of reciprocal vulnerability which speeded up the development of trust. Specialist coaches and mentors supported, encouraged, facilitated and challenged professional learners and demonstrated new approaches in action in their context. Effective coaching and mentoring also drew on evidence from observation and drew in other resources
  • Networks – collaborations within and between schools depending upon and propelled to success by CPD. They draw on internal and external expertise, clearly focused on learning outcomes for particular student groups. The quality of the collaboration and the selection of a focus that can draw contributions from all members is more important than size
  • Structured dialogue and group work – practised in pairs and small groups, providing multiple opportunities for exploring beliefs and assumptions, trying out new approaches and giving and receiving structured feedback.

Unsurprisingly, effective professional learning for leaders shared the above characteristics when judged against the test of achieving significant benefits for students. Additional features or emphases in effective leadership learning delivery included:

  • Greater importance of the availability of external sources of peer support and its role in extending and redefining the borders within which leaders conceive of their role
  • The availability of flexible and non-linear programmes of activity and support
  • The centrality of the programme recruitment and selection processes in identifying leaders’ starting points and their orientation towards learning and shaping the selection of learning activities
  • The role of professional standards as a tool for strengthening the focus on the leadership of learning.

Perhaps the most important evidence is not about the features of the leadership provision itself but the impact of leaders’ learning on and about their staff. The Robinson Best Evidence Review showed that leaders promoting and participating in teacher development was more than twice as effective (as measured by effect size) as any other leadership activity in improving student outcomes.

The professional learning experiences of teachers likely to improve student outcomes

There is, of course, a close relationship between the design and content of professional development delivery and the professional learning experiences of teachers, though the second focuses more on the work done by the teacher in generating his/her own professional knowledge.

The research emphasised the value of:

  • Learning to learn from observing teaching and learning exchanges
  • Immersion in exploration of students’ learning and teachers contributions to it
  • Active engagement with the learning through collaborative problem solving and role play, practising, planning, experimenting, adapting, reviewing and debriefing
  • The synthesis of relatively generalised, context-free theories and concepts with the specifics of the teacher’s working context
  • The development of practical theories or rationales
  • The need for support often via a mix of specialist and collaborative coaching.

Finally, the evidence relating to leadership development stressed the importance of professional identity; the willingness of people accustomed to leading to cast themselves explicitly in the role of learner.

Forms of CPD delivery more effective than others

The final section of the report addresses itself briefly to the relative effectiveness of different forms of provision and particularly the comparison of face-to-face to distance/ online provision.

We found no studies which set out directly to make that comparison, though some research into online learning included some comparisons with other approaches, including face-to-face.

There was some evidence to suggest that participants responded best to the approach they were already comfortable with. But no consistent pattern emerges from the research, some of which finds positive benefits from online learning (particularly where face-to-face opportunities are logistically difficult).

Other studies emphasise the interpersonal limitations of the online form for the often painful process of unlearning existing practices and assumptions. On the evidence available, the delivery vehicle (face-to-face, online or blended) was not identified as a significant factor in its success – in comparison to the factors identified earlier in this report.

Read the full report