Designing effective professional development

Share this page

Date published 27 November 2020

Evidence suggests that professional development is likely to be the most impactful tool at our disposal to improve learning and outcomes for pupils (Fletcher-Wood and Zuccollo, 2020).

At the same time, evidence also tells us that school-based professional development often fails to have the impact we want it to (NCEE, 2016; IES, 2019). In this blog, we explore what research tells us about professional development and offer five implications for those of us involved in designing development for teachers and leaders.

Research into professional development has led to what has been described as a ‘consensus’ on the features of effective professional development; features like ‘a strong content focus, inquiry-oriented learning approaches, collaborative participation, and coherence with school curricula and policies’ (Hill et al, 2013). However, Sims and Fletcher-Wood (2020) argue that this consensus view is flawed, built upon reviews with methodological weaknesses.

This means that we can’t be sure that simply incorporating features like ‘collaboration’ or ‘subject specificity’ will necessarily lead to impact. It is possible for professional development to contain these features, and still be ineffective. This means we need to look harder into the process of professional development, to better understand some of the mechanisms which are likely to make it more effective.

Here we set out some important foundational knowledge that is useful for anyone leading professional development and then go on to share five implications of this knowledge in practice.

Randal Cremer_two teachers talking in library 5

1. Teachers and leaders learn like anyone else

Teachers, like pupils, are subject to the same challenges when it comes to learning. They may lack motivation, they can be distracted, they can easily forget things and struggle to transfer learning from one content into another. Fortunately, we have a good evidence base about how pupils learn (for example, ensuring opportunities for retrieval practice and revisiting ideas over time) and we can also apply this evidence to teacher and leader development.

2. The purpose of teachers’ and leaders’ work influences what they need to know and be able to do

The central challenge that all teachers and leaders face is their ability to improve the learning and development of their pupils. This idea should guide all the decisions schools make about professional development.

The purpose of teachers and school leaders’ work can be described through a series of ‘persistent problems’ – common challenges that they will always face within in their role. Teachers, for example, need to understand pupil motivation and use this understanding to shape their teaching. Heads of department need to build a coherent curriculum around their subject. Executive leaders need to be able to set and create the conditions for an effective culture across their trust.

By focussing on what it is that individuals need to do in their work, we are more likely to be able to design and deliver professional development in ways that meet these needs.

3. Professional development needs to influence changes in behaviour

Engaging in CPD is pointless if it doesn’t support individuals to know or be able to do something new or different. But research tells us that professional development often fails to make a lasting difference to individuals’ practice (Copur-Gencturk, 2014).

One powerful reason for this is because habits – our automatic responses to specific stimuli – are very difficult to change, even when individuals set goals to change their behaviour. Much of teachers’ and leaders’ behaviour (like behaviour generally) is habitual, and so is very difficult to change.

4. The conditions within which CPD take place can be as important as the CPD itself

There is a danger that in focusing too much on the what and how of professional development we lose sight of the conditions within which it takes place, which research suggests are just as important (Kraft and Papay, 2014).

The conditions in a school can lead to any CPD related activity being viewed as developmental or threatening depending on how they are experienced. Professional development will be most effective in a school culture where the learner feels valued and trusted, and where the purpose of the CPD is clear and aligns with the individuals’ goals.

"Teachers, like pupils, are subject to the same challenges when it comes to learning. They may lack motivation, they can be distracted, they can easily forget things and struggle to transfer learning from one content into another."

Implications for those designing professional development

Research suggests teachers spend approximately 10 days a year engaged in professional development. Across the teaching workforce, this equates to more than 5 million days. Being able to deliver CPD which has a good chance of impacting upon pupil learning is vital if this time (and cost) is to be worthwhile.

Building on the foundational knowledge described above, here are 5 implications for the design of professional development we think are worth considering.

1. Start with purpose

Those leading professional development in their school should consider these two questions:

a. What do teachers or leaders need to learn in order to do their jobs?

b. How can we design professional development to help them learn it?

Professional development will be more effective if teachers and leaders understand the persistent problems of their work (and how it connects to their school’s overarching goals) and develop the domain specific knowledge to address these problems.

2. Create the right conditions for professional development to take place

To design effective professional development, we must get the focus, design and delivery right. The conditions that exist in a school can have considerable influence upon our ability to do each of these things well. Essential to this is a trusting, respectful culture based on a clear understanding of the school’s aims, where teachers and leaders can work together to understand and improve their work.

3. Draw upon what we know about how humans learn

Any professional development we design should incorporate the features of effective teaching. It should anticipate the misconceptions teachers or leaders may have, model concepts clearly, ensure opportunities to revisit content and provide useful feedback about progress

4. Incorporate mechanisms which evidence suggests is likely to lead to habit change

Research into how people learn and acquire skills is central to designing effective CPD.

One such mechanism that may have the ability to influence how people acquire skills is instructional coaching. Research suggests that instructional coaching can bring about behaviour change (Kraft et al, 2014) which as we heard above, is typically very difficult to influence. As a result, evidence points to a causal link between instructional coaching and improvements in pupil attainment.

5. Be in it for the long haul

For professional development to be effective, it will require time, effort and motivation on the part those leading and undertaking it. Behaviour change happens incrementally in small steps, so we should avoid quick fixes and be prepared to be in it for the long haul


Copur‐Gencturk, H., (2014). The effects of a master’s program on teachers’ science instruction: Results from classroom observations, teacher reports, and student surveys. Journal of research in science teaching, 51(2), pp.219–249.

Fletcher-Wood, H., and Zuccollo, J., (2020) The effects of high quality professional development on teachers and students: A rapid review and meta-analysis. Wellcome Report,

Hill, H., Beisiegel, M., & Jacob, R., (2013). Professional development research: consensus, crossroads, and challenges. Educational Researcher

Institute of Education Sciences (2019) The effects of a principal professional development program focused on instructional leadership.

Kraft, M.A., Blazar, D., Hogan, D., (2014). The effect of teaching coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta-analysis of the causal evidence. Review of Educational Research.

Kraft, M.A. & Papay, J.P. (2014) Can supportive professional environments promote teacher development? Explaining heterogeneity in returns to teaching experience. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

NCEE (2016) Does content-focused teacher professional development work? Findings from three Institute of Education Sciences Studies. NCEE Evaluation Brief.

Sims, S & Fletcher-Wood, H., (2020) Identifying the characteristics of effective teacher professional development: a critical review. School Effectiveness and School Improvement

Jennifer Barker
Jennifer Barker
Dean of Learning Design

Follow Jennifer Barker

Search blog posts by topic: