Why teachers need to tackle their 'expert blind spots'

Teachers pride themselves on their subject expertise – but sometimes this expertise can hinder lesson delivery

Adam Goodridge

Teacher expertise: Why teachers need to identify their 'expert blind spots'

Like all teachers, I strive to be the best I can be.

As I read more education books, blogs and journals, I relish the challenge of implementing these ideas in my classroom, constantly reflecting and improving my own practice.

As a result, I believe my students are getting a better deal.

However, perhaps the most challenging obstacle to improving myself as a teacher is my own expert blind spots.


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Teacher CPD: What is an expert blind spot?

Expert blind spots refer to our own inability to put ourselves in the position of the novice students who are learning this new knowledge for the first time, and our ineffectiveness in understanding the difficulties they may face.

It is very difficult for experts to remember what it was like to be a novice and, therefore, when experts teach a topic, they pitch it at an expert level, which is extremely difficult for a novice to grasp.

Expert-induced blindness in teachers is possibly the least known but most challenging barrier to learning.

These expert blind spots are onerous to identify, and a secure understanding of pedagogical content knowledge is essential to overcoming them.

So, potentially the most significant barrier to learning in my classroom is my inability to see new content from the students’ perspective.

How do you identify spot blind spots?

As an experienced mathematics teacher, I am well drilled in modelling examples, addressing misconceptions, using retrieval practice and so on.

I have consciously developed these skills over the years through the continuous cycle of research, explicit practice, reflection, adaptation and then repition.

Over the past couple of years, though, I have focused on identifying and unpicking blind spots and, while this is still a work in progress, I have already seen the benefits in students' understanding.

To do this I now scrutinise my own explanations prior to lessons a lot more, asking myself "why?" or "what do I really mean by that?" after each step of an explanation.

I have found this process eye-opening, and often surprising, by discovering that where I thought an explanation was clear it could actually have been modelled even better had I knew of my own blind spots in these topics.

Let me give you an example: imagine I am solving this equation: 5x + 3 = 3x - 7

I will focus on just one small step here. So, as a group, we have decided to subtract 3 from both sides as our first step. Usually, I would say "subtract 3 from both sides". Then I asked myself: what do I really mean by that? Well, I am going to take away 3 from both sides of the equation. So I change my wording to "subtract 3 from both sides of the equation". 

Again, what do I really mean by "both sides of the equation"? I now need to physically point at what I mean by "both sides of the equation". 

This leads me to point to the equals sign and indicate that I subtract 3 from this side (and here I point to 5x + 3) and from this side (point to 3x - 7).

Of course, there are so many other aspects here to consider in my explanation and how I model my working out, but these additions to my explanation support novice learners. 

Sometimes as I work through these small modifications, it is hard to imagine how I hadn't noticed them before. But that’s the whole point about expert blind spots – they are easily missed.

What do you do then?

Once these blind spots are identified, I make subtle but essential changes in lesson delivery. 

These include tweaking my explanation or including minor additional steps as well as explicitly highlighting a key word and its meaning that I assumed students would already have understood or physically pointing at part of my model solution while discussing it.

These minor but crucial tweaks have made a huge difference in my classroom; changes I would probably not have made if I wasn't consciously identifying my own expert blind spots.

Now that I am aware that these blind spots exist in most, if not all, teachers, I look for these when observing others. These observations allow me to reflect on my own explanations while also supporting others to find them for themselves. 

As a so-called expert, it is challenging trying to identify the process needed to learn new topics from a novice’s perspective. But by doing so I am having greater success in the classroom. More students are understanding my examples and, as a result, challenging themselves more during lessons due to increased competency and confidence.

I firmly believe that being aware I have blind spots and actively identifying them is resulting in me becoming a more effective teacher. I urge any teacher, no matter how experienced, to reflect honestly on their own expert blind spots and remember to see their topics through the eyes of a new learner, not an experienced teacher.

Adam Goodridge is director of numeracy and stretch and challenge at Park Hall Academy in Solihull

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