How can insights from research in other disciplines support teachers’ professional development?

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Insights from research in other disciplines can support teachers? professional development.
Insights from research in other disciplines can support teachers’ professional development.

When was the last time you engaged in a professional development experience that meaningfully changed what you did the next day at work? If you’re lucky, you have regular access to professional development opportunities and ongoing support that help you learn relevant skills and improve how you do your job. But for many, effective and relevant professional development remains elusive, in part because designing and implementing high-quality learning opportunities for adults—in any field—is difficult. Teacher professional development is no exception.

As part of its Supporting Teachers to Accelerate Learning Recovery event series, the Teachers Team at the World Bank recently hosted the event Translating Research on Effective Teaching to Practice, which brought together Professors Pooja Agarwal, Alex Eble, Jo Westbrook, and Daniel Willingham to share findings from their research and discuss what these findings mean for strengthening teaching and providing high-quality professional development to teachers. Dr. Norbert Schady, Chief Economist for Human Development, moderated the conversation. Below are four key insights from the event:

  1. “Doing something is not the same as practicing it.” - Daniel Willingham

Michael Jordan famously said, “You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way.” Building new skills requires practice, but “simply doing something is not the same as practicing it,” as Prof. Daniel Willingham shared, pointing to Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice. Becoming an expert in anything requires intentional practice focusing on one new skill at a time, sequencing skills intelligently, receiving and reflecting on useful feedback, and persevering with it—as it will take time. These insights are ones that teachers regularly use in the classroom with students, and they should guide how teachers are supported in mastering new skills, too. Teachers must be given opportunities to practice and learn new skills, and to do so in a meaningful, scaffolded and thoughtful manner.

  1. “We typically focus on getting information in. Let’s focus on getting information out.” - Pooja Agarwal

Cognitive scientist Pooja Agarwal asked participants how many bones are in the human body, a figure most of us learned in primary school. Posing this question encouraged participants to engage in retrieval practice, one of four “power tools” Dr. Agarwal has identified in her work on powerful teaching. This practice can support learners of all ages—including teachers—in retaining and mastering material. Retrieval practice can be done with little or no additional resourcing, teacher preparation, or additional grading through strategies like low-stakes pop quizzes, or even asking students to recall what they studied in the past lesson. With a robust body of research supporting retrieval practice, it is a promising approach for teachers to boost student learning, and support teachers’ learning, too. 

  1. “Are we able to empower this teacher to do as much as they can to raise student learning?” – Alex Eble

Prof. Alex Eble, an education economist, shared his research on bundled learning interventions in Guinea Bissau and The Gambia. As part of an intervention in The Gambia, teachers were visited by a monitor every few weeks. Monitors would sit in class, observe, provide feedback, and, if needed, briefly teach the class to illustrate effective practice. The focus of this was not to check teacher attendance and practice, Prof. Eble explained, but rather monitoring to see how to empower teachers to do as much as they can to raise student learning. This approach was an important part of the intervention, which resulted in massive learning gains for the rural students the program served. This points to the tremendous value of monitoring and support strategies for teachers that are consistent, responsive to their needs and skill levels, and focused on their practical learning and skills. 

  1. "Think of inclusion as an ongoing process.” – Jo Westbrook

Exclusion and inclusion can happen minute-by-minute. While inclusion is often thought about as a process of getting students into mainstream schools, Dr. Jo Westbrook highlighted the ongoing nature of inclusion. Students may be in a classroom but unable to access the content or learn. Even students seated far from the board in a crowded classroom or not following the content of a given lesson can be included or excluded over the course of a single lesson. Practical actions – like using large text or contrasting colors between the background and text – and pedagogical content knowledge (like the use of symbols, analogy, and gestures to explain concepts) can be meaningful, low-cost steps towards inclusion. Small steps and concrete actions by teachers can be tremendously powerful in making classrooms more inclusive.

No single discipline can give a full picture of what effective teaching strategies or what effective support for teacher professional development look like. The insights shared by Professors Agarwal, Eble, Westbrook, and Willingham highlight the value of leveraging evidence from diverse disciplines in designing and implementing education interventions. The Coach program draws from evidence from a wide range of fields to understand how people – both students and teachers – learn most effectively. We hope you will join us as the Coach program continues to grow and learn from insights from different disciplines and fields.

The Translating Research on Effective Teaching to Practice event was held on September 23, 2021. To learn more about the event, please see the recording here

To learn more about the Supporting Teachers to Accelerate Learning Recovery event series, please see the recordings from the events here, here, here, and here

To learn more about the Coach program, please visit our website at, or write to us at

And to learn more about the World Bank’s work to support teachers around the world, please visit


Ana Teresa Del Toro Mijares

Consultant, World Bank Group

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