The Art of Getting it Wrong: Or how not to CPD

One of the things I love abut twitter (other than the obvious access to D&D chat and the fact that Mark Hamill liked my tweet!!) is how it gets me thinking. I have always been a reflective practitioner. Indeed, I have, and continue to be, a reflective person, sometimes spending far too much time reflecting and not enough time producing (as I write this, I am supposed to be reading through a wonderful book by Biesta on education).However, instead of getting on with this, I yet again find myself thinking deeply about some of my CPD experiences over the years, prompted by a poll on teacher training put up by Gary Hammonds and the subsequent discussions with people such as Nick Wood, Jade Hickin and CKeeling.

CPD, or CPL as I prefer to call it, is, or rather should be, at the heart of all we are aiming to do in schools. We want to improve learning, outcomes and opportunities for our students, so we need to get better at actually understanding how to do it and spend time practising doing the things we know work well.

It sounds simple and obvious. We all want to do that. Nobody wants to go into work and spend time on things which make no difference or have no value. That way madness must surely lie, and I have yet to meet a teacher who genuinely doesn’t want to improve their practice. I’ve met some who don’t know how to achieve this, have been pulled in many conflicting directions, or find making changes difficult and don’t have the carefully structured support to do so. I have met far too many teachers who are simply trying to stay afloat in a system which seems to be increasingly demanding more. But even amongst those who are exhausted by the effort, effective CPD can really invigorate them and even provide opportunities to decrease workload. Take for example the research which continues to emerge in relation to marking. Apparently, hours and hours of forensic marking and cycles of colourful feedback might not be the best way to get results. Who knew?!

Yet, despite an understanding of the importance of continuous development, I have seen some shockingly poor practice over the years and whilst talking on twitter I found myself compiling a list of my top CPD faux pas.

No plan

It wasn’t until I actually got to peep behind the leadership curtain and see what was going on behind the scenes that I realised how random it could be. Those who were leading on key elements would unfortunately have no real plan as to how things should look, often not engaging in research themselves or so removed from the day to classroom practice to the point that they had forgotten to make the links between the big ideas and what might work.

This sadly mean that CPD provision tended to be either stale or reactive. Some might dust off the same session year on year, or rely on updates from the government. I lost track of how many times I sat though the same sessions, with tiny amendments on AFL and Every Child Matters without any real drive to change what was going to happen in the classroom.

Alternatively, you have those who leap onto the next big thing that has been mentioned, without taking the time to consider what might underpin it, how it might work in their context or even if it is appropriate. The wonderful Ronsenshine Principles was a case in point, something I wrote about here, with many immediately seeing its tick list potential as opposed to a gateway into some very interesting ideas about instruction and how we learn.

The other issue can be when there is a problem has been sold alongside a solution and it isn’t actually relevant to the big issues that are plaguing a school. Again, leaders who are desperate for a quick fix can all too often get drawn in by these, often attractively packaged, offers.

Without a plan, or a curriculum for CPD, sessions can seem disconnected with no over-arching idea of what we want to achieve and how we are going to get there. Just like the students, we need a road map to indicate which way we are going to steer.

No time

If we are going to make significant change and explore complex ideas, squeezing a session into an INSET day, when people’s thoughts are focused reorganising their room and lesson planning, or into a twilight session or two, is a bad idea. Reflection and change takes time (something I also wrote about here) and yet we are always rushing to deliver information, have people assimilate it and take action the very next day. We all need time to consider and reflect and the reflect some more. If we think what we want to implement is important, we must allow the time and space for that to happen.

No trust

I am, and have always been, one of those people who will immerse myself completely in my learning. I will read, discuss, explore and think about my subject and my profession until the cows come home. However, all too often, our own learning isn’t valued or even recognised. If it wasn’t on the plan (if there was one) or didn’t take place in the school hall at a set time, then it simply doesn’t count.

I have learnt a huge amount from attending events, personal reading, taking part in the Evidence Based Education’s Assessment Lead programme and funding my own MA in my subject. However, I’ve been told this was for personal interest and therefore wasn’t part of development as recognised in the school. Never mind that it re-engaged me with my discipline or enabled me to make significant changes to my practice. Some schools are good at recognising this, and even buy tickets, fund learning and offer days in lieu. I wasn’t too fussed about the funding or time, although of course it would always be nice, but it would be good to have it acknowledged and to see others encouraged to explore the same routes. Some people can’t invest time like this unless supported to do so.

Under the ‘no trust’ heading I would also add those sessions where someone has information to disseminate and whatever happens that is what they will damn well do. They talk for an hour about updates or what they have been looking at as part of their role and it doesn’t really matter if it has been learnt or will change behaviours. It just needs to be done! Seemingly staff can’t be trusted to know something unless you stand and talk over a power point. It is all about making sure that it was given to them. The same goes for getting people to sign they have read documents. Do we really think so little of each other?

No awareness of their learners

While we are talking about talking over-power points, now would be a good time to mention methods of delivery and purpose of the sessions. Disconnected ice-breakers (I favour a bit of retrieval or sharing of previous developments as people arrive), overlong presentations, one size fits all and complicated information squeezed into a slot after a five period day with prep needed for the next day, is not really showing awareness of your learners. We talk about working memory, cognitive load, generative learning strategies, clarity of explanation and modelling for our pupils, but little thought seems to be given to this for staff. Yes, they are more proficient learners than our students, but again, if the ideas are complex, we need to take the same steps in considering our approaches with them.

We need to consider what the outcome of the session should be too. If it is just to deliver something rather than ensuring staff are equipped to do something with it, then I would suggest time is being wasted for all.

Ultimately good CPL will be to enable staff to follow bespoke programmes which feed into the whole school objectives and empower them to pursue their own development. If they take ownership of this then we have a team who will be driving forward the improvements continuously.

No respect for the subject

Whilst there is a place for generic ideas, for example when looking at behaviour, questioning techniques, modelling, summary etc, we know that these have tended to dominate CPD sessions over the years. Introduce the research or the technique by all means, but time needs to be given to looking at how this relates to individual subjects.

Don’t insist on whole school sessions where department time might be more valuable and make sure middle leaders aren’t swamped with demands for data or information which make devoting time to the subject in meetings difficult.

However, don’t assume that everyone should just be left to get on with it. In the same way we support teachers when talking about the generic approaches we also need to support them to develop their subject knowledge and pedagogy. Not everyone is going to be confident in how to achieve this. In addition to providing time give supportive frameworks, structures and guidance to enable people to make good use of this opportunity. Help middle leaders too to decide on what to focus on and how to explore it with their team. The subject meeting approach at Durrington School was the first of the kind I came across something like this and it clearly outlined how departments could approach their own development. Just as with the whole school development sessions, this programme takes planning, time, trust and awareness of the learners in the team. Sessions like this could end up being highly bespoke as people fill their own gaps in knowledge or places where the expertise is shared across a team to agree a focus or approach.


I, like many others who have worked in education for a few decades, have a million horror stories about poor delivery and nonsense ideas (sitting in a session both making and wearing a thinking hat whilst doing brain gym anyone?) or being told that we “have to do this for OFSTED”, but I like to think that these are a thing of the past. Teachers have seen the quality of what can now be on offer, not least over the last few months where ResearchEd, Lit Drive and many others have provided free or cheap CPD options from the comfort of your sofa. I hope that this means the profession will continue to move forward in how they view staff development and learning. Not least to ensure that wellbeing of teachers and the sense of autonomy they need to really develop is kept very much at the fore of their upcoming plans. 

Zoe Enser is the lead specialist English advisor for Kent working with The Education People. Her first book, Fiorella & Mayer’s Generative Learning in Action is available for pre-order now.


4 thoughts on “The Art of Getting it Wrong: Or how not to CPD

  1. I am a single person department and this makes in-school CPD almost completely useless for me – what I need is support to go out of the building!


    • Well that is a shame that you have no way to gain something from what is on offer in school. I suggest that actually whoever is in charge of CPD works with you to make it more relevant and have an impact.


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