Towards a Useful Definition of Teacher Expertise

Oct. 15, 2017

Peps Mccrea

Dean, Learning Design

Teaching quality is important. It is arguably the single greatest lever at our disposal for improving experiences and outcomes for pupils.

If we want to increase the levels of quality across the system, we’ve got to have a clear picture of what teaching expertise looks like and how we might develop it.


There are several ways we might think about this problem. Firstly, we could look at expertise from an impact perspective. How pupils change as a result of having an expert teacher. We could argue that expert teachers are those who have a transformational impact on the lives of their pupils.

This definition is compelling, particularly because it focuses squarely on the thing we want to improve. However, the relationship between teaching and learning is noisy and ethereal. Teasing out which aspects of teaching influence learning is a tricky business, and insights into impact offer limited guidance for how we might help teachers get better.

An alternative is to think about what expert teachers actually do that leads to this impact. Expert teachers appear to do several things differently to their more novice colleagues (Berliner, 2004), but one of the most interesting is how they ‘see’ their classroom. Expert teachers are highly attuned to the subtle cues of learning, and so are able to infer accurately whether pupils are making progress or not (Wolff et al., 2017). They are able to devote significant mental resources to this ‘watching’ process because much of their practice is habitual.

"Expert teachers are highly attuned to the subtle cues of learning, and so are able to infer accurately whether pupils are making progress or not."

Defining expertise by what teachers do makes our picture of expert teaching more tangible, but it still doesn’t tell us much about how to help teachers get there.

For a definition of expertise that has the power to guide teacher development, we need to look at how expert teachers think. More specifically, we need to examine their mental models: what teachers know, and how this knowledge is organised to guide decision and action in the classroom.

Expert teachers appear to have vast, complex and refined mental models for the domains of their practice. They don’t know everything, but few others will know as much as them about their subjects, what their pupils know about their subjects, or how to help their pupils learn their subjects (Schempp et al., 2002).

In short, teacher mental models determine what teachers do, and what teachers do drives the impact they have. If we want to help teachers get better, we must strive to develop a greater understanding of all three of these components, and how they relate to each other. Without this, our vision of expertise will be incomplete and our power to develop it will remain limited.

Berliner, D. (2004) Describing the behavior and documenting the accomplishments of expert teachers. Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, 24(3), 200–212.

Schempp, P., Tan, S. & McCullick, B. (2002) The practices of expert teachers. Teaching and Learning, 23(1), 99–106.

Wolff, C., Jarodzka, H. & Boshuizen, H. (2017) See and tell: Differences between expert and novice teachers’ interpretations of problematic classroom management events. Teaching and Teacher Education, 66, 295–308.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Institute for Teaching. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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