The EEF’s Jonathan Sharples explains how professional development fits into the process of implementing new approaches in the classroom.
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In the 10 years that the EEF has been up and running, we have learnt a huge amount about teaching and learning. One of the most striking insights that has emerged from the evidence base has been that how things are implemented in classrooms is as significant as what is implemented in classrooms.
The popular programme, Embedding Formative Assessment, helpfully exemplifies the judicious combination of powerful evidence-based pedagogies on assessment (‘what’) with a structured focus on implementation (‘how’).
The recent EEF Guidance Report on Effective Professional Development has added new insights around the ways in which we can support teachers to develop their practice through high quality professional development. But where does professional development fit in with the implementation of a new strategy or approach?
PD is just one possible implementation activity
Whilst drilling down into the detail of what effective PD looks like is certainly useful, schools should also step back and consider how it works alongside other potential implementation activities.
The emerging evidence on implementation suggests a combination of activities is likely to be effective – such as communication, incentives, and monitoring. This means PD should ideally be part of a package of implementation activities, that reinforce each other and are sequenced appropriately.
For example, if staff don’t understand why a whole-school training opportunity is being provided, or aren’t motivated to take up that opportunity, it may be better to build staff motivation first through, say, piloting the approach in specific classes or year groups. This is important, as schools tend to default to professional development as the principal implementation activity without necessarily reflecting on how it works alongside other activities (sometimes referred to as ‘train and pray’!).
And when we zoom out even further and look at implementation as a whole, the selection of implementation activities (including PD) becomes just one thing to consider. We also need to think about how we identify priorities, select the right approaches to implement, communicate clearly, plan and monitor implementation, and develop a vibrant improvement culture, etc.
Amidst the complexity of school improvement, we can describe implementation as “the aggregation of lots of small things done well”. Helpfully, the new PD guidance offers steers to do one of those crucial things well.
‘Active ingredients’ vs ‘mechanisms’?
The Effective Professional Development guidance report has introduced an important shift from discussing different forms of PD (e.g. coaching) to the key mechanisms that underpin PD (e.g. such as ‘revisiting prior learning’, and ‘prompting action planning’). This has enabled a more precise understanding of the ‘building blocks’ of effective PD, thereby creating a more actionable set of recommendations.
If you’re familiar with the School’s Guide to Implementation, you may be wondering how the ‘mechanisms’ in the PD report relate to the term ‘active ingredients’.
When using ‘active ingredients’, we are referring to the distinct behaviours, principles and practices that a school is looking to introduce through an intervention i.e. defining what precisely the approach is seeking to do (see here for a summary).
In contrast, the ‘mechanisms’ in the PD guidance report are describing the key elements of one particular implementation activity – Professional Development – so are focused on how those key behaviours and practices are introduced.
As an example, if we wanted to implement retrieval practice in our school or in a department, we might summarise the ‘active ingredients’ of the approach like this:
1) Retrieval practice takes place at the beginning of lessons and last no more than 5 minutes.
2)Teachers use multiple-choice questions to structure retrieval practice.
3) The questions test high-value knowledge.
4) The questions are challenging.
5) The distractors include common misconceptions.
6) Specifying these active ingredients allows us to communicate clearly: ‘This is what retrieval practice means in this school/department’. It allows us to build a shared understanding of what is being introduced and to better monitor its implementation.
Of course, we can’t just tell teachers this and expect it to happen. We need implementation activities to introduce the approach into their practice. It is very likely that supporting the implementation of a new set of practices, such as the example above, will include professional development. This is when applying a balanced combinations of mechanisms matters.
Making changes in schools is a complex act. School leaders need to balance the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. By integrating the evidence on effective implementation and professional development, we can better develop a shared language for supporting change in our schools.
This blog originally appeared on the EEF website.