The concept of excellence is ubiquitous within education and many other sectors. But what do we mean by it? What does it look like? And how can we support colleagues to develop it?
The word ‘excellence’ is derived from the Latin excellere (ex – ‘out, beyond’; celsus – ‘lofty’) meaning outstanding. For me as an educational developer with a passion for supporting colleagues in higher education to develop and improve their teaching, there are a number of difficulties with the concept of excellence. We don’t have a common understanding of what it actually is – excellence is measured through outputs such as student satisfaction and graduate outcomes, which tells us little about the characteristics of the inputs, the teachers who support the learning. By dictionary definition / derivation it is highly exclusive (not everybody can be outstanding or above average), and it feels like a point to be reached or a static road.
Expertise, on the other hand, has a deep and broad foundation of research, theory and literature. The characteristics of expertise have been researched in a wide range of professions including music, sport, business, surgery and education. This research explores the characteristics of the person in that field or profession, rather than simply the outcomes of their work. By derivation expertise is all about process, it’s a continual journey throughout one’s career: from the Latin expertus (past participle of experiri – ‘to try’: also the etymological origin of ‘experience’ and ‘experiment’) and thus is potentially available to all.
A simple synopsis of the literature includes three main aspects that characterise expertise (e.g. see Skovholdt 2016 for a useful summary): 1) high performance in one domain based on subject knowledge and skills developed through study and experience; 2) ways of thinking & practising: how experience and immersion in the field enables highly effective application of the knowledge & skills (including pattern recognition, approaches to problem-solving, and an automation of skills that exhibits as an effortless grace or ‘flow’); 3) professional learning and development, characterised as Deliberate Practice (Ericsson et al, 1993) or Progressive Problem-Solving (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993). This latter aspect is particularly important for distinguishing those with expertise from those who have just clocked up lots of experience. Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, it makes permanent. If you just repeat one thing in the same way, you’ll become very good at doing that thing in that particularly way, and it can be very difficult to change. Rather than mindless repetition, Deliberate Practice is continuously mindful of specific areas that aren’t working so well, it focuses on these and, drawing on feedback, improves them. This idea of professional learning and development as a key aspect of expertise, is summarised neatly in Perkins’ (2008) suggestion that expertise is a process of proactive competence.
Drawing on several years of reading, thinking, research interviews with National Teaching Fellows (NTFs), writing (e.g. King, 2019) workshops and presentations, an Expertise Symposium which attracted over 500 registrants from over 20 different countries, and a forthcoming edited volume arising from the symposium contributions (King, 2022), I have developed a model which takes those three generic characteristics of expertise and conceptualises them for teaching in higher education (King, 2020).
Characteristics of Expertise for Teaching in Higher Education
1) Pedagogical Content Knowledge (Shulman, 1986): this is the interaction of knowledge and skills from the subject area with those of pedagogy / learning and teaching. We need to know our subject area and how best to support students to learn. Pedagogy is usually the main focus of development programmes for staff new to teaching in higher education, and we need to ensure that these programmes enable staff to make sense of the pedagogy within the context of their particular subject or profession.
2) Artistry of Teaching (Schön, 1982; Eisner, 2002). We might know what and how to teach, but teaching is rarely routine, highly effective application of our pedagogical content knowledge requires something else. As Schön says, “let us search, instead, for an epistemology of practice implicit in the artistic, intuitive processes which some practitioners bring to situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value conflict.” Teaching is not like being in a note perfect string quartet, playing in front of a quiet, respectful audience in a well-managed auditorium. It is much more like being part of a jazz band playing the tunes we know but improvising, riffing off each other and the audience in a late night bar.
So the Artistry of Teaching includes those often intangible characteristics that we can recognise in teachers with expertise that are not exhibited in experienced non-experts. It is reflection-in-action, intuition, improvisation and performance, authenticity, rapport, care for students and their learning, and a curiosity about their learning experience and how it might be improved. There is also an element of humility in expertise, it is recognised that expertise is domain-specific and that we need to draw from others’ expertise to inform our practice. These are the human aspects of expertise and often the ones most neglected when considering what support newer (and more experienced) teachers might need. Whilst they may emerge from experience, they can also be nurtured through mentoring and professional development.
The ways of thinking and practising of teachers in higher education has been little-researched and barely considered from an expertise perspective. What meaningful patterns do teachers with expertise perceive? What is their approach to problem-solving that is qualitatively different to that of novices? How is the automation of skills, the flow, developed and experienced by the teacher and their students?
3) Professional Learning and Development (King, 2019). In my experiences of helping people to articulate their professional development (for example in HEA Fellowship or NTF applications or simply their own professional development plans), there is a tendency to think about professional development as qualifications, training or other formal activities. This can be a barrier to engagement with professional development as we then feel that we don’t have the time to do it because it’s an additional activity on top of our actual teaching. In my research with 9 NTFs, their descriptions of how they developed their teaching were very much narratives of its enhancement over time. Only with prompting did they articulate how other activities (conferences, conversations with colleagues, literature, student feedback etc.) had informed that change. So I suggest that we should consider professional learning and development for teaching in higher education as a continual evolution of our teaching that is informed by evidence from a range of activities.
If excellence in higher education is mostly measured by outputs. Then this effectively ignores a critical feature that distinguishes those with expertise from those with experience: a commitment to professional learning. If higher education institutions are to achieve their missions of excellence in education, then they must also foster and enable a culture of professional learning for teaching that is integrated into everyday practice rather than being seen as an add-on that nobody has time for.
‘Expertise’ as an alternative or complement to ‘excellence’ might not sit well with everyone. The concept of ‘expert’ can be contentious. But by offering an alternative idea to excellence, I hope to provoke a more meaningful discourse about the characteristics of high quality teaching and how we might best support, develop, recognise and reward these within higher education.
For more information and a developing set of resources on expertise, visit my website at https://www.drhelenking.com
Bereiter, C. & M. Scardamalia (1993) Surpassing ourselves: an enquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Open Court, Illinois
Eisner, E.W. (2002) From episteme to phronesis to artistry in the study and improvement of teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 18, 375-385
Ericsson, K.A., R. Th. Krampe & C.Tesch-Romer (1993) The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, Vol. 100(3), 363-406
King (2022)(Ed.) Developing the characteristics of expertise for teaching in higher education: practical ideas for professional learning. SEDA/Routledge
King, H. (2020) Future-ready Faculty: Developing the characteristics of expertise in teaching in higher education. Proceedings of the International Consortium for Educational Development conference, ICED2020
King, H. (2019) Continuing Professional Development: what do award-winning lecturers do? Educational Developments, 20.2, 1-4
Perkins, D. (2008) Beyond Understanding. In: R. Land, J.H.F.Meyer & J.Smith (Eds.) Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines. Sense Publishers, Rottersam
Schön, D. (1982) The Reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action. Routledge, London
Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, Vo.15 No.2 4-31
Skovholt, T.M., M. Hanson, L. Jennings & T. Grier (2016) A Brief History of Expertise. In: Skovholt,T.M. &Jennings (Eds.) Master Therapists: Exploring Expertise in Therapy and Counseling, 10th Anniversary Edition. Oxford University Press.
Dr Helen King NTF SFSEDA PFHEA is currently the Deputy Director of Academic Practice at the University of the West of England, Bristol, UK. Her career in educational development spans over two decades and has included leading roles in UK-wide learning and teaching enhancement projects and organisations, as an independent consultant collaborating with colleagues in the UK, USA and Australia, and institutional roles. She has broad interests across a range of learning, teaching and assessment themes but her particular passion is in supporting colleagues’ professional learning and development. Her current research is exploring the characteristics of expertise for teaching in higher education. She is proud to hold a Senior Fellowship of the Staff & Educational Development Association (SFSEDA), is a UK National Teaching Fellow (NTF), Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA), and Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Queensland. In her non-work time she thoroughly enjoys trail running and Bluegrass banjo playing (not necessarily at the same time) both of which feed into her research and educational development interests in various ways!
Q1. What works for you, educational expertise or excellence? Or something else?
Q2. From your perspective, what are the ways of thinking and practising that differentiate educators with expertise? Please share your thinking
Q3. What top tips or resources do you have to help improve confidence in teaching and/or supporting learning?
Q4. In what ways is it helpful to consider CPD as an evidence- informed evolution of educational practice?
Q5. What steps can institutions take to engender a culture of professional learning and the development of expertise for all?
Q6. What else can we do with this concept of educational expertise? Where might it take us? What further research might we do?
The Wakelet can be found at: https://wke.lt/w/s/30Cgjm