What makes an expert?  Gary Klein describes an expert firefighter at work:

It is a simple house fire in a one-story house in a residential area.  The fire is in the back, in the kitchen area.  The lieutenant leads his hose crew into the building, to the back, to spray water on the fire, but the fire just roars back at them.

“Odd,” he thinks.  The water should have more of an impact.  They try dousing it again, and get the same results.  They retreat a few steps to regroup.

Then the lieutenant starts to feel as if something is not right.  He doesn’t have any clues; he just doesn’t feel right about being in that house, so he orders his men out of the building – a perfectly standard building with nothing out of the ordinary.

As soon as his men leave the building, the floor where they had been standing collapses.  Had they still been inside, they would have plunged into the fire below (Klein, 1998: 32).

Decisions like this look intuitive, but they’re not uncanny: they represent years of internalised experience (Klein, 1998; Kahneman and Klein, 2009).  The lieutenant proved to have been aware that the first was unusually hot and quiet for a house that size.  Experts perceive situations differently, so they act differently: can we identify similar characteristics among teachers?

Three characteristics of an expert teacher

Experts differ from novices in three important ways; expert teachers differ from novice teachers similarly:

1) Experts have detailed mental models

The lieutenant had a sense of what fires in small houses should look like: experts develop mental models for their domain through practice and experience (Ericsson and Pool, 2016; Klein, 1998; Simon and Chase, 1973; Sweller et al., 2003).

Expert teachers have similarly detailed mental models, organised differently from those of novices (Sternberg and Horvath, 1995).  Skilled maths teachers can not only recognise incorrect responses, but identify their causes and select representations which will help students overcome the error (Ball et al., 2008).  Just as experts’ mental models are specific to their domain, teachers’ mental models are likely to differ between subjects and grades (Sternberg and Horvath, 1995), which could help explain why teachers tend to be more effective the longer they spend with a specific year group (Ladd and Sorensen, 2015).  Novice teachers plan slowly because they are still constructing mental models of what they are teaching while planning; experts need not take this time (Livingston and Borko, 1989).

2) Experts recognise patterns

Chess masters can recognise and recall game positions in seconds (Simon and Chase, 1973), physics professors can identify the underlying structure of a problem rapidly (Chi et al., 1982) and firefighters see similarities between one fire and another (Klein, 1998).  Experts draw on their mental models to interpret events differently to novices.

Expert teachers similarly perceive events in classrooms differently to novices.  Asked to view three video screens simultaneously (showing a panoramic view of one classroom), expert teachers were able to take in more of what was going on and explain it better than novices (Berliner, 1988).  Reflecting on lessons, expert teachers focus on evidence students had learned, novices on their feelings (Livingston and Borko, 1989).  Experts also reframe problems by reference to similar situations they have experienced, seeking to understand them fully and reach viable solutions (Sternberg and Horvath, 1995).  Robbed of information from which to discern these patterns expert teachers feel cast adrift: Berliner (1988) asked a group of experts to teach classes they had never met and received bitter complaints about the task from experts, while novices did so without demur.

3) Experts think rapidly and accurately

While solving geometric problems, experts identify every unknown in a problem then state the answer needed; novices work painstakingly backwards from the desired answer (Larkin et al., 1980).  Experts think rapidly and accurately: they have automated much of their thinking and can mentally simulate options, reframing problems to reach effective solutions almost immediately (Chi et al., 1982; Klein, 1998; Larkin et al., 1980; Simon and Chase, 1973).

Expert teachers similarly address challenges differently to novices.  While novices shut down classroom discussions, unable to respond productively to student questions, experts can build on student responses, making up useful examples on the spot and linking students’ ideas to the lesson’s objectives (Livingston and Borko, 1989).  Experts integrate a range of knowledge and skills and have automated many of their routines – they often seem to be at ease while working: problems are addressed without difficulty, or are preempted (Ball and Forzani, 2009; Berliner, 1988; Elliott, 2015; Sternberg and Horvath, 1995).

How can we develop expert teachers?

K. Anders Ericsson has offered useful guidelines for developing expertise in teaching (Deans for Impact, 2016):

The suggestions below are simply observations from the literature cited above, which may help to refine how we think about Ericsson’s suggestions.

1) Expertise rests on internalised experience: there is no shortcut to this (Berliner, 1988).  Having more experienced teachers makes a significant difference to student results (Kini and Podolsky, 2006), both academic and social (Ladd and Sorensen, 2015).  Developing expert teachers takes time; it demands retaining teachers.

2) Experience is necessary but insufficient however.  It may be hard to learn from experience, unless novices know what they’re looking for (Livingston and Borko, 1989) and there are likely to be experienced non experts (Sternberg and Horvath, 1995).  Elliott (2015) suggests that much teaching expertise may not be teachable – local differences and tacit knowledge mean it must be caught not taught.     We need to design the experiences teachers undergo, allowing novices to observe and simulate practice (Berliner, 1988; Sternberg and Horvath, 1995).

3) Expertise is specific to domains: teachers are likely to gain greater expertise if they specialise in year groups, subjects and types of school (Boyd et al., 2008; Goldhaber et al., 2017; Kini and Podolsky, 2016): we need to narrow the domain in which teachers are expected to hold expertise.

4) Experts have automated many of their routines, allowing them to focus on the most important challenges.  We need to support novices to do the same: Kazemi et al. (2016) note the value of a limited repertoire of instructional activities, allowing teachers to focus on the content and student responses; Berliner (1988) suggests offering explanations drafted by expert teachers allowing teachers to focus on their interaction with students.  We need to provide the tools novices need to automate simple, effective routines.

5) Much important knowledge is tacit.  Novices needs mentors who can talk through their thinking (Livingston and Borko, 1989) for which reason they should perhaps be competent rather than expert teachers – experts may no longer be able to explain why they do what they do (Berliner, 1988).  Helping novices construct mental models through reflection is also important (Sternberg and Horvath, 1995), as would be codifying what we expect the essential things we expect every experienced teacher to know.  Either way we must make facets of teaching competence explicit to novices.

All that said…

Identifying expert teaching might help us plan ways in which novice teachers can gain expertise faster.  It would be a mistake for us to focus excessively on the individual teacher however, when no teacher can embody every characteristic of the expert teacher; no teacher will embody any of the characteristics of an expert without a school culture which is supportive and developmentalwe still need to focus on great teaching, rather than great teachers.


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