How Cooperative Learning makes CPD effective; a commentary on Roger Higgin’s NRSN twilight

If teaching and learning is the raison d’etre of everything else, empowering teachers through professional development must be given top priority.

This article explores last week’s Norwich Research Schools Network event An Introduction to Making CPD Effective presented by Roger Higgins and Tom Pinnington of Notre Dame High School.


A brief interlude: What is the Research Schools Network?

The Research Schools Network comprises 22 schools across the UK which function as local hubs for the work of the Education Endowment Foundation to provide school-led support for use of evidence to improve teaching practice. These schools have three key aims:

  • Communication – regular contact with schools in their network, for example by sending out monthly newsletters
  • Training – run conferences and provide training and professional development to teachers and senior leaders in their local areas.
  • Innovation – support schools in developing new ways of improving teaching and learning, in evaluating the impact of these innovations – and in applying for research grants.

The presenters were passionate about their work and highly knowledgeable on both the theory and practice of making the most of CPD. Also, there was a good balance between presenting from the board and an opportunity for delegates to process the information and engage with each other to share ideas, practice and concerns. It was clear that Roger recognised the value of this and I am personally grateful as I sat with three strong-minded and capable ladies who changed my interpretation of the presentation more than once.

I strongly advise anyone within range of Notre Dame High School to stay tuned for the extremely relevant free twilights they provide. Contact them on @NorwichRS.

This post reflects my limited understanding of the session and I take full responsibility for any errors.


The basic research

As you can see from the below example, like Stuart Kime in the previous event, Roger left little room for whimsical opinion. Without exception, his session was a tour-de-force in evidence-based guidance. His presentation opened with Vivienne Robinson’s research into which of these five “Leadership Dimensions” has the biggest impact:

Leadership dimensions

I am very happy to have my pet doctrine confirmed: Leading teaching and learning development has the highest effect size by far. 0.84 against the closest contenders’ meagre 0.42, as per the colour-coded chart below). See Making Best use of Leadership for details.

effect of Leadership dimensions

It does make sense: Schools exist for no other reason than to provide excellent teaching and learning. Once this clicks into place, all the other issues, including tracking systems and the choice of ICT equipment, just slot naturally in around that. Imagine if your game were football: your stadium must built around a rectangular grass pitch of a very specific size and format; there must be powerful lights for night time games; a certain orientation and levelling of seats; fire exits; some cover against the elements, access to toilet facilities, etc. etc. Indeed, a very different structures would be required if your game were golf or water sports. Imagine building the support structure without knowing the game you are playing.


So, if teaching and learning is the raison d’etre of everything else, empowering teachers through professional development must be given top priority. According to the DfE’s 2016 “Standard for teachers’ professional development,” which I introduced in my article on the Network’s previous event with Stuart Kime, effective professional development should be seen as a key driver not only of staff development, “but also of recruitment, retention, well-being, and school improvement.” (p.3) And, according to Kraft and Papay’s research, it is a fact that teachers improve more quickly in supportive schools.*

“The more leaders focus on their relationships, their work, and their learning upon the core business of teaching and learning, the greater will be their influence on student outcomes”

–  Prof. Vivienne Robinson, author of Student-Centred Leadership.

So, the thing we are all burning to know: What are the essential ‘ingredients’ for effective CPD that will make everything click into place? Here, Roger suggested revisiting the 2015 report “Developing Great Teaching” a review of the international research into what constitutes effective professional development for teachers by the Teacher Development Trust, which sadly notes: “In recent years, a number of consultations have reported that opportunities for teachers in England are insufficiently evidence-based, do not focus sufficiently on specific pupil needs, are too inconsistent in quality, lag behind those experienced by colleagues elsewhere internationally.”


For those who do not have time to read through the 300+ page report, you will be happy to know that the “Standard for teachers’ professional development” is essentially a summary of its five main points:

  1. Professional development should have a focus on improving and evaluating pupil outcomes.
  2. Professional development should be underpinned by robust evidence and expertise.
  3. Professional development should include collaboration and expert challenge.
  4. Professional development programmes should be sustained over time.
  5. Professional development must be prioritised by school leadership.

We will look at how Cooperative Learning facilitates these points in a simple and cost-effective manner.


1. Focus on improving and evaluating pupil outcomes.

According to the EEF Teaching & Learning Toolkit, evidence about the benefits of Cooperative Learning has been found consistently for over 40 years in systematic reviews and meta-analyses of research studies and remains one of the most cost-effective uses of pupil premium money, bar none. There is no doubt any professional training and well-planned execution of Cooperative Learning will focus on pupil outcomes; up to 5 months of additional progress to a pupil per year. And here we have not factored in the simple integration of higher yielding strands in the toolkit, nor of its impact on social skills and behaviours for learning. Please refer to the list of articles below for more details.


As for evaluating pupil outcomes, why limit oneself to a series of tests? Every single day, in every single lesson, minute by minute, Cooperative Learning provides a phenomenal volume of visible learning. Through candid, tightly guided discussions, pupils disclose not only what they know, but how they know, and what they mean when they use specific vocabulary. As followers of this blog will be aware, I have started the project on SOLO taxonomy in London to better harness this data overload.


2. Underpinned by robust evidence and expertise.

We have discussed the research evidence for Cooperative Learning in the previous section. But there is another element, which is to ensure that the specific programme you invest in has actually worked in a school very similar to your own. If you browse around, you will find success stories from Leeds to London and from Norfolk to the Midlands.

Whether you are a highly mixed inner-city junior school, a struggling faith-based free school, a small village primary and nursery, and 12,000+ pupil college, a university, or an initial teacher training provider, you will find at peer who is happy to talk to you about Cooperative Learning. I refer you to the video gallery for categorised interviews with your colleagues.


It is important to realise that working with me means so much more than buying a McDonald’s menu and hoping for the best. Every inset and twilight is tailored to the unique needs of your institution and includes guidance on roll-out and leadership best practice. It is a wise decision to invest in coaching visits and consultancy between sessions to fine tune practice and for leadership to take full ownership of Cooperative Learning. I have discussed, the difficulties of such a dedicated approach from a external consultant in the article on Stuart Kime’s recent NRLN session.


3. Include collaboration and expert challenge

The 25 schools in the Maths SSIF who have already received a coaching visit from me these past months will all recognise these two strands from my support work.

You need to work with your colleagues to truly leverage the simple and practical approach of CLIPs (Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns) and the shared language which dispenses with a lot of confused discussion. Join up with the teacher in your group, plan an activity using the Cooperative Learning Coaching & Reflection Guide, leave your class in the hands of your TA for just 10 minutes so you can observe the activity in your partner’s class, and unpick the experience together over a cup of coffee in PPA time.


Keep leadership in the loop and set up appropriate challenges tailored to the individual, the year group, the specific cohort, whatever you deem relevant at that specific time, using the same activity. The content void nature of Cooperative Learning means that even simple tweaks suddenly give a whole new direction and focus to what is superficially similar exercises.


4. Should be sustained over time

As a result of this, the endless repetition of the same steps in the CLIPs creates a coherency in the teaching and learning over time, yet provides infinite scope for each teacher or teacher group to manoeuver: embed new strategies; experiment with new materials; focus on new areas of learning.


This is why something so simple can be sustained without growing stale. As long as the strict guidelines are followed to secure the fidelity of the Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns, you can experiment to your heart’s content. As previously mentioned, I had never envisioned seeing CLIPs in swimming lessons for SEN pupils using waterproofed question cards, run by PE teacher in her 60s.


5. Must be prioritised by school leadership

I have dealt with this fundamental issue in multiple articles. Here I refer you to the series on Stalham Academy and Making Best Use of Leadership.

Headteacher's priorities

In conclusion

Roger underlined the four main challenges to getting the culture right:

  1. Ongoing changes to subject content;
  2. small budgets;
  3. desperately magpie-ing “the latest new thing;”
  4. lack of accountability to make those involved maximise return on investment.

He also pointed out the three vital ingredients of success: Make sure you have:

  1. The time, which I should think would include mental space,
  2. The tools, i.e. the logistics structure to implement the CPD effectively,
  3. The right trainer/training.

In the next instalment, we will investigate how to pick the right intervention and the evaluation element following training.

At this juncture, I want to promote the Research Lead Network’s Leading Learning course for senior leadership to take control of the professionals development in their schools and create a culture of risk-taking, knowledge sharing and personal growth that invariably follows profound professional improvement – especially for leaders.

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