Principles of professional learning

…or Darwinian teacher learning: diversify, struggle, adapt

Below are the principles I work by in designing professional learning opportunities. They are gleaned from a mixture of experience, evaluation and staying close to the research on how teachers learn.

The Sutton Trust report What makes great teaching (2015), the Teacher Development Agency’s review Developing great teaching (2015), CUREEs Understanding what enables high quality professional learning (2011) and Helen Timperley’s Practical Approaches to improve teacher professional learning (2008) are all recent research reviews that should guide schools and providers of professional development. All reviews are in agreement that outside expertise is one, crucial element to secure the impact of professional learning on outcomes for pupils.

‘Expertise external to the group of participating teachers is necessary to challenge existing assumptions and develop the kinds of new knowledge and skills associated with positive outcomes for students.’ (Timperley et al 2007)

So, deep, secure subject knowledge matters. Pupils do better in classrooms where their teachers are knowledgeable and confident about their knowledge (What makes great teaching, Coe et al, 2015.) Knowledge needs to be developed, however, in tandem with approaches to teaching and in a way that supports teachers to make sense of new knowledge based on their current thinking and to develop knowledge in tandem with pedagogy.

How do we best provide a fertile ground for this to happen?

Collaboration in joint professional learning can lead to spurious consensus or a disgruntled state of compromise. To truly harness the wisdom of crowds, groups of learners, be they teachers or students, need an expert facilitator who knows when to introduce conflict, when to scaffold and when to give the group space and time to think together. The group also needs to agree and develop shared accountability frameworks if they are to truly think together. All Thinktalk teaching and professional development has collaborative reasoning at its core, not because it leads to easy gains, but because harnessing its power is transformative.

Common goals need to lie at the core of joint professional learning. Thinktalk learning goals will always be research informed: we ought only to spend precious educational resources pursuing goals that are likely to benefit learners. Interpreting and translating the messages from research in to day-to-day classroom practice and to whole school policy is no easy task: professionals need the resilience to remain adaptable and determined when strategies aren’t working.

Struggle and adaptability are essential elements of deep learning, not by-products. For progress in thinking and understanding, learners need to face challenges that disrupt their contentment, work through the struggle, notice what helped or hindered them. Reflecting on this process leads to increasing elaboration of thought which in turn secures the memory of the learning process.

‘To feel confident about the next task, you must be able to activate knowledge about similar tasks you were successful on in the past. You are not recalling your success, however, as much as you are remembering the underlying knowledge schemata that enabled you to be successful’

Hattie and Yates, Visible Learning for teachers, 2014:221


Over time, it’s not so much ‘That was a great lesson, I’ll do that again!’ as much as ‘That seemed to be much more effective because…. How else could I use this?   How else might that look?’

Duration is needed for evolution. There are times when a one-day course can make a huge impact on teaching. There are two possible reasons for this. Sometimes, a teacher will have laid down lots of the ground-work for development themselves. The shadow of an idea will be dancing in their mind already. Being given the opportunity to deepen and articulate thinking brings ideas out of the shadows and crystallises their importance and relevance. There are also teachers who find the germ of an idea on a one day course and have the learning aptitudes to take this and adapt, experiment, review without the need to return to the group. Most of us are more likely to grow because we make or are given planned opportunities to return to the same goal, share successes, struggles, and possible, modal, contingent ways forward.

Reflection is therefore the final core principle: reflection that is rooted in a clear strand of classroom practice, with agreed terms of reference. Focused lesson observation and lesson artefacts like recordings, transcriptions, pupil products can be used for teachers to generalise from a range of experiences and articulate strategies that are beginning to make a difference to pupil progress, as well as why this seems to be the case.


Read some of the most current papers and government reports on professional learning that makes a difference to pupil outcomes here:

Department for Education commissioned reports:

Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE)

Sutton Trust ‘What makes great teachers’ report

Best Evidence Synthesis: teacher professional learning and development by University of Auckland for the NZ Ministry of Education.

Practical approaches to improve teacher professional learning Report by Timperley, 2008

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