‘Coffee-room conversations’ as CPDL

What is the most effective model for CPDL? What do teachers spend their time doing for their professional learning? What do they value? Are these the same things? Such questions are obviously important for schools to consider carefully, since the staff are a school’s most valuable resource and, arguably, you can’t move a school beyond the quality of staff, so time for well-planned CPDL is essential. But what do we mean by professional development? This blog is based upon the outcomes of research conducted at CVC as part of a Masters in Education programme.

There is considerable research on planned, formal collaboration, such as the use of whole-staff training days, twilight programmes and conducting research. However, far less research exists on informal, unplanned collaboration, which has the potential for high frequency use and high value in the day-­to-­day life of busy teachers. How might informal forms of professional interactions, such as that which may happen during break-­times, lunchtimes and at the end of the school day, be characterised; what encourages such a culture to exist amongst teachers; and do how teachers construe their value?

Formal, planned CPDL such as peer observation, mentoring, team-­teaching and carrying out joint research can be enormously powerful but all require a significant commitment by teachers, particularly the investment of time and planning. This can often mean, unless properly supported by senior leaders, they do not happen consistently or frequently enough to have the desired impact, despite being highly valued by teachers. One might argue that systems and structures should be put in place in order to facilitate ‘formal’ CPDL practices, since they are highly valued but not extensively engaged in.


However, those CPDL activities which can be engaged in informally and spontaneously during out-­of-­class periods should not be overlooked, since they are far easier to participate in and are often valued highly by staff. Informal out-of-class learning in the form of teacher networks benefits teachers’ professional development, “in terms of trust (open discussion and disclosure), information flows (joint planning and knowledge exchange) and norms of reciprocity (reassurance, support and collective agreements to test ideas)” (Pedder et al., 2005: 236).

High levels of practice and value regarding informal collaboration are often found in schools because they occur naturally and help to build social capital, which Hargreaves (1994: 492) has argued is, “an important lubricant of knowledge transfer.” Mobilising social capital through networks is essential if teachers are to share their knowledge and expertise in order to help each other, and ultimately to improve the effectiveness of the school. For many staff, the strength of their school subject-based community, in which social capital is realised, is an important aspect of the collaboration between teachers and assists their professional progress.

Hargreaves (1992: 216) argued that teachers, “learn most… from other teachers, particularly from colleagues in their own work place, their own school.” Since the way teachers often learn from one another is, “informal and day-­to-day in nature” (Hargreaves, 1992: 217), the most likely setting for collaboration is the subject department. Hodkinson and Hodkinson (2005) found that in collaborative departments, “learning was on-­going whenever teachers were together, through discussion, consultation and sharing ideas and materials” (2005: 119). In addition, informal, department-­based collaboration has the potential to be more varied and more closely attuned to the needs and desires of teachers.

The success of department-­based informal collaboration rests on the culture that exists to enable and to encourage it. For many teachers, it is department culture, rather than whole-­school culture, that is the important enabling condition. The right culture means that colleagues trust each other to contribute effectively and are willing to make their practice public and believe in each other’s ability, regardless of experience. It is also an important aspect of successful collegiality that it is not contrived; where staff choose to go to their team-­room and choose to have professional conversations, they are more deeply engaged. Departments do not arrive at this kind of culture through job descriptions, whole-­school initiatives or scheduled meetings. Intervention from middle leaders may encourage and enable collaboration, but it is often the inspiration of individuals within the team that makes it happen.

The uncontrived, non-mandatory nature of informal collaboration has a direct impact on the nature of the activity engaged in. Commonly, “discussions are found in the faculty lounge (team-­room), in hallways, in the office, in workrooms, in unused classrooms.” (Little, 1990: 178). These involve evaluations of teaching, shared planning and preparation as well as informing one another about new practices, knowledge and ideas. It is often characterised by frequent, short conversations about teaching and subject knowledge, which is, “theoretically rich and practically meaningful…[it] is not mere shop talk” (Little, 1990: 177-­178). This continuous scrutiny of practise helps to foster creativity and makes teachers better equipped for their work with pupils in the classroom.


Whilst there is sometimes an assumption that shared spaces produce conversations, such as gossip, that can have a negative impact on teacher development, research has shown that staffrooms and team-rooms can be important sites for professional knowledge sharing. Mawhinney (2010: 977) claimed that, “informal teacher interactions provide the necessary support needed for teachers in an isolating profession. Teachers use the time in congregational spaces to learn from each other…these interactions serve as moments of professional development.” Therefore, shared spaces should be valued for their role in facilitating, and perhaps promoting, spontaneous professional interactions between teachers. Many staff feel that team-rooms assist informal collaboration by placing colleagues ‘at hand’ for professional conversations.


The professional collaboration as described here suggests that the boundaries of professional development need to be redefined. At times, collaboration might, “remain at the level of talking about teaching, advice-­giving, technique-­trading”, and therefore not extend teachers’ thinking about, or practice of, teaching in a profound way. However, the definition of what constitutes effective professional development is often too narrow and the value of such low-key ‘functional’ collaboration ought not to be underestimated. Many departments, regardless of the nature of the activity, spend a significant amount of time together reflecting on their practice; they have a strong sense of community, offering peer support, both emotional and subject-based. Though these discussions may not have always be deep and rigorous, they can be highly effective and have a significant impact on teachers’ classroom practice, knowledge, commitment and well-being. Therefore, it is useful to adopt a wider view of CPDL in which all learning experiences are valued, both formal and informal, planned and unplanned.

Research conducted at CVC indicated that professional development in the form of informal, unplanned collaboration between teachers in particular departments has been well developed. Professional collaborations of varying kinds are practised extensively during out-­of-­lesson time and are valued highly. So, recommendations might be:

  1. To ensure that informal collaboration is valued as a form of professional development by recognising that it operates along a continuum from ‘functional’ to ‘effective’ and includes both subject and emotional support and development;
  2. To ensure opportunities for uncontrived, spontaneous collaboration between teachers exists by safeguarding non-­teaching time and providing shared spaces for people to get together;
  3. To pay close attention to the development of departmental cultures that mobilise social capital and therefore encourage and enable informal collaborative CPD to take place;
  4. To consider how best to support teachers’ involvement in more time-­consuming collaborative practices, which they value highly, such as peer-­observation and team-­teaching;
  5. To encourage and facilitate communities of practice, or networks, to exist across school (and beyond) so that knowledge can be shared and created between and beyond subject departments.


References (further reading recommendations are available if needed)


Hargreaves, A. (1992). Cultures of Teaching: A Focus for Change. In A. Hargreaves & M. Fullan (Eds.), Understanding Teacher Development. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing teachers, changing times: teachers’ work and culture in the postmodern age. London: Cassell.

Hodkinson, H., & Hodkinson, P. (2005). Improving schoolteachers’ workplace learning. Research Papers in Education, 20(2), 109-131.


Little, J. W. (1990). Teachers as Colleagues. In A. Lieberman (Ed.), Schools as Collaborative Cultures: Creating the Future Now, 165-193. New York: Falmer Press.

Lom, E. & Sullenger, K. (2010). Informal spaces in collaborations: exploring the edges/boundaries of professional development. Professional Development in Education, 2010, 1-20.

Mawhinney, L. (2010). Let’s lunch and learn: Professional knowledge sharing in teachers’ lounges and other congregational spaces. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26, 972-978.

Pedder, D., James, M., MacBeath, J. (2005). How teachers value and practise professional learning. Research Papers in Education, 20(3), 209-243.

One comment

  1. Would it be possible to send some further recommendations my way? I’m really interested in department wide CPD at the moment (along with feedback) (It’s the same email address I’ve used for this comment)


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