Effective staff training

Staff training can be a useful resource when used effectively.

When we talk about effective teaching, we often focus on the students and their learning. However, it’s also important to focus on the teacher, since the students learn more effectively when the teacher has the resources and developing skills they need.

Continuing Professional Development (CPD) aims to develop teachers’ skills in order to improve students’ learning. The research shows that CPD can be a highly effective way to improve student learning and achievement.

Ineffective staff training

Sometimes it’s helpful to start with what’s not effective. CPD sessions can be ineffective and a waste of resources. This is what often happens:

  • The teacher goes on a training (INSET) day, or attends an in-house training session.
  • The teacher hears about a new teaching technique and tries it out in the session.
  • The teacher comes back to work and tries the new technique, but it doesn’t work well the first time and so the teacher abandons it.
  • Alternatively, the teacher doesn’t try the new technique at all.

The research repeatedly shows that the effect on students’ learning a few months later is too small to measure. Ineffective CPD also comes at a cost to the school or college..

We often see well-meaning and hard-working CPD teams arranging training which costs thousands, but which has very little effect on improving learning. This is what often happens in this type of high-spend, low-effect CPD day:

  • The CPD team employ a wide range of trainers for workshops.
  • Each presenter offers short sessions to a small group of staff.
  • The speakers all offer interesting topics, but there is no link or plan for the material.
  • The teachers are given options and may attend several workshops in the day.

What’s wrong?

The irony is that we wouldn’t teach our students in this way, with bite-size talks and no follow-up or practice. The same rules apply for teacher learning as they do for student learning, which means that staff training should follow the same principles as evidence-based teaching.

The difference between class teaching and staff training is that teachers require more repetitions of the new learning.

Students need at least 3 repetitions to secure new learning as long-term memories, but teachers require more because they have to replace old habits with new ones. Without enough repetitions, teachers lapse into their old habits.

Effective staff training

The research clearly shows what works for CPD. Here is the process for effective staff training:

  • Senior staff make a strategic decision to go evidence-based.
  • The whole staff (including managers) attend a training day and hear about evidence-based teaching methods.
  • Staff meet regularly in groups of 3 or 4 to support each other. These groups should be autonomous, in the sense that they decide what they are going to do.
  • You identify your learning needs and pick one or two methods which address these needs. You try these out in the classroom – with the knowledge that it might not go well the first time.
  • In your small group, you discuss how it went and how to improve.
  • You try the method again several times, and get feedback by self-assessment and peer observation (no senior staff at this stage), or through discussion and reflection.
  • After about 3 tries, you will know if this method will work for you, your subject, and your students.
  • After about 10 tries, you will become competent.
  • After about 25 times over a period of 6-24 months, you will achieve the effect sizes shown by the research.

The key is to train staff in highly effective, evidence-based methods, and to follow the same Six Steps for Outstanding Learning. Students benefit significantly from effective staff training and development.

Note: The role of senior staff here is to enable the process and monitor that it is taking place in a meaningful and high quality way. Their role isn’t to choose particular methods or to require all staff to use certain methods – this isn’t evidence-based!

Types of training

 Use external trainers

In this type of training, external trainers come in as experts. Sometimes it can be easier for staff to take on board new methods when they come from someone outside of the school.

 Teachers present to each other

Teachers are told that on the next training day, some of them will be asked to do a presentation. Three weeks or so before the training day, the teachers are told who will present. The presentation will be about what they’ve been trying out, how it’s gone, and how they know whether it’s worked.

This approach helps to change the culture from top-down to bottom-up, and encourages a sense of personal responsibility for professional development. This creates a buzz, and the teachers start to take ownership of the training.

 Method experts

Method experts are teachers who have developed their skills in a particular method, who can mentor others who are trying it out. These experts should be teachers whose peers would identify them as classroom experts, because of their consistently good results, and not necessarily a senior staff member.

 Repeat topics

It’s important that staff don’t get new material every training day. There is a tendency to tick off topics, but it is much better and more effective to continue with the same set of effective methods.

 Flipped observations

Normally, lesson observations operate with the assumption that information passes from the observer to the teacher. This can make teachers feel judged and stressed. In a flipped observation, it’s the other way round. The flow is from teacher to observer, with the observer looking for useful ideas to try themselves.

This process goes by a number of different names. Supported Experiments, Action Research, Peer Mentoring, and Professional Learning Communities all refer to a process where teachers experiment with a method with support from their peers.

Research by Robinson et al looked for evidence of the effectiveness of leadership in this process. The only high effect they found (0.8 effect size) was for leaders who took an active part in the types of staff development outlined above.


A college in north east England has made observation compulsory, but being observed is voluntary.

Every member of staff must watch part of several lessons, identify good ideas, and share them with other department members.

Time to learn

Successful schools and colleges recognise that staff need time to develop their skills.

Some schools give teachers one short day a week, where the students go home early and the staff have time for training and development. Others run regular twilight sessions.

Staff meetings should always include time to discuss teaching. Administration tasks and information-giving can easily be done via email or notice board to create time for these discussions.

Schools can also give staff time to identify any time-consuming, ineffective tasks, and to find more effective strategies.

For example, peer marking is more effective, and less time-consuming, than teacher marking. Similarly, verbal feedback which is acted upon is more effective than written feedback given too late for the student to implement it.


At a secondary school in Cornwall, the headteacher requires all the teachers to take part in ‘Action Research’. It’s part of the job description for anyone applying to work at the school. Several teachers are working towards a Masters in Education.

The students go home at 2pm on Fridays, so that staff have time to meet and share best practice, and do their paperwork for what they are working on. The school’s inspection grade is Outstanding.

Find out more

Here’s some great resources for evidence-based information on effective staff training:

This article from Tom Sherrington

Shayer and Adey (1994) Really Raising Standards

Joyce and Showers (2003) Student Achievement through Staff Development

Helen Timberley (2011) Realizing the Power of Professional Learning

The video below discusses the process of developing a skill, which is a vital process to understand when planning effective staff training.

Image credits

Header image: https://ciforschools.wordpress.com/teacher-training/

Small group of teachers image: http://www.berlitzmanchester.com/teacher-training/

Room with teachers in a CPD session: http://www.gettingsmart.com/2015/05/10-tips-for-better-speaking-engagements/

Staff training in a staff room: http://www.gesl.net/staff-training-day

Brain image: https://www.edubloxsa.co.za/long-term-memory-problems-children/

Teachers doing a small group activity: http://www.rbge.org.uk/education/schools/cpd-clpl-for-teachers-and-technicians

Teachers talking: https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/partnering-with-childs-school/working-with-childs-teacher/5-topics-to-go-over-with-teachers-early-in-school-year

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