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Building a Professional Learning Culture in Schools

In this article, Hannah Tyreman explores the features of effective professional development.
© Chartered College of Teaching

In this article, Hannah Tyreman explores the features of effective professional development.

Central to the development and support of teaching staff is the nature of the school’s professional learning culture. Research indicates that school culture has implications for teacher development, teacher effectiveness (measured by student achievement rates) and individuals’ longevity in the profession.

Striving for a culture that supports and sustains rather than one that constrains teachers is multifaceted. Learning cultures are shaped by the nature of continuous professional development that takes place but it’s not the only factor to consider. The form of performance management, the nature of observations, the collection and use of data, the behaviour management approaches all contribute to the level of trust, respect, honesty, and collaboration that will exist between colleagues. The conditions for learning are co-constructed by all staff but leaders are able to set, communicate and model a vision for their context.

What do we know about CPD?

Where teacher learning opportunities are underpinned by robust evidence and expertise, sustained over time, focused on improving and evaluating pupil outcomes, include collaboration and expert challenge, and are prioritised by school leadership, they are more likely to be effective (DfE, 2016).

Where professional learning doesn’t work, it’s often because ‘it sets out to learn something that will make no difference to student learning, it underestimates the power of habit or it is built on an inadequate theory of pedagogy.’ (Coe, 2017)

CPD time is too often spent on ‘what’ over ‘how’ Research shows that ‘you can change teachers’ thinking about something’ through workshops, presentations, and research engagement, ‘without changing what those teachers do in classrooms.’ (Wiliam, 2007) It’s a waste of time and effort unless teacher learning leads to the kind of change that influences pupils’ learning so what principles might be helpful to us?

Duration and frequency of CPD

The learning should be planned for at least 14 hours of learning or more as this has been shown to produce a statistically significant impact on pupil outcomes in comparison with programmes of less time (Yoon et. al., 2007). This time should ideally be sustained over two terms so that there is adequate time for collaboration, practice and reflection.

‘The crucial factor differentiating more effective programmes from less successful ones is what the time is used for’ (Cordingley et al, 2015)

CPD with purpose

The purpose of the learning teachers engage in will affect the impact it has on their practice. Often, this purpose will align with the school’s aims, the department’s focus, or the teacher’s personal areas of interest. Sometimes, CPD is driven by performance management goals. Each of these alignments can be damaging to the development of a culture of professional learning unless it is also closely focused on meeting pupils’ needs. Without this focus, teacher learning sits in isolation to the pupils and the teacher will struggle to develop strong self-efficacy, where they’re able to identify the impact their actions have on their pupils’ learning.

‘If clarity about how we want our pupils’ learning to look if our own learning is successful, is woven all the way through like a golden thread, and if the learning process involves revisiting evidence about how their own learning connects with young people’s learning then the learning will be richer and more inspiring AND we’ll be much better at evaluating the impact.’ (Cordingley, P, 2015)

Expertise and cognitive dissonance

New learning may well create cognitive dissonance for teachers as it challenges their existing beliefs. Professional learning cultures embrace the opportunities for such dissonance to occur because the ‘consideration and effort’ required is ‘more likely to lead to change.’ (Timperley et. al., 2007) This challenge to our own perceptions is not easily generated from within. A teacher will struggle to challenge their beliefs without the help of an external stimulus such as an article, research paper, conversation, or other expert input.

‘Expertise is necessary to challenge existing assumptions and develop the kinds of new knowledge and skills associated with positive outcomes for students’, and this expertise can come from within or outside the school.’ (Timperley 2008)

Cultures of trust and collaboration

Leaders have the power to set the cultural climate of the school. This culture can be one of reflecting, evidence-based decision making, and learning from mistakes if leaders’ reflection processes are modelled, mistakes are spoken about and the decision making process is made explicit to colleagues. By modelling our own vulnerability, we enable staff to do the same. This ‘reciprocal vulnerability’ is a powerful tool in building a culture of trust, respect and honesty, which can form the foundation for productive dialogue and meaningful collaboration between colleagues.

Collaborative CPD has been shown to have a positive impact on teaching practice and morale, as well as having a statistically significant impact on pupil outcomes at both primary and secondary levels (Bolam, 2005). Finding opportunities for meaningful collaboration in the way the timetable is structured, the nature of observations, and learning opportunities like lesson study can all encourage collaborative ways of working.

‘We develop practice knowledge effectively when we feel safe to take risks and when we do work collaboratively with people we trust enough to expose our professional vulnerabilities.’ (Dudley, 2015)

Value pausing over leaping

It’s tempting, when planning professional learning opportunities, to leap straight into lesson study, communities, acton research projects or journal clubs. Take the time to pause and consider whether the culture exists for this learning to be effective. So often, effective CPD relies on professional dialogue that moves practice forward, trust between colleagues to share practice, and confidence with interpreting research behaviours that may not yet exist. Pause before leaping to consider how the conditions for learning can be established first through smaller relationship building activities, exposure to research, coaching conversations, and other informal interactions and activities.

‘The quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first. The quality of our thinking depends on the way we treat each other while we are thinking.’ (Kline, 2012)


Bolam, R et. al. (2005) Creating and sustaining effective professional learning communities, Available at:

Coe, R (2017) How can teachers learn to be better? Available at:

Cordingley, P et. al. (2015) Developing great teaching: lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development, Available at:

DfE (2016) Standard for teachers’ professional development, Available at:

Dudley, (2015) in IRIS Connect (2015) Shaping the Future of CPD: Time to focus on the important, not the urgent, Available at:

Kline, N (2012) Home of the Thinking Environment, Available at:

Papay JP, Kraft MK. Developing Workplaces Where Teachers Stay, Improve, and Succeed. In: Teaching in Context: How Social Aspects of School and School Systems Shape Teachers’ Development & Effectiveness. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press ; 2017. pp. 15-35

Timperley, H et. al. (2007) The leadership of the improvement of teaching and learning: Lessons from initiatives with positive outcomes for students, Australian Journal of Education, 51 (3) 247-262, Available at: here

Timperley, H (2008) Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration, Wellington, NZ, Ministry of Education and University of Auckland, Available at:

Wiliam, D (2007) ‘Changing classroom practice’ in Educational Leadership, 6 (4) 36-42, Available at:

Yoon et. al. (2007) Reviewing the Evidence on How Teacher Professional Development Affects Student Achievement. Issues & Answers, Available at:

Once you’ve reflected on the points raised with other course participants, click the ‘Mark as complete’ button below and then select ‘Case studies’ to begin exploring a variety of CPD approaches to support your strategy.
© Chartered College of Teaching
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