Time to link CPD with classroom practice and children’s learning

The Teaching Council has published a report (available here)  on primary teachers’ participation in professional development that draws on data gathered from teachers’ responses to questionnaires in the Growing up in Ireland study. Teachers were asked the following questions:

  1. Did you do any professional training, including in-service training, in the last 12 months?
  2. If yes, how many days training did you do?

And principals were asked to:
Please indicate the extent to which you believe .. the following to be true of teachers in your school:

Teachers are eager to take part in in-service training:
True of nearly all / true for more than half / true for less than half / true of only a few

The report found that teachers who report the highest take-up (i.e. more than five days) of continuous professional development( CPD) are more likely to: be female, have more than 20 years teaching experience, work with a special needs assistant (SNA) in the classroom, teach at least one child with a learning disability, and teach in a multi-grade class.

A strength of the study is that 1,916 primary teachers responded to the questionnaire. Few studies have the resources to seek responses from so many teachers as the Growing Up in Ireland study has. Nevertheless, CPD for teachers is but one small focus of the larger Growing Up study and space is limited on a questionnaire for teachers that aims to serve so many purposes. Reading the literature review in the CPD report, I imagine that the authors would have designed the questionnaire differently if the questionnaire’s primary focus was on teachers’ CPD.

Asking teachers about taking part in “professional training, including in-service training” and measuring it in days is a fairly blunt instrument for finding out about their continuous professional development. The authors define CPD as the “take-up of formal opportunities intended to deepen and extend teachers’ professional competence, including knowledge, beliefs, motivation and self-regulatory skills” (p. 15). However, the questions asked on the questionnaire reinforce a 1980s model of CPD, criticised by the authors themselves in the report, which views “teacher learning” as “something that is done to teachers” (p. 4).

If we think of CPD as an activity or a process that leads to teacher learning, leading in turn to changed classroom practice, leading finally to higher student achievement, we might want to know whether teachers count the following activities in what they consider to be participating in CPD:

  • Studying for a postgraduate qualification
  • Doing a face-to-face summer course
  • Doing an online summer course
  • Attending a conference
  • Attending a workshop on implementing a curriculum initiative
  • Attending a workshop about implementing a specific programme
  • Working on a school plan as a staff
  • Having an outside facilitator speak to staff on topics such as promoting literacy or increasing parental involvement
  • Having active membership of a professional network
  • Planning a fortnightly scheme with a colleague
  • Observing a colleague teaching
  • Discussing video records of teaching
  • Being part of a book club where the chosen texts are about teaching
  • Participating in an educational chatroom or message board
  • Developing classroom resources
  • Marking exam papers (for post-primary teachers)

In 2011 finding out about which teachers are more likely to engage in CPD is all very well. But taking part in CPD may not be enough. We need to know more about what CPD teachers find helpful, and how effective it actually is. If CPD is to be worthwhile, it needs to make a difference.  The bottom line for all of us has to be identifying what CPD changes practice, how it does so, and what CPD helps children learn more and learn better.

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