Expertise, mental models and leadership knowledge

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Date published 23 September 2021

Last updated 21 March 2024

Jennifer Barker

Jennifer Barker

Dean of Learning Design

Tom Rees

Tom Rees

Executive Director

In this blog series, we are attempting to answer the question: ‘what is school leadership and how can we develop it?’. This is an important question for us, given the critical roles that school leaders play in society and the responsibility we have at Ambition Institute to provide effective professional development for tens of thousands of colleagues who lead in schools.

In the series so far, we have highlighted the complex nature of schools and the work that school leaders undertake as a result.

We have also explored the concept of ‘generic leadership’ – a concept that has become dominant in education and which we have argued often overlooks the domain-specific expertise required to run an effective school.

In our last post, we acknowledged that the concept of ‘domain-specific’ leadership development also presents challenges. We proposed that a curriculum underpinning leaders’ development should be organised around the core challenges of their role and set out seven ‘persistent problems’ of school leadership.

We now turn to the question of how best to prepare school leaders to attend to the persistent problems of their role. To answer this question, in this post we will examine the development of expertise in more detail. We will look at how individuals develop expert mental models and how these models guide action in such a way that enables them to more effectively address the persistent problems of their work.

There are three concepts we want to explore further in this post:

  1. Expertise
  2. Mental models
  3. Leadership knowledge

1. Expertise

Key idea: In viewing school leadership as expertise, we consider the mechanisms that underpin school leaders’ successful behaviours and actions. We find that expert school leaders are ‘made, not born’.

Most of us will be able to recognise a school leader we’ve worked with who consistently performs at a high level. Think of the colleague who commands control of any classroom or corridor, appearing to have eyes in the back of her head; the head of department who deals with complex staffing challenges serenely, or the headteacher who knows what to do in the most challenging of circumstances. Like experts in other fields, these ‘expert leaders’ are able to respond to the challenges of their role in ‘fast, fluid and flexible’ ways, using less ‘conscious effort’ than their novice counterparts (Berliner, 1988).

The literature we can draw upon about expertise is helpful for understanding performance because it focuses on the mechanisms underlying achievement (Ericsson, 2000). Focussing on the observable characteristics of experts risks understanding (and possible imitation) of only a small part of what experts do. Observable behaviours are often arbitrary they do not necessarily reflect what it means to be an expert and attending to only them misses the complex holistic nature of true expert performance.

It is common to hear people talk about ‘natural’ or ‘born’ teachers and school leaders, however, research across a number of fields consistently finds that expertise can be consciously developed. Ericsson at al (2007) have gone so far as to claim that experts are ‘made and not born’ (Ericsson et al. 2007). This view corresponds to that of Bereiter and Scardamalia (1993), who write that expertise is ‘effortfully acquired’, that it is something that ‘carries us beyond what nature has specifically prepared us to do' (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1993, p3). These insights into expertise and the development of high performance are applicable to the expertise of leaders and managers as well as other domains such as music, sport or medicine:

‘If you want to achieve top performance as a manager and a leader, you’ve got to forget the folklore about genius that makes many people think they cannot take a scientific approach to developing expertise’ (Ericsson et al. 2007, para 4).

Having established expertise as a lens through which we can understand the high performance of school leaders, we now turn to the question of what it is that underpins expert performance. We consider the literature in this area that suggests that knowledge - organised to guide action – is significantly responsible for this. We call this a ‘mental model’.


2. Mental models

Key idea: School leaders’ expertise relies on expert mental models: the knowledge held by an individual and how this knowledge is organised to guide action.

Mental models are representations people hold about the enormous range of things they do. They are underpinned by knowledge and developed through instruction, experience and significant amounts of practice and feedback (Ericsson and Pool, 2016; Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1993). Once acquired, they result in a number of benefits including:

  • Intuition: being able to solve problems in less time or with less effort (Simon, 1992).
  • Improved pattern recognition: being able to spot where a problem is similar to one that has been dealt with previously, or to recognise where a situation poses a novel challenge (Kahneman and Klein, 2009).

The term ‘mental model’ is thought to have originated in the work of Kenneth Craik (1943) in his book The Nature of Explanation. In it, he writes ‘[i]f the organism carries a “small-scale model” of external reality and of its own possible actions within its head, it is able to try out various alternatives, conclude which is the best of them, react to future situations before they arise, utilize the knowledge of past events in dealing with the present and the future, and in every way to react in a much fuller, safer, and more competent manner to the emergencies which face it’ (p61).

Mental models then, can be described as the knowledge held by an individual and the way it is organised to guide action. This is an important definition as simply acquiring formal or academic knowledge around a subject in itself does not lead to expert performance. Fundamental to the way in which knowledge is organised is an understanding of the persistent problems of an individuals’ role which we explored further in our last post. Knowledge needs to be organised in such a way as to address these problems. We can therefore think of expertise in school leadership as being based on:

  1. An iteratively better understanding of persistent problems.
  2. Progressive developments in knowledge.
  3. Resulting changes in behaviour.

3. Knowledge

Key idea: Expertise is predicated on knowledge. It is important to adopt a broad definition of knowledge and to understand the ‘hidden’ knowledge of experts: informal, impressionistic and self-regulatory.

In their 1993 book Surpassing Ourselves, Bereiter and Scardamalia emphasise the importance of knowledge and the reluctance for it to be accepted as integral to the work of experts (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1993, p. 43):

‘Most people we talk to do not want to believe that research shows expert performance is mainly a matter of knowledge. They do not necessarily have an alternative explanation ready, but they feel there has to be more to expertise that that.’

Like others (Tricot and Sweller, 2014; Stein and Nelson, 2003; Timperley, 2011), we believe that expertise in school leadership is predicated on knowledge and that it is important to view knowledge broadly, encompassing skills, beliefs and values. If we want school leaders to become more expert, then it follows that we need to understand more about what leaders need to know, and how we can help them to learn this.

Central to developing effective professional development therefore, is to consider the codification of leaders’ knowledge - how we can understand and arrange it into a structure, or taxonomy, that makes it easier to access, understand and talk about.

"Codification can be thought of as the action or process of arranging knowledge in a systematic form or code."

The codification of leadership knowledge

Codification can be thought of as the action or process of arranging knowledge in a systematic form or code.

By identifying and codifying a taxonomy of school leadership knowledge, we are able to give leaders a starting point from which to better understand their work and continue their development. Codified knowledge can also offer a shared language for leaders, and those responsible for their development, to communicate with, and to enter debate.

Codification of knowledge is taking place all the time. With advances in various fields, we have access to and can understand knowledge that, for several decades, was either unknown or only tacit. Micheal Polanyi (1962) writes that:

‘The major difficulty in the understanding, and hence in the teaching of anatomy, arises in respect to the intricate three‐dimensional network of organs closely packed inside the body... it is left to the imagination to reconstruct from such experience the three‐dimensional picture of the exposed area as it existed in the unopened body, and to explore mentally its connections with adjoining unexposed areas around it and below it. The kind of topographic knowledge which an experienced surgeon possesses of the regions on which he operates is therefore ineffable knowledge.’ (Polanyi, 1962, p. 92)

The knowledge of anatomy may have been ineffable in 1962, but developments in medicine mean that it no longer is. This process of creating, or revealing, knowledge is continuous. Cognitive load theory, for example, was developed by John Sweller in the 1980s. Before that, we didn’t fully appreciate the impact of working memory on learning (although of course we started to learn about working memory many years before that). Research constantly reveals new insights into how we can support pupils to learn.

Any taxonomy of leadership should be informed by the knowledge that leaders use in their day to day work. It should also consider the knowledge that leaders don’t yet have. and draw from the literature to understand what relevant – but as yet unknown – knowledge might most usefully support leaders to address the persistent problems of their roles. Defining this body of knowledge is a real challenge: who gets to have the final say on what it is that leaders should know? We think that this needs to be a collective endeavour, curated by individuals who work in the system and understand the work of leaders.

A good example of a process of codification that looks at only what individuals – in this instance teachers – already know is Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion (TLAC). A series of techniques are captured in written and visual form, which many experienced teachers do all of the time but find hard to explain. As Lemov himself states, TLAC was simply an attempt to codify what effective people do; it is not underpinned by literature and doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive view of everything that teachers should know and be able to do.

An example of codification which attempts to bridge both leaders’ knowledge and the literature are ‘Walkthrus’; visual step by step guides, introduced recently by the talented Oliver Caviglioli and made popular through Teaching Walkthrus (Caviglioli and Sherrington, 2019). They are rooted in evidence about how pupils learn and demonstrate clearly how this can be brought to life.

As a final example, in developing the new national programme for early career teachers at Ambition, we have designed a curriculum from the ECF framework which represents a codification of the knowledge early career teachers will learn. To try to codify the knowledge that school leaders require is an even more complex task. Of course, much of the knowledge that leaders need is rooted in what teachers need to know, but there is additional knowledge that leaders benefit from having: this is why we think codification is important. The process of codifying leadership knowledge is complex and requires us to have a broad conception of knowledge. This leads us to consider the different types of knowledge that leaders need to hold.

A broad understanding of knowledge

To define knowledge, we draw heavily on categories defined by Bereiter and Scardamalia who, in their 1993 book, Surpassing Ourselves, suggest that one of the reasons people do not readily accept the central role of knowledge in expertise is because they ‘have too limited a conception of knowledge’ (p44).

When thinking about knowledge, it’s common for people to think initially of ‘formal’ knowledge: the type of knowledge that can be codified in books, compared, contrasted and relatively easily taught. Formal knowledge enables those who hold it to ‘give justifications and explanations that will withstand critical examination’ (p64).

Berieter and Scardamalia argue that formal knowledge (declarative and procedural) represents just one of four categories of knowledge that, in areas of expertise, are developed to a high degree. Declarative and procedural knowledge have been described, respectively, as ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’ (Roediger et al, 1989). The additional three categories of knowledge Bereiter and Scardamalia term the ‘hidden knowledge of experts’.

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Formal knowledge:

  • Description: Can be explicitly stated, codified and written into books or documents. A combination of declarative and procedural knowledge.
  • Example: The literature base about the science of learning.

Informal knowledge:

  • Description: A combination of formal knowledge and experience that is hard to explain or codify. Can be thought of as ‘expert common sense’.
  • Example: Hard-to-articulate decisions about adapting classroom questioning to different groups or individuals.

Impressionistic knowledge:

  • Description: Feelings associated with knowledge that allow us to form opinions of people and things.
  • Example: Predicting how an individual teacher might react to a new policy or initiative.

Self-regulatory knowledge:

  • Description: Knowing how to manage yourself to do the job. Includes habits such as planning or practice.
  • Example: Habits built around planning or practice, or practice for high-stakes conversations/meetings.

The hidden knowledge of experts

Leading schools is a complex task and requires high levels of relevant expertise. If we accept that expertise is largely predicated on knowledge, which is gained through a combination of study experience and practice, it follows that understanding the knowledge base needed by teachers and leaders is an essential part of supporting their development.

Hyle et al write that “the development of expertise is dependent on [formal] knowledge provided by most preparation programs and on hidden expert knowledge obtained through experience and self-reflection" (p.173).

Professional development for school leaders must therefore, at the very least, involve access to rich sources of formal knowledge, alongside significant amounts of experience of the work. Leaders should have opportunities to make sense of formal knowledge, put it into practice in their own contexts and receive expert feedback on what they have learnt.

In practice, the knowledge held – and required – by individuals will vary according to factors like leader role, experience, seniority, remit and context, but to develop expertise requires knowledge from the four categories outlined above.

Of course, there is more to expertise than knowledge. Motivation, a desire for excellence and to some extent, innate talents, all enable the development of expertise. But we think it is important to argue the primacy of knowledge in to place for two reasons.

Firstly, because knowledge is broader than we might first realise. It encompasses what we know, believe and understand about every aspect of our lives.

Secondly, because we want to dispel the myth that expert knowledge is in any way mysterious or unobtainable. This is an exciting and empowering realisation because it means that, given the right conditions, progress towards expertise is a possibility for all of us.

Towards codification

The breadth of knowledge needed by leaders is significant and, as a profession, we are likely to have only scratched the surface of building a comprehensive taxonomy of what leaders need to know and be able to do.

The new National Professional Qualifications (NPQs) provide a more granular focus on formal, domain-specific knowledge than previous iterations and offer us one starting point to build such a taxonomy upon. But like all knowledge they should be open to critique and ongoing development.

Continuing to explore and codify the body of knowledge that leaders’ day-to-day practice rests on, represents a huge challenge, but is an important area for us to make progress on if we are to better prepare school leaders for success in their varied and challenging roles.

In summary

  • Leading schools is a complex task and requires high levels of relevant expertise.
  • The concept of expertise considers the mechanisms that underpin school leaders’ successful behaviours and actions. Through this lens, we see that expert school leaders are ‘made; not born’.
  • School leaders’ expertise relies on expert mental models: the knowledge held by an individual and how this knowledge is organised to guide action. We suggest that these mental models should be organised around the persistent problems that leaders face in their roles that we explored in our previous post.
  • Expert mental models are predicated on knowledge. It is important to adopt a broad definition of knowledge including formal, procedural and to understand the ‘hidden’ knowledge of experts: informal, impressionistic and self-regulatory.
  • Codification of leadership knowledge is challenging and controversial, but essential if we are to make progress in designing effective professional development which prepares school leaders for the demands of their roles.


Bereiter, C., Scardamalia, M., (1993). Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into The nature and implications of expertise. Chicago, IL: Open Court

Caviglioli O and Sherrington T (2020) Teaching Walkthrus: Five-Step Guides to Instructional Coaching. Woodbridge: John Catt

Craik. (1943) The nature of explanation.

Ericsson, A., Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Ericsson, A., Prietula, M., Cokely, E., (2007) The Making of an Expert. HBR:

Ericsson, K. A. (2000). How experts attain and maintain superior performance: Implications for the enhancement of skilled performance in older individuals. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, 8, 346-352.

Kahneman, D., Klein, G., (2009) Conditions for intuitive expertise: a failure to disagree. The American psychologist, 64(6) pp. 515–526.

Polanyi M (1962). Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. London: Routledge.

Roediger, L.H., Weldon, MS., & Challis, B.H., (1989) Explaining dissociations between implicit and explicit measure of retention: A processing account. In Roediger, L.H., & Craik, F.I.M (eds) varieties of memory and consciousness: Essays in Honor of Endel Tulving. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Simon, H. A. (1992). What is an explanation of behavior? Psychological Science, 3, 150–161.

Stein, M.K. and Nelson, B.S. (2003). Leadership Content Knowledge. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 25(4), pp.423–448.

Timperley, Helen (2011) Knowledge and the Leadership of Learning, Leadership and Policy in Schools, 10:2, 145-170, DOI: 10.1080/15700763.2011.557519

Tricot A and Sweller J (2014) Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educational Psychology Review 26(2): 265–283.

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