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Ensuring a high-quality workforce means having access to high-quality continuing professional development (CPD). The motivation to continually refine one’s practice is part of what it means to be an early years professional. As educationalist Dylan Wiliam says, all practitioners need to improve ‘not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better’.
Research has shown that high-quality interactions between adults and children are the key ingredient in effective early education. So how can settings and school leaders identify the CPD to get them there?
Over the past 20 years, many programmes have been developed and tested as part of research studies and found to be successful in improving child outcomes. We know that investing in CPD can make a difference; but we also know that not all CPD is up to the job. Of the programmes tested through research, there are as many showing no effects as there are successful ones. Successful interventions that have been tested as part of academic studies are often not available to settings and schools; and the CPD that is available has often not been evaluated.
While organisations like the Education Endowment Foundation are beginning to build a knowledge base by robustly testing approaches, the list of evidence-based approaches for the early years is still very limited. A recent review concluded that practitioner CPD opportunities in England are insufficiently evidence-based, do not focus sufficiently on specific child needs and are too inconsistent in quality (Cordingley et al, 2015).
Approaches to CPD vary so widely that it is difficult – and unhelpful – to try to identify which ‘types’ are effective: professional development can include external training courses, support embedded within the classroom context (e.g. coaching, mentoring) and peer support networks (e.g. lesson study, learning networks/communities). A more promising approach is to draw on research evidence about the characteristics of effective professional development to help decide which CPD to choose.
Characteristics of effective CPD
To help identify which features of CPD are likely to be successful in achieving changes to knowledge, practice and child outcomes, I have summarised some points from the available research.
1. At the top of the list is having a specific and articulated objective: starting with the end in mind. This means being clear about what you need to improve (e.g. supporting children’s self-regulation) and seeking or developing CPD with high-quality content which meets that need. Research shows that very general CPD – for example, which aims to cover all EYFS areas of learning and development – will probably be too broad to be effective.
2. The length and depth of CPD should be matched to the content. Short and sharp CPD can be effective if you need to develop a narrow aspect of knowledge or practice; for example, health and safety training. But to develop and improve a complex aspect of practice, culture or leadership, more will be needed: most one-off workshops or twilight sessions will do little to promote change. Training can be highly effective if it is of sufficient duration and intensity, and designed using evidence-based principles, but the evidence suggests that 20 contact hours or more – over two terms or longer – is needed for CPD which aims to achieve deep and sustainable change.
3. Effective CPD has an explicit focus on practice, and on linking theory to practice. It will include both theoretical knowledge (the what) and its application to practice (the how), and build in explicit support for work-based learning and transfer to practice.
4. Collective participation of practitioners from the same settings or school is also important. Anyone who has been responsible for cascading external CPD will recognise the challenges of finding the time to share learning with colleagues, and of acting on that learning to inform change, when you have been the sole attendee at a training course.
5. Effective CPD draws on expert knowledge when needed, including knowledge from research, theory and high-quality practice, but is also appropriate for the individual setting and children. Developing and/or commissioning effective CPD means balancing all these requirements.
6. Finally, effective CPD involves active rather than passive learning: adults are no different to children in this regard. This can take many forms, but might include professional enquiry, discussion, action research, active use of child assessment or practice observation to inform change. What springs to mind is the often-cited quote from an unknown practitioner who wished s/he might ‘die during an inservice [training programme] because the transition between life and death would be so subtle’. Effective CPD should not send us to sleep but engage, empower, challenge and excite us as professionals: it should be ‘minds on’.
What can you do in your own setting/school?
- Prioritise and plan for high-quality continuing professional development. Rather than responding when a training need arises, actively take the initiative in the form of a staff development plan. Start with your child assessments: what do children need, and is your team equipped to meet those needs? Use self-evaluation tools to support shared observation and professional discussion about practice strengths and areas for development.
- Use the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit and other sources to identify evidence-based approaches and programmes, but also consider carefully which are right for your setting and children and how you might need to adapt them (while retaining the ‘active ingredients’ which make them evidence-based and likely to be effective). This advice is frustratingly difficult to act on at the moment, as so few evidence-based approaches are available for the early years. But the knowledge base is growing, and strong demand for research-informed CPD from the sector will help to make sure this continues. We – practitioners and researchers alike – need to argue in particular for a greater emphasis on effective approaches and information for the PVI sector (see box).
- Use research evidence on the characteristics of effective CPD to guide decisions about which external CPD to invest in, and development of your in-house CPD. Questions to ask yourself and/or potential CPD providers might include:
- What CPD do you need for your staff team (and how do you know you need it)?
- Does the CPD have clear and articulated objectives for improving a specific aspect of children’s development, professional learning or practice, and does this match your plan?
- Is the length and duration appropriate to support sustainable change? How do you know?
- Does the content specifically address the intended goal; how is this informed by research?
- Can the CPD be applied in practice and does it actively support application? How?
- What are the opportunities for collective participation/learning? How will you plan for and support whole-team learning and application if not everyone has been involved in the CPD?
- What are the opportunities for active professional learning and enquiry?
- How will the CPD allow you to use evidence-based approaches but also meet the specific needs of your setting, staff and children?
- Plan for making the most of your investment in CPD. Make concrete arrangements for engaging and involving the whole team if not everyone has been involved. Plan for application to practice and invest time in making sure this happens and is sustained. Try things out, refine and adapt based on evidence. CPD is a process rather than an event.
- If you are using structured interventions or programmes in your setting or school (e.g. programmes which provide a specific script or activities to follow), consider how these will facilitate professional development and learning. Where possible, choose programmes which do both (i.e. provide a script or structured activities embedded within a CPD programme; or provide materials explaining the theory and principles behind the script or structured activities).
- Evaluate the impact of the CPD. Try to avoid using a tick-list approach. How has staff knowledge and understanding been developed? How do you know that there has been a change in your targeted outcome for improvement?
Sandra Mathers is a senior researcher at the University of Oxford. She is an expert in child development, early years pedagogy and professional development. She leads the development of the URLEY (Using Research Tools to Enhance Language in the Early Years) professional development programme.
Quality assurance for teachers
A promising project has just begun to develop a CPD quality assurance system for England. Led by the Chartered College of Teaching, this is an important exercise and one which tackles some important questions (e.g. who decides what ‘quality’ looks like). But, as with so many of the efforts in this area, the project does not currently consider CPD for practitioners working outside the school sector. We urgently need to broaden the discussion to consider how settings as well as schools can access and develop effective CPD which will support a strong workforce for all children (see References and further reading).
References and further reading
URLEY project: developed using the evidence-based principles outlined in this article, to support improving the quality of language-supporting practice. Currently being evaluated by the EEF with results due later in 2019, https://bit.ly/2Fvps9B
Quality Assurance CPD consultation, https://chartered.college/get-involved-new-cpd-consultation
Cordingley et al(2015) Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the International Reviews into Effective Professional Development, https://bit.ly/2EoEWhW
Timperley et al(2007) Teacher professional learning and development: Best evidence synthesis iteration, www.educationcounts.govt.nz
Zaslow et al(2010) Towards the Identification of Features of Effective Professional Development for Early Childhood Educators: Literature Review, https://bit.ly/2VqfmPv
Stoll et al(2012) Great professional development which leads to great pedagogy: nine claims from research, https://bit.ly/2HaZsEX