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Scaffolding by novice and expert teachers: The difference

Written by: Lorna Shires
6 min read

Research into expert teachers

Most research about expert teachers considers expertise based on two sets of evidence: the move from novice to expert, based upon the differences between how novices and experts are assumed to think (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 1986); and how expert performance of a skill is acquired as a result of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (Ericsson and Pool, 2016). I believe that both these most frequently used explanations of expertise have limitations. The novice-to-expert research is rooted in an assumption made by a non-expert about how experts think. The work on deliberate practice focuses on teaching as a performance rather than a practice.

Expert teachers have been defined by a mixture of factors: outcomes, reputation, qualifications and experience (Hattie, 2003) or by applying the findings of the stage levels in the novice-to-expert approach to describe different behaviours by expert and novice teachers (Berliner, 2004). There is a view that a teacher cannot be described as an expert because experts are seen as elite and the term is reserved only for those ‘touched by the gods’, as it were (Montero, 2016). As an ex-headteacher and now university lecturer, my view was that teaching in a school, whilst a widespread activity, is an activity with particular knowledge and skills, and that expertise – the ability to teach really well – exists.

I focused my doctoral research on ‘what matters’ to expert teachers about their own teaching, defined by what they chose to prioritise when they taught. My aim was to hear the voices of really great teachers talking about their work in the classroom. For research purposes, I used the criteria established in the literature – outcomes, reputation and experience – to select the participants. There were two reasons why I felt that gathering the insights of expert teachers into their own teaching approach was important:

  1. Teachers as professionals have a great deal of untapped knowledge about their work
  2. Experts are able to explain their rationale for the actions that they take and the decisions that they make, and therefore what teachers say about teaching should be added to the evidence base.

My view is that how a teacher teaches is shaped by the life history of the teacher, the emotions that they bring to their work, what they know and, crucially, their aim to use their teaching to take student learning forward towards understanding the subject, and not just recalling what they have been taught (Edwards, 2010). Teaching isn’t an act captured at a moment in time, as performances are, but it is a practice – an activity that the teacher develops over time.

What matters to expert teachers

My research into the expert practice of nine expert teachers revealed that the expert teachers had long-term aims for their students: they thought beyond each individual lesson. What mattered to expert teachers was that:

  1. The students were able to do something with the knowledge of the school curriculum subject, for themselves
  2. The students were taken through a process of grappling with, getting to grips with and piecing together key ideas from the subject by the expert teachers
  3. The expert teachers planned their teaching so that students were first presented with key concepts that were stripped back, and then the teacher layered back up, adding in detail and precision over time
  4. Expert teachers offered a metacommentary throughout the lessons that had the aim of ensuring that students trusted the teachers to take them through the process of learning something new
  5. It mattered to expert teachers that students loved the subject and over time came to value what it added to their lives.

“I hope I get across the reasons to learn and understand some of the more abstract concepts we are covering. I hope that they will look at the world differently, if only for a moment.”

– Secondary science teacher

What mattered to the expert teachers was that students developed something that I came to call subject agency – the ability of pupils to develop the capacity to do something with the knowledge for themselves. Subject agency reflected how the teachers were hugely motivated by their own love of the subject. The teachers valued subject knowledge, but also said that really great teachers understand how their subject is represented and structured in the school curriculum. Subject agency drew upon teachers’ core expertise – their subject knowledge – but the expert teachers felt that critical to their effectiveness was an additional expertise their relational expertise (Edwards, 2011). Expert teachers know how to bring out the best in others.

Scaffolding by novice and expert teachers: The difference

A key skill that all the expert teachers felt that they had mastered was scaffolding. In my day job at a university, I train novice teachers and have noticed that one of the very first ‘teacher words’ that my students begin to use is ‘scaffolding’, first defined by Woods et al. (1976, p. 98) as ‘reducing the size of the task to the level where the learner could recognise whether or not he [sic] had achieved a “fit” with the task requirements’. One difference between my novice teachers and the expert teachers that I researched was their understanding of scaffolding as part of the practice of teachers. Novice teachers tended to think of scaffolding as a way in which teachers made work easier for students, whereas the expert teachers had the long-term goal of subject agency for their students, and so they understood the metaphor of scaffolding as the ‘something’ that they did in the process of teaching to move students towards independence. Expert teachers were thinking about the process of teaching using the metaphor of scaffolding as a temporary adaptive structure (Shvarts and Bakker, 2019).

Task design

Expert teachers ‘layered up’ what it was that students had to do in order to move them forwards to being able to work independently. This meant that teachers designed tasks so that their students had to grapple with knowledge. The students of the expert teachers felt safe to take those risks in moving out of easy work that they couldn’t yet do, and towards being able to think like a scientist, a historian or an artist, because their teachers made their long-term aims clear. Students of expert teachers were encouraged to develop their syntactic knowledge (ways of thinking in a subject) as well as their substantive knowledge (key concepts in a subject and how they are linked together to make up a subject) (Schwab, 1978). Students trusted their expert teachers because they used their skill to plan tasks for the students in the lesson that would take the students forward into a future where they had mastered the subject, and expert teachers started teaching something new by painting that vision for the students in their metacommentary.


Berliner D (2004) Describing the behaviour and documenting the accomplishments of expert teachers. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 24: 200–212.

Dreyfus HI and Dreyfus SE (1986) Mind Over Machine. New York: Free Press.

Edwards A (2010) Being an Expert Professional Practitioner: The Relational Turn in Expertise. Singapore: Springer.

Edwards A (2011) Building common knowledge at the boundaries between professional practices: Relational agency and relational expertise in systems of distributed expertise. International Journal of Educational Research 50: 33–39.

Ericsson A and Pool R (2016) Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. London: Bodley Head.

Hattie J (2003) Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence? In: Building teacher quality: What does the research tell us? ACER Research Conference, Melbourne, Australia, October 2003.

Montero BG (2016) Thought in Action: Expertise and the Conscious Mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schwab J (1978) Science, Curriculum and Liberal Education: Selected Essays, Joseph Schwab. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Shvarts A and Bakker A (2019) The early history of the scaffolding metaphor: Bernstein, Luria, Vygotsky, and before. Mind, Culture, and Activity 26: 4–23.

Wood D, Bruner JS and Ross G (1976) The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17: 89–100.

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas