Five practical tips for effective teacher development

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Ryan Yung

Ambition Fellow

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John Jackson

Ambition Fellow

We know that the quality of teaching makes a difference to what pupils learn (Chetty et al., 2014).

We also know that teachers are made rather than born, and that professional development (PD) can raise the quality of teaching and positively impact on pupil learning (Fletcher-Wood & Zuccollo, 2020, Yoon et al, 2007).

However, improving teaching can be hard. Even when we are motivated to do so, we may struggle to make effective changes to our practice because of the complex, unpredictable nature of the classroom (Allen et al., 2021) and habits established through years of practice (Hobbiss et al., 2021).

This means that providing teachers with high-quality, impactful professional development is a core responsibility of leaders at all levels within schools and trusts. Supporting teacher educators in schools and colleges to keep getting better allows us to build this capacity among those who know their schools and communities best.

In this blog, we’ll explore five practical things that teacher educators can do to design and deliver effective teacher development.

1. Define your teacher educators

Teacher educators come in many forms and the professional development they deliver has the power to help teachers improve their practice and improve pupils’ learning.

Defining your teacher educators is the first step in implementing effective PD in your schools or trust, but what do we mean by a teacher educator?

Teacher educators include anyone who delivers teacher development. This covers a wide variety of roles, including:

  • A head of subject in a secondary school trying to improve pupil attainment — nobody is better placed to know the development needs of the English department than the Head of English!
  • A Key Stage lead in a primary school who wants to ensure that teachers build on pupils’ prior learning. The Key Stage two lead is likely to be best placed to understand the curriculum journey from Year 3 to Year 6.
  • A member of the leadership team with responsibility for whole-school teaching, learning and professional development, who wants to run an effective instructional coaching programme.
  • A trust-wide initial teacher training (ITT) lead who wants to support in-school leads in designing bespoke training to meet the needs of their early career teachers and mentors.

"Starting with the prior knowledge, skills and understanding of our teachers can increase the effectiveness of PD and help build secure mental models of practice."

2. Identify a need, before selecting a solution

Effective teacher development results in lasting changes to teachers’ practice. This means we need to be intentional about what we are trying to change and why.

Teacher educators must begin by identifying a need for PD, not a solution or strategy they want to try (EEF, 2019).

At a whole-school level, a group of pupils could be underperforming, or perhaps not completing homework. Identifying a need is a process. For example, pupils not doing homework or struggling with more complex tasks tells us what is wrong, but doesn’t tell us why this is happening. Pupils might not be completing homework because it is not clearly recorded, or because they have struggled with the relevant lesson content. Perhaps they don’t have a quiet space to work. Understanding the likely cause* is vital. It is the cause, not the symptom determines the solution.

A teacher educator might begin with a hunch about this cause, perhaps from speaking to a colleague or conducting a learning walk. However, this is not enough for action.

A teachers’ time is precious and limited. By carefully identifying the cause through a range of complementary sources, such as learning walks, curriculum reviews, pupil and staff surveys, teacher educators can help focus time on making changes which have an impact (EEF, 2019).

Each identified source can tell us something different and has its own strengths and limitations. Teacher educators are interested in the picture these sources paint: Do they confirm or rebut our hunch? Do they confirm or contradict each other?

Identifying the likely cause(s) of a problem helps teacher educators select an evidence-informed solution which is likely to have a positive impact. In the example above, if we decide that pupils aren’t completing homework because they don’t understand the content, evidence suggests we could work with teachers on effective use of modelling and worked examples (CESE, 2017).

*A need may have multiple causes. Often these will need to be prioritised but where they are intertwined, sometimes more than one may be tackled simultaneously.

More on this: Read the Education Endowment Foundation’s guidance on ‘Gathering and interpreting data to identify priorities’.

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3. Teacher learning is just learning

Many educators may already have an understanding of the science of learning and its implications for how we teach our pupils. But what about how we develop teachers?

In many ways, teacher learning is just learning (Fletcher-Wood, 2017). We can use the same insights and principles from the science of learning when planning teacher development. For example, it is useful to think of the concept of learning as involving a lasting change in capabilities or understanding (DfE, 2020). With that in mind, teacher development should be planned so it impacts on, and makes a long-term change to, a teacher’s practice.

It is important to consider how teachers will integrate and retain the knowledge and content from professional development (PD) in long-term memory. To achieve this, PD needs to start from what teachers already know and can do. Starting with the prior knowledge, skills and understanding of our teachers can increase the effectiveness of professional development and help build secure mental models of practice.

This can be challenging because, as with pupils, teacher learning is invisible. Teacher educators can overcome this by checking teachers’ prior knowledge and understanding before, during, and after a development session.

Exit tasks, hinge questions - which provide an immediate check of a learner’s understanding - and retrieval quizzes are invaluable sources of information for teacher educators and can be used to make decisions about facilitation during a session. This ensures the teacher educator remains responsive to group and individual needs.

Effective teacher educators also utilise a range of instructional strategies to avoid overloading teachers’ working memories. This might include worked examples or live modelling. The strategies used should consider the varied starting points and levels of expertise among teachers. For example, more expert practitioners may benefit from more non-examples. These offer experienced staff opportunities to utilise their expertise and analyse scenarios that require improvements.

For instance, the teacher educator might provide a video of a teacher who has used a questioning technique, but it does not meet the previously discussed success criteria. This could be compared to an example of good practice and provide the opportunity for experienced teachers to suggest improvements.

"Teacher development must be based on evidence-informed content which matches the need we want to address."

4. Consider the why, the what and the how

We have already discussed that teacher learning is just learning (Fletcher-Wood, 2017). However, effective PD should also recognise that teacher development which only helps teachers build ‘bodies of knowledge’ is unlikely to improve pupil learning (Kennedy, 2016).

Teachers need to not only know the science behind learning, but also know how to put this knowledge into action, such as delivering instructions to pupils in a way that doesn’t overload working memory.

The Education Endowment Foundation’s recent Effective Professional Development Guidance Report (EEF, 2021) provides teacher educators with a framework for PD which helps to improve outcomes for pupils. The report identifies 14 observable and replicable ‘mechanisms’ that underpin PD and subsequently develop the quality of teaching.

These mechanisms also have a substantial evidence base both in education and behavioural science (EEF, 2021): to change pupil outcomes, teachers’ practice - their ‘behaviour’ - must also change.

Each mechanism fulfils a purpose which supports teacher learning. An example of this would be pupils underperforming and forgetting learning because core knowledge and concepts are not being revisited. A teacher educator might design PD to help teachers understand and use spaced practice, in which pupils review material over an extended period, to address this.

They might make use of mechanisms by:

  • Managing teachers’ cognitive load, perhaps through introducing ideas about spaced practice in small chunks. They may also help teachers revisit learning over time to build their knowledge.
  • Using affirmation and reinforcement when they see the strategies in action to maintain and increases motivation.
  • Providing teachers with models of how to implement spaced practice, as well as creating opportunities for teachers to receive feedback. This will help develop teachers’ use of these techniques.
  • At the end of sessions, supporting teachers to action plan how they will embed spaced learning into their classroom practice.

Using mechanisms is likely to help teachers make lasting changes to their practice. However, effective teacher educators know that mechanisms only help us with the ‘how’ of teacher development: their use also depends on the content (the ‘what’), and the need (the ‘why’) of PD.

Teacher development must be based on evidence-informed content, such as spaced practice or formative assessment, which matches the need you want to address. Otherwise, mechanisms may lead to teachers changing their behaviour, but not in ways which aid pupil learning.

More on this: read Nick Pointer’s blog about using mechanisms to ‘refine and not replace’ professional development.

5. Create an environment which promotes improvement

“Teachers will reach differential levels of productivity depending on… workplace conditions” (Berliner, 2001).

Key to any successful teacher development process is ensuring that the conditions for improvement are in place. Teacher development should be a remedy to the pressures that teachers experience, not add to them.

Evidence points to there being only so much that teachers can process at one time (EEF, 2019). To be effective, teacher educators should therefore consider the context of their school and focus on doing one thing well, rather than juggling several priorities at once. *

PD often involves implementing a change, but implementation at any level is a fine balance. It is equally important to consider what may need to be stopped, or ‘de-implemented’, before anything new can be introduced to teachers (Quigley, 2020).

School environments also play an important role in teacher development — teachers can begin to plateau if they are not in a supportive environment (Papay & Kraft, 2014). If we want to develop expertise and permanently change behaviour, teachers need to feel trusted and be allowed to experiment and take risks in their practice (EEF, 2019; Bryk & Schneider, 2003).

Regular, timely feedback should be prioritised, so that teachers know how they are performing and how they can improve (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996; Hattie & Timperley, 2007). This helps keeps teachers motivated and invested in their development.

It is also essential that teachers are given the time and resources to engage effectively in teacher development (DfE, 2018). For example, meeting time should prioritise development and look at alternative ways to efficiently communicate administrative messages and tasks. Requests for information or sharing of functional information could be communicated in a weekly briefing email, thereby protecting meeting time for instruction, practice and feedback.

By thinking about these elements of the school environment, and their likely impact on teachers and PD, effective teacher educators can ensure the environment supports rather than hinders teacher development.

* The Teacher Workload Advisory Group have made useful recommendations, such as streamlining approaches to feedback, data management and curriculum planning (DfE, 2018).

Develop the knowledge and expertise to successfully lead teacher development at your school or trust with our fully funded National Professional Qualification in Leading Teacher Development.


Allen, B., Evans, M., & White, B. (2021). The next big thing in school improvement.

Berliner, D. C. (2001). ‘Learning about and learning from expert teachers’, International. Journal of Educational Research, 35, pp. 463-482

Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (2003). Trust in schools: A core resource for school reform. Educational leadership, 60(6), 40-45.

Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N., & Rockoff, J. E. (2014) ‘Measuring the impacts of teachers I: Evaluating bias in teacher value-added estimates’, American Economic Review, 104(9), pp. 2593-2632.

CESE (Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation), (2017) Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand.

Department for Education. (2018). Making data work: report of the Teacher Workload Advisory Group.

Department for Education. (2020) National Professional Qualification (NPQ): Leading Teaching Framework National Professional Qualification (NPQ): Leading Teaching Framework (

EEF (Education Endowment Foundation) (2019). Putting Evidence to Work: A School’s Guide to Implementation: Guidance Report.

EEF (Education Endowment Foundation). (2021). Effective Professional Development: Guidance Report.

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

Fletcher-Wood, H. (2017, October 8) Teacher learning: it’s just learning. Improving Teaching.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.

Hobbiss, M., Sims, S., & Allen, R. (2021). Habit formation limits growth in teacher effectiveness: A review of converging evidence from neuroscience and social science. Review of Education, 9(1), 3-23.

Kennedy, M. (2016). How does professional development improve teaching? Review of educational research, 86(4), 945-980.

Kluger, A., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254–284.

Kraft, M., Papay, J., (2014) ‘Can Professional Environments in Schools Promote Teacher Development? Explaining Heterogeneity in Returns to Teaching Experience’, Educational Effectiveness and Policy Analysis, 2014;36 (4), pp. 476-500.

Quigley, A. (2020, February 29) We are ‘Doing Curriculum’ – so what are we stopping? The Confident Teacher. We are ‘Doing Curriculum’ – so what are we stopping? (

Yoon, K., Duncan, T., Lee, W.-Y., Scarloss, B. & Shapley, K. (2007). Reviewing the evidence on how teacher professional development affects student achievement (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2007–No. 033). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest.

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