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The science behind Steplab: how it includes all 14 mechanisms of effective PD
Essay • 8 May '24
Rachel Ball
Ollie Lovell

What does it take to build truly effective teacher professional development?

Given the limited time and resources that schools have to allocate to teacher continuing professional development, this is a crucial question for us to answer with both accuracy and confidence. Student learning is the core business of schools, and helping teachers to improve is the main lever we have to improve student learning.

Here at Steplab, we’re driven by one mission - empowering schools to become their best through professional development that really works. This means that we take the strongest evidence and work hard with the best minds in education to turn research into practical tools and techniques for schools.

One of the most important pieces of research in recent years that informs our work is a recent report by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), providing crystal clear guidance on what it takes to help teachers to make meaningful improvements.

For the paper, Dr. Sam Sims led the EEF team to ask a question that moved beyond standard arguments and debates about PD such as ‘Should we be establishing teacher learning communities or doing lesson study?’ to ask a much deeper question, ‘What are the active ingredients of PD that really make it work?’

In their study, Sims and colleagues called these active ingredients ‘Mechanisms’, identifying 14 of them involved in effective PD. The researchers explain:

Mechanisms are the core building blocks of professional development. They are observable, can be replicated, and could not be removed without making PD less effective. Crucially, they are supported by evidence from research on human behaviour—they have been found, in contexts beyond teaching, to change practice (pg. 8)

The researchers found that for PD to be effective, it needs to achieve four broad aims, each of which is enabled by a number of mechanisms.

These four aims are:

  • Build knowledge: support teachers to know something valuable that they didn’t know before
  • Motivate staff: help teachers want to change
  • Develop teaching techniques: assist teachers to be able to competently do things differently to better support student learning
  • Embed practice: ensure that changes made are sustained

This is how the 14 mechanisms of effective PD are divided across the four key aims.

Below, we outline how Steplab can help your school to hit all four aims of PD: build knowledge, motivate staff, develop teaching techniques and embed practice. On the way, we detail each how each of the 14 mechanisms in the EEF’s paper is supported through the Steplab approach to Responsive Coaching.

Aim 1: Building knowledge

In order to do things differently, teachers need to know new information. When supporting teachers to build new knowledge, we need to ‘manage cognitive load’ (mechanism 1) and ‘revisit prior learning’ (mechanism 2). Managing cognitive load simply means ensuring that we don’t present teachers with too much new information over time. Revisiting prior learning ensures that any prior learning that has taken place is both consolidated, and built upon with new content.

Steplab supports coaches to manage cognitive load for coachees by centering professional development around granular action steps, each of which is a small, bite-sized, and high-leverage action that coachees can make meaningful progress on in a coaching cycle of a week or more. By ensuring that coachees are focusing on one small change at a time, we guard against cognitive overload.

Further, by grouping Steps into Goals (e.g., ‘Use an active listening routine’ or ‘Use accountable questioning’) that focus a coachee’s development for an extended period of time, coachees are supported to sequentially and systematically build upon their prior learning to make both rapid and sustained progress over time.

Aim 2: Motivating teachers

The EEF paper tells us that to motivate teachers we must set and agree upon goals (mechanism 3), present information from a credible source (mechanism 4), and provide affirmation and reinforcement after progress (mechanism 5). Clearly, setting and agreeing upon goals is part of the natural process of goal-focussed coaching within Steplab. But how can coaches harness the power of credible sources alongside affirmation & reinforcement?

Each of the goals within Steplab is accompanied by a study module. This module dives into both the why and the how of the steps within that goal. A key part of each module is an ‘evidence summary’, this evidence summary captures the academic research acting as a foundation for the recommendations within that goal.

Any coach keen to find out more about the research, or coachee looking for justification, can dive deep into these credible sources to help them to better understand each goal and step.

A key part of the coaching process within Steplab is crafting precise praise as part of the coaching conversation. Our advice for crafting precise praise is as follows:

Great coaches praise one specific thing. Signposting success helps to build momentum and motivation. Where possible, it’s also useful to align praise to your teacher’s current action step. Doing so acknowledges their efforts and maintains a focus on your current goals.

By ensuring that each coaching conversation acknowledges progress made as a starting point, a coach is supported to affirm and reinforce progress, each and every time they meet with their coachee.

Aim 3 & 4: Develop Teaching Techniques & Embed practice

Effective Instructional Coaching includes a cycle of observation and feedback. During observation, the coach is collecting key evidence to raise the coachee’s situation awareness in the classroom, act as a springboard for deepening insight, and motivating action.

Whether using a peer-coaching approach, or a more ‘expert coach’ approach, the feedback conversation is the key time when a coach supports coachee to develop techniques within a supportive environment (social support, mechanism 7).

Often this begins with modelling. By either utilising the model videos within the Steplab platform, or by modelling themselves, the coach supports the coachee to gain a crystal clear picture of what quality looks like when it comes to a new teaching technique (modelling, mechanism 8).

At or around this time, the coach will also explicitly outline the step’s name, and its critical components and success criteria to build the coachee’s explicit knowledge of what is likely to make that step effective (instruction, mechanism 6).

Following the model and instruction comes rehearsal (mechanism 10). The coachee begins to plan forward, considering how this new technique can be used in their own classroom (action planning, mechanism 12), and begins to actively rehearse, in teacher character, to begin to build a habit of this new technique and to help them to be more fluent with it in the classroom (context specific repetition, mechanism 14).

Whilst they rehearse, the coach monitors their progress and provides feedback (mechanism 11) between rehearsal rounds to support incremental improvement towards mastery. They also use questioning to support the coachee to monitor their own progress (mechanism 13). This monitoring provides a strong foundation for self-regulation of these new techniques when the coachee tries to apply them independently in the classroom.

At the end of the feedback conversation, action planning (mechanism 12) is revisited with questions like, ‘Where will you try out this new step?’ and ‘What barriers might get in the way?’ Coach and coachee also design prompts and cues (mechanism 11) that will help the coachee to remember to use their new step at the right time in the lesson, thereby maximising the probability of it having the desired effect.

By systematically addressing all 14 of the EEF mechanisms in our Steplab model, we’re proud to support school leaders to implement effective PD that leads to sustainable, continuous school improvement, making a real difference to their schools and to their students.

To find out more about how Steplab provides professional development that really works, just drop us an email [email protected].


More resources
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About Steplab
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Steplab is a professional learning platform that provides schools with everything needed to systematically improve teaching.

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