“Teaching is not something one learns to do, once and for all, and then practises, problem free, for a lifetime, anymore than one knows how to have friends, and follows a static set of directions called ‘friendships’, through each encounter. Teaching depends on growth and development and is practised in dynamic situations that are never twice the same. Wonderful teachers young and old, will tell of fascinating insights, new understandings, unique encounters with youngsters, the intellectual puzzle and the ethical dilemmas that provide a daily challenge. Teachers, above all, must stay alive to this.”

William Ayers, To Teach

The continuous professional development of staff is essential to the success of our schools and our children’s learning. National research, impactful practice in other schools, and shared professional inquiry, are all essential for achieving a deep culture of professional learning and improvement. The question is – how can we make the most of these sources to achieve effective professional development within schools and partnerships?

For some time now it has been argued that simply ‘going on a course’ and listening to others’ accounts of ‘best practice’ has a limited impact on changing our professional behaviours and ways of working. Indeed, Professor David Hargreaves in his work on ‘self-improving’ school systems, has said that the most powerful form of professional development is that of Joint Practice Development because it is ongoing, involves regular peer dialogue and feedback – including the use of experienced coaches and mentors, and integrates the learning process with daily activities and practice in schools.

What is Joint Practice Development?

“The emergent model is less about attending conferences and courses and more about school-based, peer-to-peer activities in which development is fused with routine practice. Professional development becomes a continuous, pervasive process that builds craft knowledge, rather than an occasional activity that is sharply distinguished in time and space from routine classroom work.

Joint practice development (JPD) is a term that captures the essential features of this form of professional development:

  • It is a joint activity, in which two or more people interact and influence one another, in contrast to the non-interactive, unilateral character of much conventional ‘sharing good practice’.
  • It is an activity that focuses on teachers’ professional practice, ie what they do, not merely what they know.
  • It is a development of the practice, not simply a transfer of it from one person or place to another, and so a form of school improvement.”

Prof. David Hargreaves & National College; A self-improving system: towards maturity. 2012

The Professional Learning Community model

Schools within Kyra have been developing the PLC model for sometime now. For example, leaders such as James Siddle at St Margaret’s in Withern have capitalised on strong partnerships and collaboratives between local schools and have developed ongoing professional learning communities that have seen teachers collectively sharing and developing practice on an ongoing basis – with positive results. 

So what does this look like in practice? In the case of James’ group, colleagues have used the Education Endowment Fund’s evidence on effective feedback for learning as a starting point. The research shows how effective feedback can contribute to improved learning experiences for pupils – an issue that all those involved in the community wished to explore further. The sessions involve opportunities for the group to review and discuss the relevant research, to compare how they have applied their learning in their own settings (often within their sub networks) and what the impact of this has been, and to build on the sharing of information by action planning for further development and testing of their practices.

The sessions usually take place every four weeks and last no less than 75 minutes each. The standard format of the sessions – which is evidence-based and draws on the work of leading thinkers such as Dylan William and others – is usually as follows:

  • Introduction (by the ‘Community lead’ – usually someone with particular expertise or with a deep interest in the area of focus) 5 minutes
  • Collective Discussion – individuals summarise what they have done /implemented since the last session, including what has been trialed and tested through their action plan (developed at the previous session);
  • A Research Activity – Group discussion of a relevant research paper or article. This may take the format of a ‘book club’ based on reading recommended at the last session;
  • Planning action plans – Group and individuals plan their next steps for further refining their particular practice. This may include planning work for sub-partnerships or groups. This session may also include planning of lesson observations and further action research. In James’ words “everyone should leave the room with a self-improving agenda, the outcome of which will be shared with the group at the next session – if not before.”

James’ shares a number of key lessons for developing successful and sustained Professional Learning Communities:

  • Ensure the PLC is accessible to all. The format allows for all starting points as the discussion is always based on a sound research base and includes elements of individual planning which can then be implemented at a local or individual school level;
  • Start with a robust and sound evidence base upon which to build discussion and trial new practices. In James’ group, they have started with the EEF toolkit, which is based on research and analysis contributed by thousands of schools and subject to academic
  • Ensure groups are led by someone with the necessary enthusiasm, commitment and expertise to sustain them. We believe SLEs should play a key role in developing this approach to CPD based on their areas of knowledge and expertise.
  • Tap into existing partnerships and networks at first before expanding the group. This will ensure a culture of trust and openness is achievable from an early stage. Professional capital – i.e. sharing knowledge and best practice to the benefit of all schools and children – is an essential basis.
  • Draw upon and align with Randomised Control Trial projects where possible. This provides a framework for trialing various approaches and hypotheses with a clearer understanding how different variables contribute to improvements in children’s learning. The principles of RCTs should underpin these communities wherever possible.
  • Keep regulation of the community to a minimum. Whilst it is important to work with evidence-based formats and methodologies, the members of the group should feel a strong degree of ownership and be able to access the community from a range of starting points.
  • Ensure that the culture of openness extends to data and the need to measure impact. This leads to better understanding and evidence around what works and – crucially – what doesn’t!
  • Finally, promote your findings widely with other schools and practitioners. This will lead to even greater opportunities to share ideas and evidence, to the benefit of more children.

James Siddle & Michael Pain

Further reading:

Scaling Up Formative Assessment by Dylan William : http://www.dylanwiliam.org/Dylan_Wiliams_website/Papers.html

Towards a self-improving system: towards maturity by David Hargreaves & National College for School Leadership: http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/15804/1/a-self-improving-school-system-towards-maturity.pdf

Creating a strong culture of professionalism by Michael Pain, Forum Education: http://www.forumeducation.org/article-on-high-performing-systems-a-culture-of-professionalism/