Lorna Shires

Relational expertise: What makes an expert teacher?

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Homeschooling opened many parents’ eyes to the value of teachers’ expertise. So, how do they do it? Lorna Shires says it’s to do with the unique ways they are able to improve the practice of others

Relational expertise: What makes a teacher an expert?

As parents struggled with homeschooling during lockdown, many sung the praises of their children’s teachers on social media, admitting that good teaching requires knowledge, talent and wisdom. In short, they realised that it demands expertise.

But how are expert teachers developed? The study of expertise is a relatively new discipline that revolves around three distinct philosophical approaches.

First, is expertise judged in terms of the expert’s knowledge or is it better to analyse it in terms of its features, for example, in the form of an effectiveness checklist?

Second, is an expert someone who has passed some kind of test to prove their expertise – for example, a master’s degree – or have they passed through certain stages of experience to become an expert?

Last, is expertise better understood through a single idea or an understanding of several factors because of its complexity?

These ideas have shaped the way that expertise has been researched and understood. But the ultimate question remains the same: how does someone become an expert and how can we identify them as such?

While the term “expert teacher” has become increasingly popular in the past five years, teacher expertise has not often been directly researched. Instead, expert teaching has been described in terms of general accounts of expertise that have been applied to teaching.

The two most influential studies of expert teachers – by David Berliner, and another by John Hattie – date from the early 2000s. Both describe what teaching looks like to an outsider rather than looking specifically at what really great teachers know, do and why they teach the way they do.

Of the more general research that has been applied to teachers, Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus have been influential: the brothers – one a philosopher and the other an engineer – were interested in thinking through what it is that humans can do that computers can’t in reference to artificial intelligence. They developed the idea of the novice-expert continuum and the notion that expertise is a five-stage process of skill acquisition (from novice to competence, proficiency, expertise and finally mastery). Their work forms the basis for many who have since spoken about the difference between experts and novices.

The brothers’ view is that an expert performs a skill without thinking about it, rather like “muscle memory” or driving and not being conscious of changing gears. In a classroom, it can be identified when a teacher “just knows” how to collect in the homework or get the attention of the whole class.

Then there is also the work of K Anders Ericsson, a psychologist who in the 1980s developed the concept of “deliberate practice” (which Malcolm Gladwell popularised as the concept of 10,000 hours’ practice to become an expert). He argues that expertise develops in a narrow set of conditions: very focused practice on a skill from a domain that has explicit agreement of what success looks like, and drawing on feedback to improve performance of the skill.

His work has become increasingly referenced in relation to pupil learning because there seems to be an overlap with ideas such as spaced and retrieval practice. This has led us to the current understanding of teacher expertise as fast and fluent pedagogical decision making.

What is teacher expertise?

It is all very interesting, even helpful, but does any of this actually get close to describing true teacher expertise? However useful and widespread we find these ideas, there are key issues about expertise that are not addressed by such psychological, performance-based accounts.

And there are all sorts of problems in the details. Most of all, the thing that general accounts of expertise do not address when applied to teaching is the key difference between teaching and many other activities: teaching has an object. By definition, teachers teach something to someone.

So, how about we look at it this way: expert teachers have identified that their prime task is to bring their students into relation with the subject matter of the curriculum through the tasks that they design. Teacher expertise, therefore, involves bringing students into a relationship with the knowledge being taught. So teacher expertise involves subject knowledge, as it is framed in the curriculum, as well as knowing students and forming positive relationships with them so that there is a productive classroom environment.

In these terms, expert teachers have a particular form of expertise first identified by University of Oxford professor Anne Edwards: relational expertise. What is it? Think of it as the way teachers work with what matters about the subject content of the curriculum and what matters to their students. What is particularly exciting about framing expert teaching in terms of relational expertise is that it offers ways of understanding what they do that could be used to improve the practice of others.

For example, expert teachers are concerned with how their students relate to the subject matter of the curriculum, so this shapes the way they teach. They want pupils to understand and be able to do something with the knowledge. This shapes the teaching: the students are taken through a process of getting to grips with and piecing together key ideas from the subject; the teacher plans their teaching so that students are first presented with the key concepts that are stripped back, and then the teacher layers them back up, adding in detail and precision over time.

The relational expertise of expert teachers also shows up in their concern for the future agency of their pupils – the idea of wanting students to love the subject and see the world differently through it. This means that expert teachers plan, teach and think about their teaching in terms of how they can bring the student and the subject matter of the curriculum together in their lessons.

As you can see, through this filter, we can unpick expert teaching.

Interestingly, it seems that relational expertise is expressed through a unique feature of teacher talk: the metacommentary. A metacommentary is like the voiceover narrator who explains the action in a television show. It is a second strand of talk alongside the main teacher talk of the lesson, which explains what the main talk means. It takes the form of a continuous monologue, a “golden thread” running alongside all other aspects of teacher talk, such as questions and instructions. It is how expert teachers make their pedagogical decisions explicit to their students.

They do this by deconstructing their practice for students during the lesson, so that they understand the purpose of the tasks asked of them and why it is important to them as a student learning the subject. Expert teachers say things such as “The reason I want you to do this is because …” or “This task will help you to …”

So, in discussions about teacher expertise, I believe relational expertise should be a key component of our thinking. It recognises that teachers work with both their students and the curriculum, and together the teachers and their students focus on their shared, complex practice of learning in a lesson.

Put simply, expert teachers use their relational expertise to bring out the best in their students.

Lorna Shires is a former headteacher, a principal lecturer in initial teacher education at Oxford Brookes University and a doctoral student

This article originally appeared in the 23 April 2021 issue under the headline “Tes focus on… relational expertise”

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