Types of professional learning

Approaches to professional development

This topic looks at approaches to professional development that leaders and teachers find worthwhile and effective. Consider the evidence below.

The international picture

The enquiry into the professional development of teachers conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2009), in the Teaching and Learning International Survey across 30 nations, asked teachers about various activities ranging from more organised and structured to more informal and self-directed learning. The following activities were identified:

  • informal dialogue to improve teaching
  • course and workshops
  • reading professional literature
  • education conferences and seminars
  • professional development networks
  • individual and collaborative research
  • mentoring and peer observation
  • observation visits to other schools
  • qualification programmes

Of these, the type of professional development most often mentioned was 'Informal dialogue to improve teaching', with 93 per cent of teachers on average reporting this activity during the survey period. Teachers reported that the most effective forms of development were 'Individual and collaborative research', 'Informal dialogue to improve teaching' and 'Qualification programmes', all with close to 90 per cent of teachers reporting a moderate or large impact on their development as a teacher.

What do we know works well?

The EPPI-Centre (Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre) has conducted research that focused on evidence of impact rather than just self-reporting. The research looked at what specialists do in CPD programmes for which there is evidence of positive outcomes for pupils and teachers.

The EPPI-Centre research identified that the following CPD processes can be linked to impact and positive outcomes:

  • use of external expertise linked to school-based activity
  • shared observation and feedback
  • learning based in the classroom
  • teachers applying and refining new knowledge and skills and experimenting with ways of integrating them in their day-to-day practice
  • an emphasis on peer support rather than leadership by supervisors
  • scope for teacher participants to identify their own CPD focus, its starting points and pace
  • processes to encourage, extend and structure professional dialogue as well as ongoing collaborative working
  • processes for sustaining the CPD over time to enable teachers to embed the practices in their own classroom settings
  • pair- and/or small-group work, which may be more effective than larger discussion groups



Potentially, all of the above activities can be appropriate if applied in the right circumstances and to meet a specific need. An important issue to consider, however, is how these strategies are applied in order to achieve positive and sustained change to practice.

Robinson promotes the practice of building capacity in the school by 'integrating doing the work with learning how to improve the work', and supports the concept of teacher learning as a collective endeavour:

The most powerful way that school leaders can make a difference to the learning of their students is by promoting and participating in the professional learning and development of their teachers… I have described this dimension as promoting and participating in teacher learning because the leadership practices involved go well beyond organising and resourcing the professional development programme.

Robinson, 2011, p104

Robinson describes the contexts for involvement in learning opportunities as being both 'formal', for example, staff meetings and professional development activities, and 'informal' perhaps in the form of corridor or office discussions about specific teaching problems:

Leaders who participate with their staff are able to join in their professional discussions because they understand the concepts and the vocabulary associated with the new learning. Leaders' public endorsements of the importance of the learning or of the expertise of a facilitator are likely to be more credible because teachers know their leaders have first-hand experience of what they are endorsing.

Robinson, 2011, p105

Many organisations now take a blended approach to professional development (that is, they combine a range of methods of learning) in order to maximise learning and, so increase the potential impact on pupils.

The National College has taken this approach since it opened in 2001 and has refined the blend over the years to reflect research evidence.

Through its signature characteristics, the National College promotes and encourages the following combination of strategies:

  • leadership development in the workplace (learning on the job, doing real leadership work)
  • challenge and support (through coaching, line management)
  • high-quality learning resources drawing on research and evaluation evidence
  • learning from and with credible peers
  • opportunities for structured reflection

How these ingredients are combined will depend on the purpose of the professional development. Effective leaders know the importance of creating a learning culture within the school and looking outwards to connect with the larger system.



Structured reflection

Task 1

Critically consider Robinson’s approach to teacher learning:

  • How does Robinson’s approach to teacher learning as a collective endeavour prompt your thinking about how you would lead professional development in your school or academy and about the types of professional learning offered to teachers?
  • What opportunities do you take in your current senior leadership role to learn alongside and with the teams you are responsible for?

Task 2

Discuss the National College’s signature characteristics with colleagues and critically reflect on how you combine different strategies to optimise learning.

  • What are the challenges to this approach and what are the prerequisites for it to work?
  • If you are aspiring to headship, what are the implications for you?

Record your thoughts.


Analysis of practice

Revisit the module case study, and critically review how the headteacher describes how a whole-school development priority has been successfully supported with professional development activities for the teachers.

  • In what ways does the approach described here reflect Robinson's approach to teacher learning as a collective endeavour?

  • How clear is the link between the whole-school objective, the aims of the CPD and range and type of professional development activities applied here? Could it be strengthened?