By Nachamma Sockalingam
Have you ever wondered what makes an expert teacher? Is expertise in teaching a result of nature or nurture? Are teachers born or can teachers be trained? Does experience necessarily mean expertise?
Researchers have found that expertise can be developed and that experience is necessary for expertise but not sufficient. That is, experience alone will not count for expertise. This means that long service in teaching need not automatically mean expertise in teaching.
The implications are two-fold. One is that educators who have been teaching for a long period cannot be satisfied or complacent. The other is that educators who are new to teaching need not worry that they can only become experts when they are old / have chalked up experience.
So the question is “How do we become experts in teaching?”
Before answering that, let us see what the current notion on expertise in teaching is. Studies of expertise in teaching represent varied but related views. One view is that expertise means exhibition of certain dispositions. For instance, Hattie et al (1998) attribute four characteristics to experts in teaching. Expert teachers have (1) Content knowledge, (2) Pedagogical knowledge, (3) Affective attributes and Comparative teaching.
However, there is a counter argument (Sternberg and Howarth, 1995) that the measure of expertise should not be against set standard characteristics but that it should be a measure of deviation/overlap from the central tendency of behavior of teachers deemed to be experts. This stems from the belief that different members may exhibit different features. Furthermore, the weightage attributed to each of these features might differ with individuals and these attributes may be inter-related. Yet, there are others who view that expertise in teaching is a complex phenomenon and cannot be reduced to simple models.
According to Ericsson et al. (2007), real experts must pass three litmus tests.
1) Real expertise performance is consistently superior to that of the expert peers
2) Real expertise produces concrete results
3) Real expertise can be replicated and measured in the lab.
In reference to becoming an expert and the common saying “Practice makes perfect”, Ericsson adds that practice does not make perfect but it is perfect practice which makes perfect and he explains that perfect practice is deliberate practice.
What is “Deliberate practice?”
Deliberate practice is not repeating what one is good at again and again but it is investing considerable, specific and sustained effort at what one is not good at and pushing self-limitations (Ericsson et al, 2007).
To understand what deliberate practice will look like in teaching, Dunn and Shriner (1999) investigated teacher activities that lead to competences in teaching. Their study indicated that deliberate activities associated constituted of planning and evaluation activities.
Planning activities refer to completing written lesson plans, mental planning and preparing as well as organizing materials for class. Evaluation activities refer to assessment of student learning and can be classified as formal or informal evaluations. Formal evaluations refer to marking/ grading of assignments and informal evaluations to classroom observations.
Their study added even more significant insights. They noted that teaching activities alone did not naturally count as deliberate practices; it is why the teachers did what they did which mattered as deliberate practices.
Regardless of the teaching experience, all teachers were engaged in activities such as planning and evaluation; less experienced teachers planned and evaluated, just as the more experienced teachers. But what mattered is how often these teachers used these practices for self-improvement in teaching.
Often teachers plan and evaluate but this is mostly for the purpose of engaging students and enhancing learning outcomes for students. The goal of these activities focus on the outcome of student learning rather than the process of teaching.
In sum, the key to deliberate practice seems to be not just about exploring new boundaries, experimenting repeatedly and improving continuously, but it is also about being reflective and purposeful about self-improvement.
To me, the picture used in this blog (The mirror image of teach being learn) seems to represent this idea: self- analysis and reflection on our process of teaching and continual improvement is likely to be reflected in enhanced student learning outcome.
As a number of well-founded researches indicate, this deliberate practice in achieving expertise is not limited to just the field of teaching but is generally applicable across various disciplines, practices /professions.
Enjoy teaching 🙂
And send in your comments or thoughts about becoming an expert in teaching.
1) Dunn, T.G., & Shriner, C. (1999). Deliberate practice in teaching: what teachers do for self-improvement.
2) Ericsson K. A. et al. (2007). The making of an expert.