In this article, Hannah Tyreman, Head of Online Learning and Community at the Chartered College of Teaching, explores teacher expertise.
New teachers are faced with an overwhelming amount of new information and experiences from day one in a school: colleagues’ advice, new knowledge, acronyms, processes, systems, teaching approaches and pupils. Decisions are made as many as 7 times a minute in some classrooms (Borko and Shavelson 1979) and Danielson (1996) estimates that a teacher makes more than 3,000 non-trivial decisions every day.
Expert teachers are able to direct their attention to whatever needs it the most because they have ‘intricate knowledge structures committed to memory, which allow them to approach problems differently to novices, solving problems more quickly and accurately’ (Fletcher-Wood 2018)
Length of service and experience in a classroom can often be mistaken for expertise, but without deliberate practice, regular feedback and expert input, we can’t be certain that these ‘intricate knowledge structures’ and habits of behaviour being developed by novice teachers are expert ones: ‘Experience is easily conflated with expertise, yet evidence across a range of fields suggests that experience alone does not improve performance, and the typical approaches to teacher preparation and professional development have produced inconsistent teacher effectiveness.’ (Deans for Impact 2016)
In their report on ‘the emerging science of teacher expertise’, Deans for Impact note that ‘Teaching is challenging work; novice teachers face significant challenges early in their teaching and are unlikely to learn the skills necessary to overcome these challenges if their learning is left to chance’ (Deans for Impact 2016).
So how can we support new teachers to develop the kind of expertise that will help them to make quicker and better decisions in their classroom for pupils’ learning?
In the early stages of their career, novice teachers are often advised to observe the teaching of their colleagues but this needs to be done carefully or it can be problematic. New teachers may lack the knowledge to interpret the activity in the classroom in a way that can usefully inform their own practice. What experienced teachers do in a classroom can often seem akin to magic; their management of the environment, of behaviour, seamless routines, explanations, modelling, assessment, and feedback. ‘Experts display something which appears to be intuition, but reflects extensive experience, allowing them to see and think differently’ (Berliner 1988; Klein 1998; Westerman 1991). Observing colleagues can therefore create overload for a new teacher as they try to make sense of everything they’re seeing, but there are ways we can reduce this overload.
Ensure a novice teacher has a specific area of focus before they observe a colleague. For instance: Notice what actions the teacher takes at the start of the lesson to ensure a quick transition to starting learning. What habits do you think they’ve had to develop with their pupils? How did they use verbal and body language to direct pupils behaviour? Or: Take a look at what the teacher does during her expositions. How does she structure and facilitate it to address pupils’ common misconceptions? Ask them to report back to their mentor about what they’ve seen and how that might inform their own practice.
Accompany a novice teacher to a lesson observation so that they don’t leave having seen pupils engaged, attentive and working well without appreciating the range of decisions a teacher will have made to reach that point. During a joint observation of practice, an expert teacher can help to narrate things for the novice teacher so that they notice the aspects of practice that can scaffold their own journey towards expertise; reducing the complexity of activity taking place.
Practice and feedback
Deliberate practice is described by Deans for Impact as ‘practice that is purposeful and designed to maximise improvement’ (2016). Most new teachers’ practice takes place within the high-stakes environment of a classroom filled with pupils. Whilst this practice can still be helpful if also accompanied by immediate and specific feedback from an expert teacher, it is helpful for learning to also have those lower-stakes opportunities to support growth and provide a sense of achievement.
There are ways in which we can provide new teachers with the kind of practice that can set them on the journey to expertise. On this programme, mentors will enable this practice through meetings taking place at least fortnightly. This could be through asking the teacher to plan questions, to plan their explanations, to plan the sequencing of their instruction. It could be through actually practising the teacher’s language and position in the room for an upcoming lesson activity and rehearsing it a few times until the teacher feels confident. If you have a number of NQTs in your school and they have an area of practice in common, especially if they’re teaching the same phase or subject, then you could get them together to engage in this practice.
This deliberate practice of a specific teaching skill will have a greater impact on a novice teacher’s practice if it is also accompanied by high-quality, immediate feedback that is then actioned soon after with adjustment being made by the novice in response to the feedback provided. This feedback is received better when the giver and receiver of the feedback have a common sense of what ‘success’ looks like and how to get there. The anchor for this shared language on this programme is the online learning that both mentors and NQTs will engage with. The research evidence provided, the video exemplars of teaching, and the models of practice will all provide a helpful reference point that isn’t based in either teacher’s bias about what makes effective teaching. This online learning will be accompanied by discussion points and possible areas of focus to guide the work of NQTs and their mentors.
Danielson C (1996). Enhancing professional practice: A framework for teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Deans for Impact (2016) Practice with purpose: The emerging science of teacher expertise. Available at: https://deansforimpact.org/resources/practice-with-purpose/ (accessed 12 May 2020)
Fletcher-Wood H (2018) Developing Professional Development for Teacher Change. Ambition Institute. Available at: https://www.ambition.org.uk/research-and-insight/designing-professional-development-for-teacher-change/ (accessed 12 May 2020)
Shavelson R J and Borko H (1979) Research on teachers’ decisions in planning instruction in Educational Horizons. 57: 4. Research on Teaching (Summer). pp. 183-189. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/288272976_Research_on_teachers’_decisions_in_planning_instruction (accessed 12 May 2020)
Weston D (2017) Working with expert and novice teachers. Presentation at Telegraph Festival of Education. Wellington College