Improving the Effectiveness of Professional Development

It was great to attend the IATEFL Conference last week after a few years away. In particular, after what feels like years of working online, it was just so nice to meet people in person again and to give a talk to a real audience.

In the talk, I discussed a number of factors which – based on my experience as an evaluator in the last 10 years – make a difference to the effectiveness of organised professional development programmes for English language teachers. I went back and read several evaluation reports I had written – 12 to be precise, from 12 programmes in 12 different countries involving around 30,000 teachers in total – and looked for insight into elements that enabled these programmes to achieve more (or, in contrast, which limited their impact).

There were too many factors to cover in the 30 minutes available, so I focused on six (though on further reflection I’ve decided to replace ‘teacher autonomy’ in my original list with ‘teacher motivation’):

Overall, when a professional development programme, addresses these factors carefully, it is more likely to impact positively on teachers, including by promoting pedagogical change. The practical messages for anyone designing a programme to support the professional learning of English language teachers are as follows:

  • Needs analysis informed by multiple sources of information (including, crucially, evidence of what teachers do in classrooms) allows appropriate decisions to be made about the areas of their work teachers need support with; relying on one source of information (including what teachers say they need) is a less effective approach;
  • Understanding, strengthening and sustaining teacher motivation to grow professionally and to innovate in the classroom are key elements in effective professional development programme design (teacher motivation, in my view, is more important than teacher autonomy – especially when joining a programme is mandatory);
  • English teachers’ levels of English proficiency vary considerably across global contexts; where they are modest (such as A2, which is often below the target set for learners), it is important for professional development to provide sustained opportunities (i.e. many hours) for teachers to improve their English and not to focus only on teaching skills in the hope that teachers’ English will develop incidentally;
  • Without support for innovation as a design feature of professional development programmes, teachers will find it difficult to change, in any sustained manner, how they teach; support for change at classroom and school level is thus vital (professional development which does not impact on what teachers do is ultimately of questionable value);
  • In-service teacher educators (whatever particular name they are given) play a vital role in supporting teacher professional development; on effective programmes, teacher educators meet ‘advanced’ criteria and receive preparation for their role as well as ongoing support;
  • Key decisions about professional development programmes should be informed by an understanding of the socio-educational context in which the programme will take place. For example, asking teachers to work at the weekend may be acceptable in some contexts but not in others; expecting teachers to engage in collaborative reflection will not be feasible (without support) if ‘collaboration’ and ‘reflection’ are not part of teachers’ current professional practices; and whether teachers work with prescribed textbooks and assessment procedures also makes a big difference to the kinds of pedagogical change professional development can feasibly aim for.

There are several other factors that should be considered when professional development programmes are being designed but which I did not discuss in the talk (see below). In some cases, their presence is always facilitative (such as appropriate objectives, or resources ) while in others appropriate choices need to be made among the options available (such as programme duration – longer programmes are not by definition always better than shorter ones). Teacher autonomy is desirable but, in my experience, not vital. And where professional development aims for systemic change (for example, in an organisation, district or even country) too much individual teacher autonomy can be counter-productive. ‘Controlled autonomy’ is a concept I find useful – space for individual choice within a broader standardized professional development framework.

Readers may also be interested in going back to my earlier related post on designing effective CPD and which the ideas presented in this year’s IATEFL talk are related to. A recent research report on in-service trainers may also be of interest.

It would be interesting to hear from readers who are involved in designing professional development programmes – does my analysis reflect your experience and are there other key factors that could be mentioned?

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New Research on In-Service Teacher Educators

Given the important role that in-service teacher educators play in education systems worldwide, the volume of research that studies their work remains surprisingly scarce. One reason for this is that the role of the in-service teacher educator itself is not always officially defined in different educational contexts. Another is that the specialized knowledge and skills the role calls for are often not sufficiently understood (and so, for example, in-service teacher educators are often seen as simply more experienced, qualified or capable teachers). Clearly, though, the quality of professional development teachers receive is affected by teacher educator competence, and improved teacher educator effectiveness is an important element in the broader goal of improving educational outcomes.

The British Council has in recent years expanded the dedicated support it provides for teacher educators globally through a range of self-access and more formally organised resources and activities – information about these is available here. At country level, too, the British Council commissions research into the work of teacher educators and a recent study I conducted in Nepal with my colleague there Prem Prasad Poudel has just been published. Entitled, ‘The practices, perspectives and professional needs of in-service teacher educators in Nepal‘, the study focuses on teacher educators (referred to locally as trainers) who deliver in-service courses for Provincial Education Training Centres (PETCs). One defining feature of these teacher educators is that the vast majority of them work on a ‘roster’ basis – i.e. being a teacher educator is not their primary role in the education system (most are teachers) and they deliver courses for the PETCs periodically when called upon. The purpose of the research was to understand the experiences of these teacher educators (across a range of subjects) and to make recommendations for improving in-service trainer capacity and effectiveness in Nepal.

This study took place between October and December 2023, and evidence was collected from teachers, trainers and PETC officials in all seven provinces of Nepal through the observation of training sessions, face-to-face and remote individual and group interviews and an online trainer survey. The results highlighted strengths of the in-service training system in Nepal (such as motivated trainers) but also several factors that limit the quality of their work (such as lack of opportunities for professional development). These are discussed in the report, along with 20 recommendations for concrete measures that can be taken to strengthen several dimensions of Nepal’s in-service training system.

This study is of more general relevance to educational systems where centrally organised in-service training is the main form of professional development that teachers have access to.

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Making Assessment a More Positive Experience

I had the enjoyable experience last week of speaking to a group of school and university language teachers on the theme of how to make assessment a more positive experience for students. I built on themes I have discussed in previous blogs on assessment, such as this one and this one too. Here’s a summary of some key points.

Most teachers would agree (i.e. stated beliefs) that assessment should serve positive functions. The 69 responses below collected through an in-session poll reflect this, with higher levels of agreement on the two positive items:

In practice, though (i.e. enacted beliefs), the ways in which assessment is conducted often do not reflect these positive views. This becomes clear when assessment processes and tasks are analysed and especially when students’ perceptions about assessment are explored. Here’s what a secondary school student said when I asked him whether there was anything pleasant about his assessment experiences:

To be honest, it’s pleasant because you’re done with it. You know, you get your mark and you don’t have to worry about that anymore.

A key question for teachers, then, is what adjustments to assessment will give students the best chance to show what they know and make assessment a more motivating and constructive process for them? We can consider this question at different stages of the assessment process:

For example, at the preparation stage, giving students clear information about what is to be assessed and the possible assessment tasks can help them prepare with greater confidence. Effective (i.e. valid) assessment design also gives students better opportunities to perform well. And, especially when students do not perform well, feedback can play an important role in encouraging students to sustain motivation and continue learning.

Many students, though, do not experience motivating feedback of this kind. I asked my student informant what feedback he gets when he does not do well on assessments:

Well, then they don’t really say anything. They just say, ‘oh, you didn’t do well’.

Teachers who write lengthy feedback highlighting what students did wrong may feel they are working hard to support students, but students may not feel this is helpful. Here’s a further extract from my conversation with the same student:

How do you feel when you get a page of writing back and it’s all red?
Annoyed mostly.
Why annoyed?
Well, because if you got the answers wrong there’s nothing you can do about that on an essay. No, there’s no need, like you make a mistake once and then she writes a whole paragraph. ‘Why did you do this?’ and fills up your whole page.
So that kind of detailed feedback doesn’t make you feel good?
No, because it’s not feedback, it is ‘you did this wrong’.

The key messages from the talk were:

  1. Assessment affects student motivation towards the subject.
  2. It does not have to be an unpleasant experience for students and can be motivating.
  3. Small adjustments at different stages of the process can improve students’ ability to prepare, perform, and continue learning afterwards.
  4. Improving teachers’ assessment literacy is a key factor in the process of allowing assessment to serve a more positive function.
  5. Evaluating assessment (stage 6 above) involves reflecting on how effective it was and can be informed by feedback from students.
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Planning Teacher CPD – Key Principles

This post is linked to yesterday’s webinar on key principles in planning effective CPD for teachers. A recording of the webinar will be available soon on the TeachingEnglish website, but here is the final summary slide with the 10 principles that I presented:

(Borg 2023)

These are 10 (rather than the 10) key issues to consider when CPD for teachers is being planned and implemented. Some approaches to CPD lend themselves more easily to these principles, but, generally, attention to these issues can enhance the value for teachers of organized CPD – both smaller-scale (such as school level) or on larger programmes seeking systemic change in an education system.

The list could be extended. For example, a principle about the importance of evaluating the impact of CPD could be added.

Another issue relates to teacher autonomy – though the principle here is not that teachers should always be given the freedom to take part in CPD and to make decisions about what and how they learn. These are desirable features of CPD but in many contexts (and especially where large-scale educational reform is being targeted) giving teachers too much choice will not generate positive results. The principle, then, might be that decisions about how much choice teachers have in their CPD should reflect the goals of the programme, the educational culture and teachers’ readiness to exercise autonomy.

Teacher motivation is another vital component in CPD, but it is not explicitly addressed in the above list of 10 principles. While attention to these principles (such as making CPD an active and relevant experience for teachers) will enhance their motivation to participate, the issue is probably important enough to merit a principle of its own – for example, ‘teacher motivation to engage in CPD is a key element in its effectiveness’. I must stress, though, that teacher motivation alone is insufficient for CPD to lead to positive changes in teaching and learning – effective opportunities for teachers to develop are also required, as suggested by the original 10 principles.

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Initial Teacher Education in ELT

Back in May I wrote about what matters most when education systems are trying to improve levels of English among learners. I concluded that the qualiity of initial teacher education is vital. Studies of high-performing education systems often refer to the emphasis that is placed on attracting the best candidates to teacher education programmes and on providing initial teacher education that equips graduates with the knowledge, skills and other attributes that underpin teacher competence. But it remains the case in many countries that graduates qualify to become teachers of English without doing a programme that is specific to English and, even where it is about English, without doing many courses that have a teaching focus (as opposed to literarature, linguistics or education generally). A recent report on ELT in India, for example, noted that

There are few opportunities available for initial teacher
training designed specifically for aspiring teachers
of English or for newly recruited teachers of English.
Whatever training they receive is in the form of limited
input on teaching English as part of courses or training
programmes meant for all teachers teaching at the
primary level
. (p.34)

In Iraq, English programmes in Colleges of Education have traditionally been dominated by literature and lingustics courses (though reform is taking place), while a report that has just been published about Nepal also raises questions about the quality of initial English teacher preparation. For example, one B.Ed. English programme contained 45 courses but the first ELT course was the 24th. A course on ‘An Introduction to SLA’ was the 39th. Assessment on the programme was also found to focus largely on the recall of factual information.

While different contexts require specific approaches, insights from the international literature can provide direction for the design of initial teacher education programmes in ELT. A discussion is provided in Section 3.1 of this report while further insight is also available in broader discussions of the competences teachers need, such as the ‘Global Framework of Professional Teaching Standards’ proposed by Education International and UNESCO. Frameworks from our field provided by the British Council (CPD Framework) and Cambridge (English Teaching Framework) are also important sources of guidance for programme content.

This list can without doubt be extended (please make suggestions). Overall, though, initial teacher preparation programmes for teachers of English will be more effective (i.e. will produce graduates who are well-equipped to support the learning of English) when they

  • are based on clearly defined and sound standards for teacher competence
  • guided by principles of teaching and learning which are consistently applied across courses
  • model effective pedagogical and assessment practices
  • support the development of graduates’ English language abilities
  • develop high levels of teaching knowledge (specific to English and more generally educational)
  • focus deeply on subject matter pedagogy (teaching English)
  • make learning to teach (often in a particular context) the central concern
  • emphasise the development of students’ identities as teachers from the outset
  • provide insights from and experiences of real classrooms throughout programme (not just a practicum in the final year)
  • involve student teachers in a range of assessments, including those of a more performative, inquiry-based and reflective nature.

It is also important to stress the importance of teacher educator competence in effective pre-service programmes; programme reform must also often involve professional development for the teacher educators themselves (see this CPD framework for teacher educators for one analysis of the competences teacher educators need).

It would interesting to hear about pre-service programmes in different contexts and comments on what makes them more and less effective in preparing teachers of English.

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