Think about one of the best teachers you ever had; someone who taught you well and taught you much. What kinds of words would you use to describe this teacher? What was it that made your teacher so influential, so inspiring, so teacherly? How knowledgeable was he or she, and what kind of knowledge was it anyway?
Such questions are simple to ask, and might even stir up satisfying memories of learning, but in the field of teacher expertise development they are rather difficult to answer in precise terms. Yet scholars have been working hard for decades (perhaps centuries) to answer them because excellent, highly-skilled teachers are such a precious social commodity. And experts are often scarce.
I recently came upon a worthwhile article discussing the knowledge differences between teachers at different stages of development, Novice and Competent Teachers’ Knowledge Differences. As the title betrays, the authors contrasted teachers in the early stages of their teaching career – the novices – to those who had honed their expertise to a comfortable level of competency. Rather than focus on the features and skills of that rare species, the truly expert teacher, the authors identified and clarified the characteristics of teachers considered competent in their craft. Following Berliner’s (1986, 1988, 1994) five-stage theory of teacher expertise development, they made it a point to concentrate on characteristics of the competency stage. They made sure the teachers they interviewed did not demonstrate the tell-tale marks of proficiency or expertise, which they described as “(a) the use of intuition over logic in making pedagogical decisions, and (b) extensive and sophisticated knowledge of the subject matter taught”(Schempp, Tan, Manross, & Fincher, 1998, p.13). While acknowledging the value of Berliner’s (1986, 1994) model of teacher expertise development, they underlined the need for research to explicate the distinctive characteristics of teachers in the process of developing and becoming experts.
So what kind of distinctions did they expose? The most pronounced cognitive differences concerned the teachers’ perception of student learning difficulties, their knowledge conceptions, and their reflective practices. (Schempp et al., 1998). Here is a brief summary:
Perceptions of Student Learning Difficulties
- attributed learning difficulties to learners’ background and characteristics
- believe that students bring problems into the learning environment
- parents were blamed for not being good role models and not properly influencing their children
- feel accountable for problems with student learning (for what they do/don’t learn)
- believe they are capable of finding solutions to student learning problems
- learning problems were related to lesson structure and organization
Conceptions of Knowledge
- were concerned with finding activities they could use (things for students to do) in class rather than learning the subject deeply
- often justified lesson content based on generalized norms or on their authority as the teacher
- were quick to admit lack of knowledge
- showed willingness to learn
- tried to identify important components and create steps when teaching new concepts
- relied on logical or technical explanations to justify lesson content
- perceived only limited diversity in student knowledge, ability, and skill
- based instructional programs on their subject knowledge and materials available rather than needs or abilities of students
- did not assess student competence or progress when making planning or in-class decisions
- recognized a range of student ability and knowledge
- lessons were linked to continual student assessment (informal, subjective, and reflexive) and used appraisals to identify difficulties and find supporting activities
- made decisions for teaching activities based on subjective student performance observations
Competent teachers seemed to be keen lifelong, or at least career-long, learners. They showed a commitment to augmenting and refining their content knowledge as well as their teaching techniques. “A consistent theme among the competent teachers in this study was the search for new ideas: fresh methods for teaching familiar subject matter, dealing with classroom management, assessing student progress and discovering new content”(Schempp et al., 1998, p. 18).
So, circling back to the original question about a great teacher you’ve had: do the characteristics described ring true? Does your teacher display all the characteristics of competency? Or would you say that s/he goes beyond and approaches the threshold of proficient and expert qualities?
Berliner, D. (1986). In pursuit of the expert pedagogue, Educational Researcher, 15, 5-13
Berliner, D. (1994). Expertise: the wonder of exemplary performances. In J. Mangieri & C. Block (Eds.), Creating powerful thinking in teachers and students: diverse perspectives. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College.
Schempp, P., Tan, S., Manross, D., & Fincher, M. (1998). Differences in novice and competent teachers’ knowledge. Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, 4:1, 9-19.