What’s in a name?

I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about what effective continuous professional development is. You might even say it has become something of an obsession after many frustrating years of struggling to make sense of the opportunities presented to me in INSET and Twilight sessions. It is well documented that teachers don’t always find the CPD  presented to them has any impact  on their classroom practice and, by default, the outcomes of students. That is despite a great deal of investment, and some attempts to reframe it as professional learning, personal development, and a variety of different initials depending on location and school. Often staff simply don’t see how what is being presented, regardless of what it is called, relates to the day-to-day realities of their classroom.  

This is not surprising, as often we label things as CPD which simply are not and are never intended to translate directly to our classroom, as opposed to other aspects of our job. Whilst it is essential we update our health and safety and safeguarding training, perhaps we would be better off not placing this alongside attempts to make meaningful changes to teaching practices, and we might be better off if all knew this right from the start, distinguishing it from the complex and difficult process of continuous professional development. 

When in school, I too was keen to relabel all meetings as professional development, in an attempt to change the culture from a passive observer in meetings to that of adult learners but this could only really work if those leading the meetings considered the nature of the sessions and the content to be covered. Sometimes this fell flat as information giving is, well, just information giving. However, if the meeting focuses on something which will change the knowledge, understanding and practices of those participating (a key idea here too-done with, not to), then we can safely say it falls under the CPD heading, especially if our intention is to be able to utilize the continuous part. Otherwise, if we just need someone to know something and it really can’t go into an email or bulletin, be clear that is what to expect from the off.  Don’t dress it up in borrowed robes.

I think this confusion of what CPD actually is can account for some of the frustration teachers feel. They don’t always know what to expect when they arrive in these sessions, even if there was a programme circulated beforehand. If we are going to just be told something (maybe necessary if we want to deliver a consistent message), make sure people know your intention. Keep these information giving sessions to the minimum where possible, following up with opportunities to ask questions, scheduled over time to check if people have understood, just as we might with students, and revisit where necessary. This would be a more productive use of time with all participants on the same page, not to conflated with actual professional development.   

Equally, check that all invited really need to be there. Whilst we might think that everyone needs to hear some of the key messages, I know that some staff have felt frustrated at sitting through meetings which meant absolutely nothing to their day-to-day job whilst their workload sat untouched in a pile growing on their virtual desk. Knowing how Year 11 did in their mocks might be important to set direction, but the admin team might take less from it, than if you made time to summarise the most important points for them and a follow up discussion. 

There are also a number of other things we do which are performed under the name CPD. I often talk about Twitter being some of the best professional development I have had. I am not being hyperbolic or flippant about that, but I know I am someone who likes to think deeply about how other practices and viewpoints impact on my own areas and processes and am prepared to do that in my own time. We can’t simply assume that of everyone. Not only can it be a big ask, but for some who do dip their toe in to the murky waters, twitter can mean scrolling through cat pictures and catching up with friends after an exhausting day. There is nothing wrong with using social media for that, but simply saying to staff get themselves on twitter is unlikely to guarantee a change in their knowledge, their thinking, and their practices. In fact, the nature of twitter can often lead to us engaging with those who are most likely to be doing the same things as us and perhaps scrolling by those things which don’t already confirm our own beliefs about our job and our role. Especially as working in education can be very tied up in how we perceive ourselves. Another reason as to why there can be so many heated disagreements on there too. It can be tricky to reconfigure the way you think about things and there are some things we just won’t shift on. 

Books are another area which often is labelled as CPD, but, perhaps controversially for someone who has had the privilege of writing books on education, we need to be cautious about what we are saying about educational reading. Again, this can be amazing CPD, I have certainly learnt a lot from an amazing range of books, but without a specific focus for our team, our school or ourselves it can soon fall flat. If however, we read about something we are working on and have an opportunity to discuss this in relation to our practice, it can be really powerful. Book groups, such as those set up by Rhiannon Rainbow and Dave Tushingham for the Greenshaw Trust, can be a good way to ensure that people are going to do more with their time spent reading that might actually change their thinking and their practices. If we can give time and space to this within the working day, all the better.

But we need to remember there are a huge range of books available, some of which can give conflicting messages. You can find a book on pretty much anything you want, and we will again often select those which already hold our interest or confirm our existing beliefs. It is reassuring to read something we nod along to, but again it is worth reflecting on what change this might bring. I come from an English background, so can never see any reading as time wasted, but if we are directing staff to this as part of their development, they need the support to get the most from it. 

The same is true of podcasts, conferences, school visits, observations, exam board meetings webinars and the vast range of other things which are presented under the name of CPD. Some people gain a lot from casting their net wide and engaging with a huge range of what is available, but as I have heard David Weston say, it can be like going shopping for ingredients without having a recipe or a dish you are aiming to produce at the end. Thinking about your focus and supporting others to do the same, will mean these opportunities can be ones which make a difference, but again only if they bring some change to classroom practices and what the students gain from them.  

I of course remain a fan of CPD. I am still constantly reading and reflecting around teaching and learning and love being able to see different ideas come to life in a range of classrooms. However, if we want CPD to have the desired impact we need to be careful about how we frame it, how we support others to get the most from it and avoid it becoming a jumble of things which may or may not make a difference. It is fantastic if you loved the session, the book or the podcast, but it is always the ‘what next’ that really matters whatever we call it.

Zoe Enser’s latest book, The CPD Curriculum: Creating conditions for growth, is available now.

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