Teacher Professional Development: a ‘side effect’ of taking part in research

Background and introduction

This paper reports on the experiences of teachers who participated in a research project called Formative Assessment in Science and Mathematics Education (FaSMEd). FaSMEd is a design research project which aims ultimately to produce a toolkit for teachers. The tools in the toolkit are lesson plans, together with mathematics tasks and detailed guidance for the teacher. They are designed to support teachers in using formative assessment (for example see Black & Wiliam, 2009) more effectively in their mathematics and science classrooms.

To develop the tools teachers were asked to use lessons which involve ‘active learning’ or ‘student centred’ approaches, and all involved students working in small groups or pairs frequently sorting or matching card sets. The teachers’ professional knowledge and experiences of teaching the lessons were then used to adapt and improve the tools.

For many teachers in the project, this way of working represented a significant shift in their practice. To support them in teaching the lessons, the researchers planned the lessons in detail with them, discussing both the ‘big’ ideas in terms of mathematics, and practical details such as how to introduce the class activity. The research lessons were video recorded and afterwards the teachers were interviewed, with a focus on the decisions they made before and during the lesson. They were asked, in particular, what they learnt from the students’ responses, what they then decided to do, and why. These questions aimed to help the researchers understand how the teachers were using formative assessment.

Cluster meetings, involving all the teachers and researchers, were held termly. During these meetings, teachers shared their responses to the lessons, and this included viewing a video-montage taken from the research lessons. They discussed and tried out possible lessons to use in the future and reflected on the whole research process.

Theoretical background and introducing the research

It is already well known that trying out new approaches and reflecting deeply on what happened tend to be effective within professional development for teachers (for example see Joubert & Sutherland, 2009). Further, as Swan (2007) demonstrates, the particular type of tasks used in the project can have a positive impact on teacher learning. Therefore, although this project was not explicitly about teacher learning or professional development, it was highly likely that some teacher learning would take place. The research question addressed in this paper concerns what teachers learnt through their experiences and, ultimately, how their own professional practices were shifting in-line with the philosophies and principles underpinning the materials.

There is much within the literature on professional development for teachers about how learning of teachers can be evidenced, and there seems to be general agreement that their learning can take place on a number of levels: changes in knowledge, changes in attitudes or beliefs, and changes in practice (Guskey, 2002). The research reported here aimed to explore all these, mainly by asking the teachers.

Twenty teachers took part in the research, between January and October 2015, in Cape Town, South Africa. Data was gathered using semi-structured interviews after each lesson and a questionnaire and a further semi-structured interview at the end of the intervention. The data was analysed using Guskey’s levels of change and the key findings are reported below.


As discussed above, for most teachers the lessons they taught used approaches that were different from their normal practice. It seems that for many there was considerable learning involved in understanding and using these approaches. For example, Ilze said that she had ‘learnt that learners actually can learn on their own’ and she, Lindiwe and Cerenus all said that they had learnt that they did not need to be teaching all the time and that learning could take place if they set up appropriate activities for the students. As Ilze put it: ‘Sometimes just to create a structure is all you actually need to create learning’.

Establishing whether teachers’ beliefs and attitudes have changed is a complex task. As a means of exploring these changes teachers were asked whether they would use the toolkit lessons again and why they would do so. The majority of teachers said that they would use the lessons again. For example, one of the teachers explained that she would use them again because she now realised the importance of establishing what learners understand before and during a topic, rather than after teaching it. Another teacher said that she would use them again because she had seen how her learners became more engaged because of the visual and kinaesthetic aspects of the lessons.

When asked about the changes in their practice required by the project, teachers identified the use of group work, learners sharing their work with each other and allowing learners to work on their own without correcting their mistakes immediately. Overall teachers found the experience positive but identified limited time and large classes as major challenges.


There is more learning to report but space is limited. Our claim is that, overall, teacher learning did take place and there were, and will be, some shifts in practice. This is, in many ways, unsurprising, as explained above. What is perhaps important now is how and when teacher learning took place: early analysis of the data is in process.

Clearly, as a formal professional development strategy an approach like this is too expensive, not scalable and not sustainable. The challenge, perhaps, is to find ways to use the experiences of the teachers in the FaSMEd toolkit, which could be scaled up and sustained at a relatively low cost. The toolkit will not, in itself, provide professional development but it could be used to support other teachers in their professional development.


Guskey, T. R. (2002). Professional Development and Teacher Change. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 8(3), 381–391.

Joubert, M., & Sutherland, R. (2009). A perspective on the literature : CPD for teachers of mathematics. NCETM. Sheffield.

Swan, M. (2007). The impact of task-based professional development on teachers ’ practices and beliefs : a design research study. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 10, 217–237.


This project was funded by the European Union under the Framework 7 programme.