What makes an expert teacher?

– – [First published by IntrepidEd News]

“You’re just a glorified babysitter” a (non-teaching) husband ‘joked’ to his (teacher) wife.
“… I went to school, I know what teachers do and I can see what you do at home in the evenings. As long as you have something to occupy the kids with tomorrow, you’re all good.”

Are teachers trained to be experts?

After teaching grades 6 to 12 for 20 years in the UK and New Zealand and working with many educators in the U.S. and Australia, plus seeing much of the #EdChat online, I would have to partly agree with this husband. However, we the teachers are not to blame. This post is about the absence of structured, national professional development initiatives. An absence that leads to a lack of expertise, ad hoc decisions, and attempts to enhance the way that teachers occupy the time of students.

Training for survival

Most teacher training around the world consists of a year, normally post-degree, where you are essentially trained to survive your first year in teaching. This limited time frame leads to a narrow focus on organization, resources for curriculum, and classroom management. Once this training is over, you start your career in survival mode with a heavy focus on classroom management. In very few countries are you then, for example, placed on a fully-funded five-year professional development program to complement and develop your teaching; a program based on best practice research to specifically target the enhancement of understanding and learning in your classroom. Most teachers are expected to just develop the “art of teaching” over the next few years.

Are you an expert teacher?

If you are reading this I am guessing you are likely to be or have been a teacher. My experience says that teachers are comfortable once they can manage a class and then understand their job is to primarily:

  1. Know which topic you’re going to show to the kids tomorrow
  2. Have a task ready that looks at that topic pitched for that age group
  3. Have some idea about how you will assess the work

[Please comment if you think this is not the majority of teachers’ planning/workload]

As it’s the case that I have seen both first-year teachers and experienced teachers master the three points above, it leaves me thinking …

What does an ‘expert’ teacher look like?

Consider the last lesson you taught.

  1. What type of activity did you implement in the classroom?
  2. What led to your decision to carry out that type of activity?
  3. Was your activity choice:
    1. primarily a matter of ensuring variety in your classroom tasks or
    2. did you know it would increase understanding more than other activity types?
  4. Which students in the room benefitted the most?
  5. Are you tracking the success of your teaching decisions?

I wonder if the key to being an expert is knowing the impact of teaching decisions and tracking them in some detail.

A Mathematics perspective that may apply to all.

I’m not a math teacher but a few weeks ago I went to a talk by Rob Proffitt-White who had been contracted by the New Zealand Ministry of Education to talk to Principals about the issues in math teaching in New Zealand. His main concern was that of teacher training and expertise and how low levels of confidence and expertise amongst teachers led to a dependence on:

  • curriculum programs/resources — “have we got a textbook or slides?
  • Desire to ability stream — “can I please just teach one ability level?”
  • concerns about curriculum overcrowding and time for re-teaching/tutoring — “We don’t have time!”

These three were very familiar to me after two decades in education. It was clear that this was more than just an issue for mathematics teaching and more a general statement about education. His point was that the three issues above were not such a concern for the minority of truly expert teachers around the world. As a common example, Finland is famous for its education system and it’s not perfect but it does have an emphasis and culture based on teacher expertise / autonomy through quality training.

An expert’s classroom

As a math expert, Proffitt-White shared a framework based on the work of Smith & Stein (1998) and Judy Anderson (2003, 2011) that divided teaching or in fact learning into four required quarters. These four quarters of the teaching and learning experience ensured that more learning and understanding would happen in the classroom.

In this framework, learning activity is divided into four equally important activity types:

  • Exercise: basic facts and skill practice (Generally individual work)
  • Application: of knowledge and skills picked up in the exercises (Generally individual work)
  • Open: tasks with a low floor and high ceiling that allow for more thinking and socialized, collaborative learning (Generally collaborative work)
  • Unfamiliar: challenges relating to the learning at hand that are beyond what has already been experienced to create debate, wondering, and maintain curiosity (Generally collaborative work)

He highlighted that too much Math education was stuck in the first two and needed to shift half of its time to the second two. The idea is that an expert teacher keeps an even and regular balance between these four. This carefully planned balance is important when it comes to every learner grasping a deep understanding and maintaining some curiosity to learn. He pointed out that without very careful planning of the learning experience, it was evident in much research that gaps in understanding persisted over years. In one example, the reason learners got a particular Math question wrong changed over 8 years, but the percentage getting it correct didn’t change greatly in a scenario where math lessons were daily!

The 50% of time spent in collaborative and explorative (Open & Unfamiliar) activities were crucial for creating moments where learners fill gaps and correct misunderstandings through discussion and debate with peers. WIthout regular structured (expert teacher-designed) collaboration with peers, the teacher did not normally have the time to discover and correct each individual misunderstanding or gap in the room. When working alone, many students are also reluctant for a number of reasons to ask for help and will allow misunderstandings to persist. This four quarters framework is just one example of expert thinking around learning that is not common amongst teachers and was not a level of understanding that the majority of the audience of principals had considered—hence the talk.

Expert teaching makes the difference

You may be aware of John Hatttie’s meta-analysis of what works in education and his Visible Learning resources. After analyzing thousands of research papers to form a list of hundreds of things that impact learning, the top ten items that have the biggest effect are all pedagogical and focus on how a teacher plans for and runs a classroom as a whole. You know you’re in expert territory and will increase your impact if your meetings with colleagues consist less of resource availability and program/assessment scheduling and more regularly focus on such things as:

  • How to give feedback.
  • How students can self-report grades.
  • What your shared teacher efficacy looks like
  • What makes for weak and strong direct instruction
  • How are we responding to our classroom interventions

Why do so many avoid discussing learning?

New Zealand is currently going through major ‘refreshings’ of the national curriculum, the assessment system, and literacy and numeracy education. You will notice the absence of any structured or mandated national push to improve teaching, learning, and pedagogy. In my 16 years in NZ, there has never been a nationally mandated and funded initiative targeting pedagogy. In that time, there have been numerous national reviews of assessment and curriculum. In my 20 years of teaching, I can almost say teaching and learning has never made it onto the agenda of a department meeting in all the schools I’ve worked with.

I propose that the education sector, both teachers and administrators, has so few truly expert members or the confidence to discuss what makes for considered and targeted quality learning that everyone from the government to the newly-qualified teacher would rather the topic didn’t get a mention. The conversation rarely stretches beyond “have you got a new activity my class can do?”

As long as education continues to shy away from expert learning conversations, we will continue to have teachers unsure as to exactly what would be best for learning in their classroom. This also leads to such things as “chasing the next EdTech gadget without a desire to confirm it increases understanding for all the learners in the room.” It also leaves people outside education grateful that with a topic, a random activity, and some assessment, teachers are at least able to babysit society’s young people.

If we all want education to genuinely move forward, it is time to prioritize the expert learning discussion and a shift to knowing more than just feeling your teaching decisions are the right ones.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Richard Wells for Intrepid Ed News.