Earlier this year, the Research Partnership for Professional Learning (RPPL) reviewed the evidence on professional development with the goal of “identifying common beliefs about professional development (PD) that are not supported by research evidence.” They presented their conclusions in a report that outlined six “myths” and “truths” about Parkinson’s disease.
RPPL is a collective of individuals and organizations that aims to advance educational equity and student achievement by exploring and sharing the characteristics of effective PD. They’re mostly from the US, so we set out to apply their myths to the English context.
Myth 1: PD is a waste of time and money
Truth: Evidence shows that PD can lead to changes in teacher skills and teaching practices, and can significantly improve student learning.
England are undoubtedly ahead of the curve in this respect. Recent reforms such as the ECF and the new NPQ suite have systematically increased investment in PD. Grassroots communities like ResearchEd and eduTwitter also constantly catalyze critical conversations about how we can ensure PD is a good use of resources.
Myth 2: PD is more effective for newbies and less for experienced ones
Truth: PD has been shown to support teacher development at all levels of experience.
Whilst England certainly has some examples of PD specifically designed for more experienced teachers such as For example, with Ambition’s Masters in Expert Teaching, we can probably do more to support, develop (and celebrate) this important segment of the workforce.
Myth 3: PD programs must be part-time and time-consuming to be effective
Truth: Broadcasts of different lengths and different formats can have far-reaching effects depending on the use of time.
The Tl; dr here is that quality beats quantity. The EDF’s recent systematic review of PD is a great example of how informed the UK thinks on the quality side of things. Granted, PD is complex, and it will take decades to get the level of nuance we want, but it’s extremely valuable to see progress in this area.
Myth 4: Improving teachers’ skills is key to improving their teaching practice
Truth: PD programs that target classroom practices directly are more likely to transform student learning than those that focus on content knowledge.
One of the things that the EEF review confirmed for us is that an effective PD must do both and more. It requires know-how about effective teaching, examples of what this looks like in practice, ways to practice with feedback and support in habit building. Not an easy task, but Parkinson’s programs in England are increasingly incorporating these ‘active ingredients’ into their offerings.
Myth 5: Research-based PD programs are unlikely to work at scale or in new contexts
Truth: Programs can have a positive impact on a wide range of schools, but strong implementation can help sustain the impact at scale.
We are currently seeing this with the ECF and the new NPQ suite. Scaling such programs is possible, but requires careful implementation attention. Implementation is notoriously difficult, but not all programs fail to scale. We can learn a lot from this when it comes to ensuring positive impacts of PD at scale.
Myth 6: Districts should implement research-based PD programs without modification
Truth: exercise fidelity first, then conform with guard rails.
The evidence for active ingredients in effective PD helps steer us in the right direction when considering how to most effectively tailor PD to individuals and school settings without losing the essence of the effect. A means of better capturing and sharing these insights would be of real value to the system.
If these myths are less prevalent in the UK than in the US, it is partly because reforms in England are drawing welcome attention and investment towards Parkinson’s. It’s also thanks to the many generous individuals and organizations who work hard to understand and improve their PD offering for teachers and school leaders.
And that is an encouraging sign for our burgeoning evidence-based profession.