On the Murder Trail: How staff are finding original ways to improve themselves and enhance the way students learn

When students at North Warwickshire and Hinckley College recently turned up for class, they got more than they bargained for – the sight of a severed head (happily, not a real one) in the bushes. As if that wasn't enough drama for one day, they watched in amazement as tutors ran around panicking that the crime-scene investigation team wasn't available. There was only one solution, they said: the students would have to do the investigation themselves. "It wasn't like the recent case of a pretend shooting in a school, where students thought it was real," assures lecturer Paul Barlow. "We set the scene as being fictional from the outset, with things such as film-style music in the background."

Next, the students received five-minute lessons in skills ranging from lateral thinking to how to negotiate a crime scene and, armed with the theory, were left to apply it to solve the crime. "We set up an office, complete with actors, which we pretended was the workplace of the victim. We had other actors pretending to be witnesses to the crime, and then the students were put in groups where they were given the opportunity to do everything from forensics like finger-printing and footprint-checking to interrogating," says Barlow.

The result was astonishing. Low-ability students with a history of being disaffected by education were engaged, and demonstrated numerous skills, from self-directed learning to delegating to team-working – "functioning skills" that the Government has emphasised young people need. No wonder Barlow has run the project, now called Murder Trail, again and other colleges and universities have done so too.

Welcome to continuing professional development (CPD). Whereas CPD used to mean going along to a course, conference or workshop, often rife with surreptitious watch-checking, today's further education (FE) staff are finding increasingly original ways to develop themselves and ultimately improve the way students learn.

"Murder Trail started out as a new teaching theory developed by myself and a colleague," says Barlow. "The theory was that by taking students out of the traditional classrooms, that had turned them off learning, and expecting something completely different of them – but in a very structured way – we could immerse them back into the learning environment. These were students who we were warned had short attention spans, and yet they literally didn't leave college for two days out of choice. Although not a traditional form of professional development, it would be hard to argue that the Murder Trail project is anything else."

CPD has long been a major focus for further education. So when, in 2007, regulations were brought in requiring teachers, tutors and trainers working in the post-compulsory sector to register as a member of the professional body, the Institute for Learning (IFL), and to do a minimum of 30 hours CPD a year as part of that membership, no one was particularly surprised to find the overwhelming majority of members were exceeding that requirement almost immediately. The difference now, says Sue Colquhoun, CPD strategic adviser at the IFL, is that further education staff are increasingly realising just how many activities count as CPD and how useful it is. They're also being encouraged to plan and design their own development more than ever.

CPD examples often have a "wow" factor, such as that of Andrew McIntyre, an art teacher at Telford College of Arts and Technology, who appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square as part of Antony Gormley's project. "It was life-changing," he says.

"I have been able to share my experience with a wide audience. I was filmed as part of the live stream on the internet, and I will incorporate this footage into my teaching. It is now part of my CPD."

Other examples are relatively simple. "Reading the education pages in a newspaper or having a useful conversation with a colleague can be a way of developing yourself," says Colquhoun. "You can picture the scene. A tutor comes into the staffroom complaining 'Oh that class was a disaster', and another tutor sits up to say: 'Have you tried X? I've found it works wonders.' 'D'you know, I'd never thought of that,' and so on. What we do is get tutors to record this – not as a paper-churning exercise, but because it forces them to think about not the CPD itself but what exactly they have got out of it and how they will apply it."

For some teaching staff, mentoring and coaching is a key part of CPD. For others, it's a get-together with same-subject teaching staff from other colleges. "It's not that we don't count traditional courses, workshops and events, but the emphasis is now on what they get out of it – how it has impacted on their work and how it's changed the way they do things. It's no longer good enough to go along to a conference and, when someone asks you what you actually learned, you look blank," says Colquhoun.

This is having a direct effect on students, believes Trevor Tolhurst, a science technician at Thanet College. Tolhurst, who has worked in FE for 18 months, is studying for a Diploma in Teaching in the Lifelong Learning Sector. He thinks about the learning gained from his course with three hats on – as student, professional teacher and scientist – and this gives him a valuable perspective on impact for learners and how it feels to be on the receiving end.

Colquhoun says she hears comments such as this all the time. "CPD not only enhances the learning in that teacher's classroom, but it affects the whole culture of learning in the institution. In turn, that has an effect on things such as staff retention and staff absence. This all means greater success for students and ultimately the whole college. We had one tutor who taught across different colleges, but hadn't been teaching for long. She found her CPD so useful that, in her next observation, she was given a grade 1. That's an amazing achievement in such a short space of time."

There are benefits to the sector too. It promotes the professional status of teachers and trainers, building recognition of their value to learners and to the well-being of the UK. Moreover, it offers an influential collective voice for teachers and trainers through their own independent professional body, giving their opinions a central place in policy and decision-making.

For Heather Armstrong, deputy head of the sixth form and teacher of beauty therapy at Croydon College, it has been the wealth of opportunities that turned her into a big CPD fan. Indeed, not only is she enrolled on a Masters degree in a leadership course at the Institute of Education, but she recently did five days of industrial updating in a salon. "It is really important to develop both sides of my professional identity," she says.

Meanwhile, Barbara Lee, who teaches English as a second language, says her CPD – which consisted of research into how students' individual needs are met – says it has helped not only her but other tutors to consider things like the physical layout of the classroom, how well spaced out the desks are and how much is known about them as people, all of which she's proven to make a difference to their learning outcomes.

Employers have a critical role in enabling teaching staff to carry out their CPD, but, all too frequently, there is a lack of support at college level.

"Sometimes a college doesn't see CPD as their responsibility or as an issue at all, because things seem to be ticking along quite nicely already. This can be a huge barrier to members developing and sharing their CPD, but the existence of our organisation should mean that this will change," says Colquhoun.

An IFL review of CPD in 2008/09 also found that while the under-30 and the 30-to-44 age groups declared high levels of CPD, this was not always the case for other age groups – another area that needs addressing.

Nevertheless, there is an overwhelming view in the sector that things are going in the right direction – something that is critical when you consider that one of the ways further education stands apart from other educational institutions is that it often attracts students who are difficult to teach.

"That may well be because they've had a bad experience of school," says Colquhoun. "What this means for teaching staff is that thinking about how to reach them in new and creative ways could not be more important. It's the very reason that the Murder Trail is so successful."

Case Study: 'It has a massive effect on our job satisfaction and students' learning'

Andrea Slade teaches at Epping Forest College and has a dual role at Newham College.

"I teach students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. We prepare them for both life and work. It was with this in mind that a colleague told me about a sharing day, run by a local project called Inclusive Communication Essex (ICE).

It was about finding ever-more inclusive forms of communication. They work with agencies ranging from social services to the NHS across Essex. I went as part of my CPD [continuing professional development] and I was so impressed with what I learned that I immediately embedded it into my work. I'm now coordinating inclusive communication for my whole department for two hours a week.

Among the tools I use is an 'object-of-reference bag'. One student who has no form of communication has traditionally found it impossible to use symbols or communication boards. But this bag has three balls – green for 'yes'; red for 'no'; and yellow for 'I don't understand'. He is able to use them to respond to questions directly.

Another example is a laminated shopping list. This consists of a laminated board with strips of Velcro. I made pictures of food, also with Velcro on, and the idea is for students to look at the recipe I'd created in visual format and they work out what ingredients they need to cook it. They stick the relevant symbols on to their board and take it to the shops to buy the food and then make the dish. It's all about being visual.

Another task I wanted the students to do more often was to make drinks for the rest of the group. They couldn't seem to work with a list so, again, I made up another laminated Velcro resource. Down one side of the board is everyone's photo and along the top are symbols of drinks. The student is able to ask each person what they want and to put a token on the board, then make up the drinks.

Perhaps the most useful concept I learned during the day was the communication passport – something I came back to college saying I wanted everyone to have. It's an A4 ring-bound book that is all about the person and their views and preferences, with an emphasis on communication. It says everything from 'I have problems understanding X' to 'The best way to ask me questions is X'.

Next, I got involved with the Molenet project, which focuses on mobile learning. As part of my CPD, I learned about how to get students using mobile technology, such as Flip camcorders to create photo albums, and I've got students to use the technology to transfer their communication passports to become computerised and therefore more accessible wherever they are.

I've just been nominated for a Beacon award for my approach to inclusive communication. It just goes to show how amazing CPD can be. You never stop learning, and although people in further education have always known that, now it's at the forefront of our minds all the time. Because we have to record what we've learned, it's something that's embedded into our everyday work and that has a massive effect not only on our job satisfaction but on students' learning."

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