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Research report (66)

a-review-effects-early-childhood-education-coverA review of the effects of early childhood education (PDF, 1013kB)

The information on this page is also available as a one-page summary (PDF, 171kB).


This literature review summarises evidence of the relationship between early childhood education and cognitive and noncognitive outcomes for children. It also summarises evidence from a number of international longitudinal studies and randomised control trials. Australian evidence, though limited, has also been summarised.


Main findings

High quality early childhood education can improve children’s cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes
High-quality early childhood education is robustly associated with positive outcomes at school entry. Children who participate in early childhood education have higher cognitive and noncognitive development than children who do not participate. The benefits of early childhood education are stronger at higher levels of duration (years) and intensity (hours) of attendance. However, most early childhood education interventions yield short-term outcomes, with effects ‘fading out’ between one to three years after the intervention. The Australian evidence base on early childhood education effects is relatively limited. The extent to which early childhood education affects Australian children's development is largely unknown.
Disadvantaged children stand to gain the most from high quality early childhood education
High-quality early childhood education is particularly beneficial for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, as early childhood education provides cognitive and non-cognitive stimulation not available in the home learning environment. Interventions are best provided in the earliest years of life, as these yield higher developmental, social, and economic returns than interventions provided at later stages. Early childhood education interventions help to reduce inequalities in educational outcomes for disadvantaged children at the time of school entry. Small-scale, intensive early childhood education interventions (such as the well-known High/Scope Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs), that incorporate additional components such as parenting programs and home visits from teachers are found to be most effective. Compared to more universal programs, smaller-scale, intensive interventions produce longer-term outcomes.

The positive effects of early childhood education programs are contingent upon, and proportionate to, their quality
The provision of high-quality early childhood education is beneficial for learning and development. Early childhood education quality typically comprises structural quality (characteristics such as the teacher to child ratio) and process quality (nature of interactions between children; their environment; and teachers and peers). A policy lever that will increase the positive effects of early childhood education participation is an increase in educational quality.

Recent analysis of early childhood education quality in Australia undertaken by Melbourne University’s E4Kids study, shows that there remains substantial room for quality improvement in Australian jurisdictions, including NSW.


Language participation in NSW secondary schools (PDF, 7MB).

This paper reviews school and classroom factors which can increase participation in languages in secondary schools. It is a companion piece to CESE's case studies on language participation in NSW secondary schools.

Download Language participation in NSW secondary schools (PDF, 7MB).

case studies second language

These case studies highlight the school and classroom-based practices that four individual schools identify as contributing to their success in language participation. They are a companion to the Language participation literature review.

Armidale High School (PDF, 530kB)

Burwood Girls High School (PDF, 710kB)

Cabramatta High School (PDF, 605kB)

Cherrybrook Technology High School (PDF, 611kB)

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Closing the gap case studies

case studies graphic aboriginal

These case studies illustrate how five NSW primary schools have achieved high learning growth for their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. This work supports the 'Closing the Gap' strategy, a Council of Australian Governments commitment.

Aldavilla Public School (PDF, 700kB)

Ashmont Public School (PDF, 880kB)

Batemans Bay Public School (PDF, 850kB)

Doonside Public School (PDF, 1.5MB)

Westport Public School (PDF, 850kB)

Sustaining Success case study (PDF, 800kB)


The Sustaining Success case study (PDF, 800kB) describes how seven schools in the Fairfield Network have sustained and built on their successful educational outcomes by implementing the six effectives practices summarised in the CESE publication Six effective practices in high growth schools. The practices are:

  • high expectations
  • student engagement
  • effective teaching
  • whole-school goals
  • collaboration
  • professional learning.


How do the schools implement these practices?

Cluster 1: Quality teaching & learning

   Systems & processes  Cultures & attitudes  Programs & activities
High expectations High expectations are matched with high support.

Comprehensive student welfare and wellbeing systems.
Case management of individual students, quickly and discretely.
Structured daily routines.
Pleasant physical learning spaces.

Visibly expect success of all students.

Celebrate success and achievement for all students.
Display and promote student achievement, including with the wider community.

School values are clearly articulated and explicitly taught.

Social skills taught and reinforced regularly.
Behaviour management programs consistent across the school.
Additional academic support programs available to anyone who needs them.

Student engagement Develop a strong understanding of students’ cultures and backgrounds.

Develop connections in the broader community to provide post-school opportunities and pathways for students.

The key to engagement is a sense of belonging.

Flip disadvantage by focusing on helping others and taking a global perspective.
Build positive relationships and rapport between teachers and students.

Offer a wide range of extracurricular activities and programs to cater to diverse student interests.

School has to have ‘something for everyone’ – academic and/or extra-curricular – to sustain engagement.

Effective teaching

Combination of both explicit and integrated approaches to teaching literacy.
Key staff take leadership of numeracy programming.
Data used to identify student gaps in numeracy skills and knowledge.
Additional teachers and School Learning Support Officers (SLSOs) to tutor students to ‘fill in gaps’ in numeracy skills and knowledge.

Data-informed programming and planning, strongly led by the school executive.

A belief that all students should be able to access the curriculum and therefore a focus on genuine curriculum differentiation.

Explicit lessons, including learning intentions, goals, feedback, student self-monitoring and explicit pathways to improvement (supports student engagement).
Explicit assessments, including rubrics, feedback, student self-monitoring and explicit pathways to improvement (supports high expectations).


Cluster 2: Positive professional culture 


   Systems & processes  Cultures & attitudes  Programs & activities
School goals

Structured systems for implementing school goals: strategy, plan, implement, evaluate, embed.
Leadership team has a clear division of responsibilities for leading management of change and progress towards goals.
Good communication systems between executive and teaching staff.

A culture of evaluative thinking, where program evaluation is a routine part of school life and evidence is regularly collected and reflected upon.
A culture of collaboration, where school goals are generated through a consultative process and seen as a team effort to implement.

A consistent approach to using data to drive and monitor school goals e.g. SMART, RAP.
Professional learning is strategically linked to school goals; ongoing TPL drives school goals from vision to implementation.


Common ‘core’ teaching and learning programs across grades/KLAs, updated regularly as student needs change.
Shared release time specifically timetabled so that teachers have dedicated time to work together within the school day.

Collaborative cultures develop gradually over time through collegial and supportive relationships.
Open-door classroom culture, regular observing of each other’s lessons.
Informal, reflective conversations and ongoing sharing of ideas.
Curriculum programming is a team activity and a collective responsibility.
Collaborative planning by executive underpins teacher collaboration.

Use of technology e.g. Google docs, Sentral, shared drives, email.
Shared physical spaces e.g. combined staffroom.
Team teaching (two or more teachers working together with a single group of students).
Open committee structure, so all staff are welcome to participate.
Cross-faculty/team coordination of extracurricular activities.

Professional learning

TPL timetable planned yearly in advance, with flexibility to respond to emerging needs
TPL strategically linked to PDPs and school goals.
Innovative timetabling across schools e.g. Twilight evenings, Super Saturdays, across schools. Sustained focus on a single issue over a term.
TPL embedded into school routines, not an ‘extra’.

Open door culture of sharing resources, asking questions and seeking advice from colleagues.

Staff given some choice in TPL, interest drives engagement.
A culture of staff leading each other in TPL creates a collaborative environment and facilitates ongoing learning.

Balance between whole-school TPL and small-group learning.
High quality, external expertise brought in where appropriate.
Majority of TPL run in-house. This builds staff capacity and allows TPL to be highly tailored to school needs and contexts.


Download the summary on this page (PDF, 50kB). 

LNAP 2016 summary thumb   LNAP 2016 thumb

The Literacy and Numeracy Action Plan 2012-2016 was developed to address the widespread inequalities in learning outcomes known to exist from the earliest years of schooling in NSW schools serving low socio-economic status communities. This report presents the findings of an evaluation of NSW Literacy and Numeracy Action Plan 2012-2016. It examines the extent to which student literacy and numeracy improved, factors that may have led to any improvement, and the extent to which any improvement achieved was cost-effective. 

Download the executive summary (PDF, 520kB) or full evaluation report (PDF, 2.95MB)

effect read

Effective reading instruction in the early years of school (PDF, 3.7MB) 

Effective reading myPL course


Evidence summary poster for school staffrooms

To help share the evidence, Effective reading is available as a summary poster (PDF, 324kB).

What does the poster say?

Reading is a foundational, yet complex cognitive skill upon which other skills are built. Early success in reading is a powerful predictor of later achievement in a range of other academic areas. Individuals without literacy skills are at risk of being unable to participate in the workforce or engage fully in civic and social life.

Since 2000, there have been major reviews of the teaching of reading in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. These reviews, along with other research, have consistently identified five key components of effective reading programs: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. The CESE literature review ‘Effective reading instruction in the early years of school’ summarises this research and concludes that, to be most successful, the five key components must be taught explicitly, sequentially and systematically.

The evidence identifies five key components of effective reading programs:

Phonemic awareness
The ability to hear the sounds in spoken words and understand that words are made up of sequences of sounds.

Phonics instruction connects phonemes with written letters so that the reader can transfer knowledge of sounds to the printed word. Synthetic phonics’ is the approach with the most robust evidence base.

The ability to read quickly and naturally with accuracy and expression. Fluency contains the skill of automaticity which allows a reader to recognise words quickly.

When children ‘sound out’ a word, their brain connects the pronunciation of a sequence of sounds to a word in their vocabulary to find a logical match. If a match is not created because the word they are reading is not in their vocabulary, comprehension is interrupted.

The understanding and interpretation of what is read. Comprehension requires having a sufficient vocabulary.

Download the report (PDF, 1.7MB)

The 2015 workforce profile report (PDF, 1.7MB) includes data that details teachers' characteristics and experiences from entry into initial teacher education through to exit from the profession. The report provides information on both government and non-government school teachers as well as teachers in training.

The Workforce Profile of the NSW Teaching Profession 2015 is published in response to element 5.1 of Great Teaching, Inspired Learning (GTIL), the NSW Government's plan for improving the quality of teaching and learning in NSW schools. Produced annually, the 2015 report builds on the data presented in the Workforce Profile of the NSW Teaching Profession 2014.

Monday, 28 November 2016

The transition to school

Transition to school

The importance of a positive transition to school is well recognised. This paper examines the existing literature on the transition from home and/or early childhood settings to primary school.

Download The transition to school (PDF, 2MB).

How schools can improve literacy and numeracy performance (PDF, 1MB)


How schools can improve literacy and numeracy performance (PDF, 1MB)

How schools can improve literacy and numeracy performance myPL course



This paper examines evidence-based practices that can be implemented by schools to enhance literacy and numeracy performance. Educating students in literacy and numeracy is a key responsibility of schools as literacy and numeracy are ‘foundational skills’ that underpin the subsequent development of more complex skills. Literacy and numeracy skills also underpin workforce participation, productivity and the broader economy, and can impact on social and health outcomes. Individuals without these skills are at risk of not being able to participate in the workforce or engage fully in social and civic life.


Main findings

Intervene early and maintain the focus
Research shows that access to quality early childhood education programs makes a significant and long-term difference to children’s development in many areas, including their cognitive development. Early intervention needs to be followed by continued high quality learning experiences to maintain efficacy. The first three years of school are a peak window within which children develop the literacy and numeracy skills that they will carry into upper primary and secondary school.
Know what students can do and target teaching accordingly
There is a wide range of learning achievement amongst students in Australian schools. Targeted teaching can lift the performance of students who are many years behind and also challenge students who are already well ahead of year-level expectations. In order to implement targeted teaching effectively, teachers need accurate information about what students know and are ready to learn next. This information can be acquired through the use of formative assessment which has been shown to have a significant effect on learning across the spectrum.

Have clear and transparent learning goals
Research shows that having clear and transparent learning goals at both the school and classroom level leads to improvements in learning achievement. Evidence shows that students who experience explicit teaching practices perform better than students who do not. Explicit teaching practice involves teachers clearly showing students what to do and how to do it, rather than having students discover or construct this information for themselves. Well-defined learning continua or progressions support explicit teaching by enabling teachers to understand what is to be learned and to determine accurately students’ current learning achievement.
Focus on teacher professional learning that improves the teaching of literacy and numeracy
High-quality teaching is the greatest in-school influence on student engagement and outcomes. Quality professional learning increases teaching quality. Research indicates that professional learning is most effective if it deepens teachers’ content knowledge and knowledge about how students learn that content; is supported by the wider school community and is seen as part of achieving whole school goals; and is linked to clear and relevant goals that are related to student outcomes.


The information on this page is also available as a one-page summary (PDF, 162kB)

Wednesday, 07 September 2016

What works best reflection guide

What works best reflection guide (PDF, 800kB) 

What works best reflection guide (PDF, 800kB) 

This reflection guide draws on evidence from our What works best paper. 




Introduction - Putting evidence into practice

What is the purpose of the reflection guide?

The What works best reflection guide is a practical resource for teachers and school executive staff. It gives schools explicit examples of what can be done to improve student engagement and achievement. Teachers can use this guide to reflect on their individual teaching strategies and to evaluate their own practice. The themes discussed can also be implemented through a whole-school approach. Drawing on the evidence presented in What works best: Evidence-based practices to help improve NSW student performance, Six effective practices in high growth schools, Student wellbeing and Tell Them From Me case studies; this guide assists school staff to reflect on what's working in their schools and what can be improved.

What is included?

The What Works Best Reflection Guide puts forward seven key themes:
1. High expectations
2. Explicit teaching
3. Effective feedback
4. Use of data to inform practice
5. Classroom management
6. Wellbeing
7. Collaboration

Each theme in this guide includes the evidence about why it is important and a section on what it looks like in practice. These themes align with the six effective practices of high growth schools, which we identified as part of our High Value Add evaluation. With this information in mind, staff are invited to reflect on what they do well, what they could do better and what they might do differently over the next year.


High expectations

What does the evidence say?

• High expectations are linked with higher performance for all students.

• The reverse can also be true. Some students from disadvantaged backgrounds may be achieving less than their full potential due to lower expectations of their ability.

• All students need to be appropriately challenged in order to learn – but many NSW students say they aren’t being challenged enough.

• A culture of high expectations needs to be supported by effective mechanisms and strategies that support every student’s learning needs. Curriculum differentiation is an effective means by which this can occur in every classroom.

What does this look like in practice?

 • Share work samples among teachers to ensure that assessment expectations are consistent and that a culture of high expectations is promoted across a school.

• Display explicit learning guides (for example, Literacy and Numeracy Continua) in classrooms to show students what performance benchmarks are and to encourage them to pursue higher levels of achievement.

• Have a common set of guidelines across a school that rewards positive behaviour and have a transparent set of procedures for responding to negative behaviours.

• Organise trips to a local university for students and parents to help raise their expectations about future academic study.

Reflection questions

• What do we do well?

• What could we do better?

• What could we do differently this year? 


Explicit teaching

What does the evidence say?

• Explicit teaching practices involve teachers clearly showing students what to and how to do it, rather than having students discover or construct information for themselves. 

• Explicit teaching recognises that learning is a cumulative and systematic process, starting with building strong foundations in core skills in literacy and numeracy.

• Effective teacher practices ensure that students have clear instruction on what is expected of them, and what they need to learn from tasks. It ensures that students are given time to engage with the learning process, ask questions and get clear feedback.

• Students who experience explicit teaching practices make greater learning gains than students who do not experience these practices.

What does this look like in practice?

• Show students exemplars of success (for example, sharing work samples that meet achievement benchmarks).

• Develop accessible teaching resources that include templates for how to differentiate lessons and assessments.

• Display explicit learning progressions (for example, Literacy and Numeracy Continua) in classrooms to show students what performance benchmarks are and to encourage them to pursue higher levels of achievement.

• Systematically deliver basic skills, and teach skills in the right sequence so that students master the building blocks of skills like literacy and numeracy.

• Ask students challenging questions, such as ‘why, why-not, how, what-if, how does X compare to Y, and what is the evidence for X?’

• Review learning and explain how it contributes to related, and more complex skills.

Reflection questions

• What do we do well?

• What could we do better?

• What could we do differently this year? 


Effective feedback

What does the evidence say?

• Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on student achievement.

• Feedback that focuses on improving tasks, processes and student self-regulation usually has a positive effect.

• Rewards, as well as some kinds of praise, tend to be ineffective or at times have a negative effect.

What does this look like in practice?

Emphasise feedback that:

• is about a student’s process or effort. For example, ‘You must have tried hard’.

• encourages students’ self-regulation. For example, ‘You already know the key features of the opening of an argument. Check to see whether you have incorporated them in your first paragraph’.

Avoid feedback that:

• praises a student’s innate intelligence or talents. For example, ‘You are a great student’.

• is in the form of extrinsic rewards for work, such as stickers.

Reflection questions

• What do we do well?

• What could we do better?

• What could we do differently this year? 


Use of data to inform practice

What does the evidence say?

• Effective analysis of student data helps teachers identify areas in which students’ learning needs may require additional attention and development.

• Data can also help teachers see which students may be struggling to engage with particular learning areas, and understand which students respond better to different teaching approaches in their classroom.

• High-quality assessment practice is crucial for effective data analysis of student outcomes and wellbeing.

• Teachers need access to tools, skills and training to help them interpret and use this data effectively.

What does this look like in practice?

• Prioritise professional learning in effective use of data, and encourage evidence-based teaching practices across the school.

• Use student data (for example, NAPLAN, Literacy and Numeracy Continua) to identify students’ learning needs, develop learning targets and monitor progress.

• Design and implement good formative assessment in order to obtain useful data which can be used to adapt and inform teaching practice.

• Use data as the basis for professional discussions, including how assessment data helps identify and address students’ needs.

• Promote data based collaboration within and across schools.

Reflection questions

• What do we do well?

• What could we do better?

• What could we do differently this year? 


Classroom management

What does the evidence say?

• Effective classroom management is important for creating the conditions for learning.

• Data confirms a link between effective classroom management and student performance.

• Early career teachers are likely to benefit from explicit support in developing effective classroom management strategies.

• Classroom management strategies will be more effective if they are consistent with a school-wide strategy to manage student behaviour.

What does this look like in practice?

• Establish and teach school and classroom rules to communicate expectations for behaviour.

• Build structure and establish routines to help guide students in a wide variety of situations.

• Foster and maintain student engagement by including opportunities for active student participation in lessons.

• Reinforce positive behaviour.

• Consistently impose consequences for misbehaviour.

• Provide particular support in classroom organisation and management to new and trainee teachers.

Reflection questions

• What do we do well?

• What could we do better?

• What could we do differently this year? 



What does the evidence say?

• There is an increasing focus on student wellbeing in education, in recognition that schooling can contribute to the development of the whole child, which in turn can drive academic outcomes.

• Higher levels of wellbeing are linked to higher academic achievement, Year 12 completion, better mental health and a more pro-social and responsible lifestyle.

• Survey data from NSW reveals that students’ social and emotional engagement is at its lowest in the middle years of high school.

What does this look like in practice?

• Increase sense of belonging through initiatives such as house systems, peer support groups and extra-curricular activities.

• Enhance connection through consultation and communication with the broader school community (including students, teachers and parents).

• Create a safe school that encompasses both physical safety (that is, free from risk, harm or injury to students), and emotional safety (that is, free from negative behaviours such as bullying).

• Introduce targeted social and emotional learning programs.

• Seek to objectively understand patterns in student wellbeing. This can be done through CESE’s Tell Them From Me survey.

Reflection questions

• What do we do well?

• What could we do better?

• What could we do differently this year? 



What does the evidence say?

• Great teachers don’t just ‘happen’; they are developed and keep on developing throughout their professional life.

• Effective collaboration is key to sharing successful and innovative teaching practices across the teaching profession.

• Not all collaboration is effective. Teachers need to engage in professionalised collaboration that explicitly aims to improve teacher practices and student outcomes.

• A whole-of-school focus is needed to develop a culture of excellence. School leaders need to support teachers’ professional learning, take a central role in collaborative networks and work to identify the strengths and weaknesses of teaching at their school.

What does this look like in practice?

• Focus professional learning and development needs on student needs and improving learning outcomes.

• Open classrooms to one another and be prepared to discuss the effectiveness of different strategies, and support the broad aim of working together to improve the quality of teaching across the whole profession.

• Use external expertise to ensure that best practice models are identified through a process of critical validation and have a whole-school focus.

• Develop easily accessible platforms to share teaching resources (for example, shared drives).

Reflection questions

• What do we do well?

• What could we do better?

• What could we do differently this year? 

A paper by the late Dr Paul Brock, looking at recent research into the elements of teacher professional development that lead to improved student outcomes.

How can evidence-based research answer the following question:

Are there forms of professional development or learning processes which, when applied to school teaching and learning contexts, make significant contributions to demonstrably improved student learning outcomes?

Download the Expert Paper (PDF, 450kb)

Some basic principles that I suggest should underpin all quality policy development in education

It is certainly true that evidence-based research must underpin any authentic response to the fundamental question posed above, and this will be the principal focus of this paper. But from a broader policy perspective, evidence-based research is an example of when what is ‘necessary’ may not be ‘sufficient’. Already completed and published research is but one of at least four inter-dependent and interrelated fundamental sources of information and understanding that need to be heeded.

The second fundamental source is scholarship – ie. the ideas, speculation, imagination, creativity, innovation and so on – generated and articulated by thinkers who would not fit into the mould of evidence-based researchers.

The third is the wisdom distilled from the reflection over their experience by excellent teachers, principals, and other school leaders who may never have undertaken evidence-based research, who may never have published in the scholarship genre, but who are able to abundantly irrigate educational theory and practice because of their own reflections on their expertise and experiences.

The fourth is practical, good old fashioned strategic nous, which might be described as that down to earth, insightful, flexible exercise of common sense, while fully aware of the complexities of the relevant context.

Some reflections on research 

There is considerable educational research that merely confirms what good teachers, principals, and educators in many contexts have known or suspected for quite a while. For example, the research that has demonstrated that the quality of teaching is the most significant within-school factor in the quality of student learning, and that within-school differences are often more significant than between-school differences. These are really ‘no brainers’ these days.

When seeking to establish any compelling link between cause and effect in research, it is always important not to confuse cause with correlation.

When reading the outcomes of any particular piece of educational research, it is necessary to stress the importance of context when assessing the value of that research. For example, one should generally respond cautiously to any black and white research pontifications about the significance of any one, isolated, factor within the rich and diverse landscape that constitutes teaching and learning.

We must carefully exercise our critical powers when reading research. The questions that should arise include the following: Who undertook the research? What is their reputation? What was the purpose of this research? What was its context? What methodology was used? What were any underlying assumptions? Who funded the research? Who may have benefitted from it? What data was included? Was data excluded? How is the research intended to be used?

Teacher ‘professional development’ or teacher ‘professional learning’?

As in many areas of education, it is important not to get too caught up in semantics. For example, striving for any black and white distinction between teacher ‘professional development’ and teacher ‘professional learning’ can be counter-productive. Any professional development that does not involve professional learning – and any professional learning that does not involve professional development – is not worth very much at all. For the purpose of this short paper, I am focusing on the professional development of teachers through learning. I will use the expressions professional development, professional learning, professional development / learning and professional learning / development interchangeably in this paper.

False and misleading dichotomies

One of the features that too often bedevils educational theory and practice is asserting or imposing dichotomies where they do not exist.

What are known as the ‘Literacy wars’ provide classic examples of this very thing. Too often acolytes of ‘gurus’ hurled abuse (however scholarly phrased) at each other without fully understanding the depth and nuances of the theories or practices they were inveighing against. What one side claimed that the other side ignored, may be found, on close forensic inspection, to be untrue – and vice versa. Another tactic not infrequently used is the ‘strawperson’ extremist misrepresentation of the opponent’s position, which is then rather easily demolished. Again, not infrequently it is the campaign waged by acolytes of notable ‘gurus’ which is more aggressive, even combative, than the positions taken by the originating researcher or scholar.

Incidentally, in some of the adversarial discourses within education in general, one sometimes hears the almost dichotomous assertion – made either in defence or attack – that ‘it works all right in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice’. I have always held the view, however, that if the theory does not work in practice, then there is something wrong with the theory; or the practice has not properly applied the theory; or a combination of both.

Teacher professional learning / development – a personal view

In general, professional learning / development for experienced teachers, (early career teachers are not the focus of this paper) to assist them to become better professionals, will be characterised by at least an appropriate richness and rigour of understanding of content; expertise in engagement of students in their learning; diversity and flexibility in pedagogical practice; and a thorough understanding of the importance of purpose and context in learning. This will all be true whether the learning is being undertaken by the teacher herself or himself, or if it is being provided by the education system within which the teacher exercises her or his professionalism.

I believe that there are two major dimensions in the theory and practice of teacher professional development / learning:

• Like any member of a profession, every teacher or principal has a responsibility for their own professional development. For example, secondary school English teachers have a personal professional responsibility to keep abreast of research and scholarly developments in their field. Such professional development / learning can take a variety of forms.

• Those who employ teachers have a responsibility to provide systemic professional development / learning for their teachers and principals when significant systemic change is undertaken. For example, the NSW Department of Education recognises and accepts its responsibility to provide appropriate professional learning for those with the responsibility of implementing new systemic policies. Similarly, such professional development / learning can take a variety of forms.

The phrase ‘life-long learning’ has become almost a contemporary mantra; if not, indeed, a cliché. But it has validity. For teachers and principals this can be expressed as ‘career-long learning’. Apart from anything else, those who seek to have their students learn must be learners themselves. Learning is not a static process – either for teacher or student.

Teacher professional development / learning – analogies with student learning  

As far as student learning is concerned, it is now the increasingly accepted view that there is no one silver bullet form of teaching and learning. Here are some examples of what can be components of effective pedagogy:

• ‘Stand and deliver’– for example, a teacher giving a lecture to combined classes of Year 10 students studying Macbeth – can be one perfectly legitimate component of a diversified teaching / learning strategy.

• A ‘typical’ classroom lesson – provided the teacher is both thoroughly familiar with the content and able to engage the students effectively, and which incorporates a range of teaching / learning strategies – is another string to such a flexible strategic bow.

• Small discussion groups of students – properly set up and monitored by the teacher, with clearly enunciated principles, processes of engagement and authentic forms of assessment – also feed into the mix.

• Students focusing on their work in pairs, also has a place.

• As does, of course, a student working on her or his own – in whatever learning space this may occur; whether it be the classroom or the library or under a tree, or at home.

Any one particular approach consistently applied in isolation, is not, sui generis, the silver bullet. And then when you cross-reference or irrigate this (or any more extensive mixture) with more macro pedagogical approaches – for example, problem-solving, or project-based methodologies, etc – other possibilities come into play. When the considerable array of potential learning and teaching flexibilities and synergies generated by multi-media information communication technological platforms are overlaid on all of the above, the possibilities are rich indeed. But at the same time, such technological wizardry in no way removes the timeless educational need for discernment, curiosity, knowledge, understanding, skills, values and all those other characteristics of quality education articulated and outlined, for example, in the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians.

Two perspectives from just over a decade ago on the issue of evidence-based research for identifying features of high quality professional learning


Borko, 2004

In 2004 Hilda Borko (in her paper ‘Professional development and teacher learning: mapping the terrain’) was trenchant in her criticism of the quality of professional development then available to school teachers in the United States of America. She lamented the absence of high quality, evidence-based research to underpin professional development. Indeed, she cited Sykes, who characterised the inadequacy of conventional professional development as ‘the most serious unsolved problem for policy and practice in American education today’ (Sykes 1996, p. 465). The premise of my paper is that it still remains a ’serious unsolved problem’ for educational research.


Ingvarson, Meiers and Beavis, 2005

A year after Borko published her article, the Australian scholars Lawrence Ingvarson, Marion Meiers and Catherine Beavis – in the introduction to their article ‘Factors affecting the impact of professional development programs on teachers’ knowledge, practice, student outcomes and efficacy’ (2005) – noted the vital role played by professional development in ensuring quality teaching and learning in schools, and the increased interest in research that identifies features of effective professional learning. They called for more sophisticated methods for evaluating professional development programs, and argued that the previous approach of distributing questionnaires at the door no longer suffices. However, their paper made no explicit call for evaluating the efficacy of professional development for teachers in terms of student learning outcomes; or, in the case of professional development experienced by principals, improved learning outcomes across their schools.

More recent perspectives

A reading of the articles by Borko and by Ingvarson, Meiers and Beavis raises the question as to what evidence-based research there should be to demonstrate the efficacy of various forms of professional development / learning – other than surveying teachers to see what they believe to have been the better or best forms that they have experienced? Of course this subjective assessment provides one legitimate source of information.

But it would clearly be of value if there could be some form or forms of evidence-based research that could show that improved development / learning outcomes of their students could be attributed to improved professional development / learning outcomes of their teachers.


Timperley, 2008

Timperley’s booklet Teacher Professional Learning and Development (2008) is based on a synthesis of research evidence produced for the New Zealand Ministry of Education’s Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis (BES) Programme, which was designed to be a catalyst for systemic improvement and sustainable development in education.

At the outset, Helen Timperley sets out the aim of this relatively short work as follows: ’The focus of this particular booklet is on the interrelated conditions for professional learning and development that impact positively on valued student outcomes’ (pp. 6-7).

Before the concluding chapter, Professor Timperley observes that ‘Sustained improvement in student outcomes requires that teachers have sound theoretical knowledge, evidence-informed inquiry skills, and supportive organisational conditions’.

The basis of this publication consists of 10 inter-dependent principles for driving effective forms of teacher professional development / learning – each of which is explored in each of the chapters. These principles are as follows:

Chapter 10, ‘Maintaining momentum’, commences with the following highlighted statement: ’Sustained improvement in student outcomes requires that teachers have sound theoretical knowledge, evidence-informed inquiry skills, and supportive organisational conditions’ (p. 24). What follows in Timperley’s Chapter 10 warrants direct quoting:

Research findings

Regrettably, most efforts to improve student outcomes through professional learning and development are short-lived. For improvement to be sustained, short-term perspectives need to be extended to more distant horizons.

Although the research base identifying the conditions associated with long-term improvement is somewhat thin, one thing does appear clear: sustainability depends both on what happens during the professional learning experience and on the organisational conditions that are in place when external support is withdrawn.

The professional learning experience 

A sustained improvement in student outcomes depends firstly on teachers developing strong theoretical frameworks that provide them with a basis for making principled changes to practice in response to student needs. When confronted with specific teaching–learning challenges, teachers can go back to the theory to determine what adjustments they need to make to their practice.

Sustained improvement also depends on teachers developing professional, self-regulatory inquiry skills so that they can collect relevant evidence, use it to inquire into the effectiveness of their teaching, and make continuing adjustments to their practice. Teachers with these crucial self-regulatory skills are able to answer three vital questions: ’Where am I going?’, ’How am I doing?’, and ’Where to next?’ The answer to the ’Where am I going?’ question is sometimes referenced explicitly to national or state standards; more often it is found in, for example, improvements in students’ mathematical problem solving or text comprehension. The answer to the question, ’How am I doing?’ is a measure of how effective teaching is in terms of student progress. The answer to the ’Where to next?’ question is guided by a detailed and theoretically sophisticated knowledge of curriculum content and student progressions.

Organisational conditions

Continued forward momentum also depends on an organisational infrastructure that supports professional learning and self-regulated inquiry. It is difficult for teachers to engage in sophisticated inquiry processes unless sitebased leaders reinforce the importance of goals for student learning, assist teachers to collect and analyse relevant evidence of progress toward them, and access expert assistance when required (pp. 24-25).


Towards the end of this fairly short publication, Timperley lists six questions or issues underpinning the set of principles, each of which forms the basis of each of her preceding chapters. These questions or issues are as follows:

• What educational outcomes are valued for our students and how are our students doing in relation to those outcomes?

• What has been the impact of our changed actions on our students?

• Engagement of students in new learning experiences.

• What knowledge and skills do we as teachers need to enable our students to bridge the gap between current understandings and valued outcomes?

• How can we as leaders promote the learning of our teachers to bridge the gap for our students?

• Engagement of teachers in further learning to deepen professional knowledge and refine skills (pp. 26-27)

The following is what Professor Timperley considers to be the 10 principles for driving effective forms of teacher professional development or learning. She emphasises that the 10 principles ‘do not operate independently; rather, they are integrated to inform cycles of learning and action’ (p.28).

1. Focus on valued student outcomes

Professional learning experiences that focus on the links between particular teaching activities and valued student outcomes are associated with positive impacts on those outcomes.

2. Worthwhile content

The knowledge and skills developed are those that have been established as effective in achieving valued student outcomes.

3. Integration of knowledge and skills

The integration of essential teacher knowledge and skills promotes deep teacher learning and effective changes in practice.

4. Assessment for professional inquiry

Information about what students need to know and do is used to identify what teachers need to know and do.

5. Multiple opportunities to learn and apply information

To make significant changes to their practice, teachers need multiple opportunities to learn new information and understand its implications for practice. Furthermore, they need to encounter these opportunities in environments that offer both trust and challenge.

6. Approaches responsive to learning processes

The promotion of professional learning requires different approaches depending on whether or not new ideas are consistent with the assumptions that currently underpin practice.

7. Opportunities to process new learning with others

Collegial interaction that is focused on student outcomes can help teachers integrate new learning into existing practice.

8. Knowledgeable expertise

Expertise external to the group of participating teachers is necessary to challenge existing assumptions and develop the kinds of new knowledge and skills associated with positive outcomes for students.

9. Active leadership

Designated educational leaders have a key role in developing expectations for improved student outcomes and organising and promoting engagement in professional learning opportunities.

10. Maintaining momentum 

Sustained improvement in student outcomes requires that teachers have sound theoretical knowledge, evidence-informed inquiry skills, and supportive organisational conditions (pp. 8-25).

In outlining her principles for professional development or learning, Timperley hits the nail on the head. She points directly at the need to link professional development or learning with demonstrable student learning outcomes. However, in subsequent years it has been difficult to find any comprehensive forms of evidence-based research that have been able to demonstrate improved learning outcomes of their students that could be attributed to improved professional development or learning outcomes of their teachers.


Schleicher, 2011

In his research report Building a high-quality teaching profession: lessons from around the world (2011), Dr Andreas Schleicher – well-known internationally as the OECD’s Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on Education Policy and Head of the Indicators and Analysis Division at the Directorate for Education – provided a critiqued collation of some evidence-based international research on the efficacy of professional development. One of the largest international surveys of teachers and school principals, the report was based on data from over 70,000 teachers and school principals from lower secondary teachers in the 23 participating countries. In reference to the report, Schleicher noted that ‘relatively few teachers participate in the kinds of professional development which they find has the largest impact on their work’ (see Figure 3.16 in his presentation - included in the bibliography).

Referring to results from the 2009 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), he noted that those professional development opportunities rated by teacher participants as having the highest impact on their work were: individual and collaborative research; qualification programs; informal dialogue to improve teaching; reading professional literature; courses and workshops; and professional development networks. But those with the highest levels of participation were informal dialogue to improve teaching; and courses and workshops.

However, the efficacy of all of these professional development programs was determined only by the aggregation of each participant’s own self-assessment of the ’impact’ of the professional development or learning on their teaching. No evidence was provided – or at least reported – on the efficacy as demonstrated by the improved learning of their students.


McIntyre, 2012

Early in the monograph A significant and direct impact by teachers and school leaders on student learning outcomes in literacy (2012) written by Ann McIntyre, following discussions with her colleagues in the NSW Department of Education and Training (as it was then known) Professional Learning and Leadership Development Directorate (of which she was the Director), references were made to then recent research on the impact of school leaders and teachers on student learning – and the link to professional learning or development. McIntyre noted that ’nearly 60 per cent of a school’s impact on student achievement is attributed to principal and teacher effectiveness’ (McIntyre, 2011, p. 9, citing McKinsey, 2010, p. 5, which itself cited Barber, Whelan and Clark, 2010) and that there is an interdependent link between student and school improvement and professional learning (cf. Elmore, 2006; Robinson, 2007). 

McIntyre proceeded to argue that successful school improvement is dependent upon the capacity of a system to successfully undertake the following four actions:

1. Research and analyse the practices of school leaders and teachers that have the most significant impact on student learning.

2. Develop professional learning programs that articulate and promote these practices and develop teacher and school leader capacity to implement this learning in the context of their school and classrooms.

3. Analyse the learning needs of students, develop clear targets for school and classroom action and implement coherent, aligned professional learning strategies to build both teacher and school leader capacity to improve student learning.

4. Implement school improvement systems that enable the alignment of teacher and school leader learning to student learning. 

(cf. McIntyre, 2011, pp. 48-49)

It is worth noting that Dr Ben Jensen, in his analysis of PISA-successful East Asian countries and cities, emphasised the importance of the practical implementation of creating a strong culture of teacher collaboration and mentoring; teachers observing and providing feedback on their colleagues’ teaching; sustained high quality professional development; and highly focused research on the learning development of students within their classrooms (Grattan Institute, 2012).


McIntyre, 2013

The paper Teacher quality evidence for action (ACE 2013) by Ann McIntyre is an example of a fine piece of recent research based on surveys of a large number of public school teachers (approximately 6,000) who provided their own self-assessment of the relative value of a range of professional development or learning ‘programs’ they had experienced.

The six key elements that had the greatest impact for primary teachers were, in order of influence:

• the collaborative preparation of lessons and teaching resources,

• lesson observation and observing each other’s lessons,

• the collaborative assessment and evaluation of student work,

• structured feedback meetings,

• developing evidence to demonstrate the achievement of professional teaching standards,

• team teaching.

McIntyre noted that the benefit of teachers working together highlights the importance of reframing activities within schools to ensure that schools are not only places for students to learn but also places for teachers to learn. Structuring time within schools to enable lesson observation and feedback and the collaborative development and evaluation of lessons collectively provide a significant source of professional learning for teachers.

Similar responses were given in a study that focussed on teachers who were described by their principals as being accomplished and of high quality.

While, by and large, these forms of professional development or learning can also be found in Dr Andreas Schleicher’s collation, what does not appear in this particular research undertaken by McIntyre is any reference to forms of professional development or learning delivered and/or experienced external to the school itself. This can be explained, however, by the fact that the policy of the former NSW Department of Education and Training had become committed to a model of funding professional learning programs fully devolved to, or within schools – which had to be ‘driven’ by one or more of a set of professional learning themes set down by the Department. Therefore, McIntyre’s research, which surveyed approximately 6,750 teachers – conducted as part of evaluation of use of teacher professional learning funds – had its dominant focus on within-school professional learning processes.

As a consequence, and to reiterate, none of the forms of external professional development or learning found to have an important impact on teachers in Schleicher’s research – individual and collaborative research; qualification programs; reading professional literature; courses and workshops; and professional development networks – are recorded as having a significant impact on the teachers in McIntyre’s research. However, Individual and collaborative research was one of the strategies that was evidenced in the analysis of student learning and approaches to lesson planning and observation. Within McIntyre’s research she found that Schleicher’s professional learning categories did not sit well with her research as her focus was, as it always has been, on professional learning as an outcomes-driven process rather than an input-driven process. This was made very clear in McIntyre’s (as yet unpublished) research paper Teacher learning to improve student learning: professional development policy and impact in NSW, Australia, presented at the Annual General Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, in April, 2015.

In a subsequent piece of research undertaken for the NSW Primary Principals’ Association which commenced in 2013, Ann McIntyre set out to identify evidence to demonstrate the efficacy – or otherwise – of the professional learning experienced by the principals involved in the pilot of a new principal credential for the Association. The project was modelled on her research regarding the elements of professional learning that were most likely to impact practice. The program involved face-to-face evidence-informed learning seminars, mentoring by successful practising principals, and action learning – over the 18 months’ duration of the project. She planned that at the conclusion of the research project, participants would be required to present evidence that included the ‘School improvement challenge’, the ‘Performance and development plan’ and an ‘Executive summary’ that would outline their learning as leaders through the learning development processes they had implemented in their schools as a result of the professional learning processes. Essential to this concluding document would have to be their demonstrable evidence of efficacy through the provision of evidence aligned to both the Australian Professional Standard for Principals and the key accountabilities of their role. Results of this research were not available at the time this particular paper was written. When published it should provide demonstrable evidence of improved learning as a result of identified professional learning processes.


As indicated in the note below, this project commenced in 2014. Therefore, generally speaking, much of the research, but not all of it, that is cited in the preceding text, does not go beyond 2013. Even from the fairly brief collation of research identified and discussed in this paper, what does clearly emerge is the need for authentic, evidence-based causal (not merely correlational) links between the provision or experience of identified professional development or learning processes, and demonstrable student learning outcome effects that can be directly attributed to those professional development or learning causes.


A word from the author, 17 November 2015.
I commenced drafting this paper in August 2014. For a number of reasons, its completion was delayed. Most of the original draft remains. The first eight paragraphs of this paper can be found in my article, ‘Show an Affirming Flame: A Message to the Profession’ in the Journal of Professional Learning,  

 About the author.
Dr Paul Brock AM FACE FACEL was Director of Learning and Development Research with the NSW Department of Education, an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney, an Honorary Research Fellow of the University of New England and an Honorary Associate with the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sydney. He was also a Vice Patron of the Motor Neurone Disease Association of NSW. Dr Brock authored, co-authored and edited more than 130 publications, including books, book chapters, monographs, refereed journal articles and poetry. He also delivered over 100 academic papers to international and Australian conferences. Dr Brock passed away in March 2016.

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