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Refine not replace: a ‘mechanism-first’ approach to teacher education

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Date published 04 April 2022

Teacher Education Fellows is a cutting-edge and collaborative programme for teacher educators looking to help teachers get better in their settings. On it, you can hone your ability to design and deliver great teacher education by exploring and translating the latest theory into practice.

Programme lead Nick Pointer is a former science teacher, experienced instructional coach, and previously led on our Instructional Coaching programme pilot. On Teacher Education Fellows, Nick and our current cohort of Fellows are grappling with the big questions of teacher education by exploring the latest theories in the field.

Here, he uses worked examples to translate the theory of ‘mechanisms’ in professional development into real life advice that teacher educators can use to support their teams.

Teacher educators face a dilemma.

They know the quality of teachers affects pupil achievement, and that professional development (PD) can improve both teaching and subsequent pupil learning (Chetty et al., 2014; Cordingley et al., 2015).

However, they also know that much historical professional development has failed to improve teaching (TNTP, 2015), and that they face the universal barrier of the limited time available for teacher education.

As a result, teacher educators are often tasked with evaluating how best to use the time available for professional development.

The ‘how’ of teacher education

Consider two hypothetical leaders:

  • Nathan is a secondary assistant principal for PD, deliberating between two methods of teacher education to launch at his school: ‘lesson study’ and ‘teacher learning communities’ (TLCs). Lesson study involves teachers collectively planning a lesson, which is then delivered, observed and discussed. In TLCs, teachers instead periodically collaborate to examine their current practices, learn new approaches, and plan for future change.
  • Khadija is the staff development lead for a trust of primary academies who has decided to pursue ‘instructional coaching’ as the core of the trust’s training offer. She is deciding which of a number of coaching approaches to use: the ‘Six Steps for Effective Feedback’ model (Bambrick-Santoyo, 2018), the ‘Impact Cycle’ (Knight, 2017), or an adaption of the model she’s started to introduce for early career teachers.

Both want to make the most of limited training time; however, this may be undermined by two important assumptions.

The first is a focus on ‘forms’ of professional development, as in the case of our hypothetical assistant principal Nathan. Forms are named approaches such as lesson study, TLCs, or instructional coaching (Sims et al., 2021).

A focus on forms can be problematic because, in some cases, the same label can obscure important differences in practical approach. For example, rehearsal-based practice is an essential component of Bambrick-Santoyo’s ‘Six Steps for Effective Feedback’ instructional coaching model, whereas it does not feature in Knight’s ‘Impact Cycle’ approach.

Teacher educators risk falling foul of an illusion of agreement, where we assume that our interpretation of, say, ‘instructional coaching’ is the same as everyone else’s.

A tempting solution to this is to provide specificity by focusing on the protocol being implemented – as described in the case of Khadija above.

However, this second approach tends to focus on a range of surface-level characteristics. Some of these may be integral to the development of teachers’ expertise, whilst others may be ‘causally redundant’ (Sims & Fletcher-Wood, 2020), and fail to play a part in improving teaching. Defining PD by its observable characteristics means we are unable to distinguish between irrelevant features and the ‘active ingredients’.

In both cases, by not being clear about what is going to cause teacher learning, we may be leaving it to chance.

Viewing teacher education in terms of ‘mechanisms’  

Until recently, these two approaches – framing PD in terms of its form or its observable characteristics – are largely all that have been available to teacher educators. To address this limitation, a new framework has recently been proposed by a joint group from UCL and Ambition Institute in the EEF Effective Professional Development Guidance Report (EEF, 2021).

The group proposed that effective professional development rests upon a set of fundamental active ingredients, or ‘mechanisms’. There are 14 such mechanisms that the report argues play a causal role in professional development that improves pupil learning. These are categorised into four underlying purposes that PD serves.

Dev_diagrams_TEF_NickPointer_blog8.webpquality-50 (1).jpg Figure 1 (Adapted from EEF, 2021)

The report concludes two key findings.

  • Finding 1: The more mechanisms a PD approach draws on, the greater the subsequent impact on pupils. 
  • Finding 2: A PD approach that includes mechanisms that draw on all four purposes of PD may be more impactful than those which do not.

For teacher educators, the benefit of a mechanism-first approach is that, rather than having to look for the ‘next big thing’ to overhaul their PD programmes, they can instead evaluate the efficacy of existing practices.

The report also offers an overview of the likely consequences of any given purpose of PD being missed out:

Dev_diagrams_TEF_NickPointer_blog8_3.original.jpg Figure 2 (Adapted from EEF, 2021)

This aspect of the report is particularly useful to teacher educators. They might ask themselves, ‘Which of these consequences do I recognise in my setting?’, and ‘Which mechanism categories are currently unrepresented in our PD, and how might we integrate those into our current offer?’

Implications for teacher education

To put this into practice, Nathan might start by considering Finding 1: Which mechanisms are present in his current PD offer?

His current approach is as follows:

Dev_diagrams_TEF_NickPointer_blog8_2.original.jpg Figure 3

Sims et al. (2021) define lesson study as consisting of the Action Planning, Social Support and Feedback mechanisms, with TLCs comprising Action Planning, Social Support and Goal Setting. In light of this, Nathan realises that neither of these offer additional mechanisms to his current approach.

By considering the underlying mechanisms, rather than the forms, Nathan concludes that a move to either of these approaches may not make any change to the impact of his PD beyond a superficial change in name.

So, Nathan instead resolves to refine his existing approach by considering Finding 2: Are there any mechanism groups that are currently unrepresented in his PD approach? He notices that at present his PD fails to draw on any mechanisms from the ‘Build Knowledge’ purpose (see Figure 3) – perhaps this is the reason his current approach is not yielding the desired success.

From learning walks, he recognises the consequence highlighted in the EEF Guidance Report: that failing to include mechanisms from the ‘Build Knowledge’ category can lead to misapplication of new approaches (see Figure 2). Previously he has tried to address this issue through increased accountability; a mechanism-driven approach suggests that this must instead be addressed by a change to his PD structure.

Nathan decides to incorporate the Revisit prior learning mechanism from the ‘Build Knowledge’ category. To do this, he plans to start each session by asking teachers to retrieve and revisit the underlying purpose of the strategy covered in the previous session. This is so that staff can check that they remember and understand the role each new technique plays in supporting learning in their classrooms (Kennedy, 2016). This should help them to continue to use new teaching approaches with fidelity.

A nuanced and evidence-informed approach for teacher education

This novel framework allows us to reconsider our current approaches to professional development by considering what’s causing the impact, or lack thereof, that we see amongst our staff and students.

This is the kind of work that is at the heart of the Teacher Education Fellows programme – work which engages with rigorous research, reflects on current practices, and refines them in order to improve teacher education nationwide.


Bambrick-Santoyo, P. (2018) Leverage Leadership 2.0: A Practical Guide to Building Exceptional Schools. NJ: Jossey-Bass.

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.

Cordingley, P., Higgins, S., Greany, T., Buckler, N., Coles-Jordan, D., Crisp, B., Saunders, L., & Coe, R. (2015) Developing great teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. London: Teacher Development Trust.

EEF (2021) Effective Professional Development: Guidance Report. London: Education Endowment Foundation. Available from: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/education-evidence/guidance-reports/effective-professional-development

Kennedy, M. (2016) ‘Parsing the Practice of Teaching’, Journal of Teacher Education, 67(1), pp. 6-17.

Knight, J. (2017) The Impact Cycle: What Instructional Coaches Should Do to Foster Powerful Improvements in Teaching. CA: Corwin.

Sims, S. & Fletcher-Wood, H. (2020) ‘Identifying the characteristics of effective teacher professional development: a critical review’, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 32(1), pp. 47-63.

Sims, S., Fletcher-Wood, H., O’Mara-Eves, A., Cottingham, S., Stansfield, C., Van Herwegen, J. & Anders, J. (2021) What are the Characteristics of Teacher Professional Development that Increase Pupil Achievement? A systematic review and meta-analysis. London: Education Endowment Foundation. Available from: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/education-evidence/evidence-reviews/teacherprofessional-development-characteristics

TNTP (2015) The mirage: Confronting the hard truth about our quest for teacher development. Washington, DC: The New Teacher Project.

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Nick Pointer
Associate Dean, Learning Design at Ambition Institute

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