What are some of the challenges to continuing professional development?

This article is an extract from the British Council publication, ‘Innovations in the continuing professional development of English language teachers’. Here the author, Russell Stannard, looks at potential barriers to Continuing Professional Development and suggests technology might be one answer.

Overcoming barriers to CPD

Participation in CPD programmes varies widely from organisation to organisation. CPD, though recognised as important, is still not always clearly defined and the policies and procedures of organisations often reflect that fact. This lack of definition is a barrier to its wider acceptance and implementation (Friedman and Phillips, 2001). So, although the term CPD has emerged as the standard term in most UK settings, a wide range of other terms for professional development, each with a slightly different focus, do still exist (Robinson et al., 2011). Moreover, employees are not even always clear what actually counts as CPD, as Friedman and Phillips (2001: 5) point out in their research into barriers to CPD: 'Opinion was divided as to the kinds of activity that should count as CPD, which again points to ambiguity over its fundamental purpose'.

Another challenge for CPD is the way it is perceived. Teachers often see CPD as a top-down process normally run by school management. Indeed, recent surveys would tend to back this position with head teachers generally dominating the decision-making process within schools (Friedman and Phillips, ibid). In this way, the benefits are often viewed in terms of management goals rather than for the individuals concerned. There is a growing awareness that it is imperative to tailor CPD to the needs of employees and make it much more about the personal development of individuals within an organisation and not just for the benefit of the organisation itself (Dent et al., 2008).

A further challenge relates to quality. To conduct CPD many organisations bring in outside speakers and trainers who have very little idea of the needs of a company and their employers, or school and its teachers. There is often a real lack of planning in terms of the sort of CPD that an organisation needs and the best people to provide it. Indeed, a recent blog post in The Guardian was particularly critical in this respect.

A fair amount of teacher professional development (also known variously as teacher training, inset, CPD or professional learning) is really bad. I don't just mean that it's poor value for money or insufficiently effective - it's much worse than that. A large swathe of training has no effect whatsoever on pupil outcomes.
(The Guardian, 2012)

Whether of course the problem is the trainers themselves or rather the information provided to the trainers in preparation for their courses is another matter. Since some organisations do very little to highlight where training is required and what skills their workforce lack or need, it is hardly surprising that outside trainers are not able to respond to genuine needs.

A frequent criticism of the outsourcing of CPD is that trainers come in, do their training and then disappear; the training tends to be superficial (Weston, 2013). There is no back up, no planned system of evaluation of impact. The problem of evaluation is critical from the employer's perspective and a lack of demonstrable impact means that some organisations perceive CPD as an additional expense with very little return. There is a growing awareness of the need to deal with this issue and, indeed, in some of the recent CPD work I have done, the sponsoring organisations have established ways of evaluating the impact of the training. For example, in a recent programme I undertook in Northern Ireland, teachers were required to put an 'action plan' into place and report on three changes they were planning to make after the training. They then had to write up an evaluation of the impact of the changes, derived from questionnaires with students, interviews and observations from peers. However, in my experience, this kind of follow-up action planning is still fairly unusual.

Much CPD is also organised through one-off events that take place once or twice a year and this often creates logistical problems. Large organisations have employees located all over a particular country (or even all over the world) and so organising such events can be quite complex. Low participation in CPD events may be nothing
to do with the quality or content of the training but simply a matter of timing or other logistical reasons.

Research into barriers to CPD will often cite some of the reasons mentioned above. However, from the employer's perspective it often boils down to two factors, which are integrally related: money and resources. Firstly, CPD can be very costly, especially if, as previously mentioned, employers have to bring in employees from long distances, hire venues and accommodation, organise food and bring in speakers and trainers (Weston, ibid). Smaller organisations might be able to avoid many of these costs but that still leaves the second factor - human resources. If CPD is done in school time then there is the problem of finding teaching cover. For example, I recently worked with a group of teachers from Kazakhstan who had visited the UK for a week of training in ELT and information communication technology (ICT) at the Norwich Institute of Language Education. Not only was there the substantial cost of bringing 25 teachers to the UK, but all the teachers needed cover for their own classes while they were away. CPD can be a very costly experience.

The potential of screen capture in CPD

As a possible solution to some of these barriers to CPD, in June 2006 I began to develop a website called www.teachertrainingvideos.com. At the time I was writing a regular column in the English Teaching Professional called 'Webwatcher' (which is still running after 13 years). Webwatcher is about using technology in ELT and often teachers would write to me to say they liked the ideas but didn't know how to do a podcast or a blog or a wiki. They complained about the lack of training and support for their own development, especially in the area of ICT. Instead of replying with long texts about how you press this button and use that drop-down menu, I decided to screen capture myself working with the technologies the teachers wanted to learn and send the videos to the teachers...

Extract from Chapter 7 ‘Using technology to provide greater flexibility and access to continuing professional development’ in ‘Innovations in the continuing professional development of English language teachers’ (R Standard and S Matharu, p160 - 161).

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