Ten characteristics of expert teaching

This is an unabridged version of an article written for SecEd Magazine and is the first instalment in a 9-part series.

When we first become teachers, we must not forget the lessons learnt during our training. In this series, Matt Bromley reminds us of key practical lessons from the ITT programme he delivers. He begins with 10 characteristics of expert teaching

I am the lead lecturer on an initial teacher training (ITT) qualification. Every Tuesday evening, I spend three and a half hours teaching a programme that will lead my trainee towards qualified teacher status (QTS).

As I was planning the programme, it occurred to me that much of what I intend to cover is useful not just for those new to the profession, but for all early career teachers and indeed many seasoned professionals in search of a helping hand.

And so, over the course of nine articles, I will share my ITT journey in the hope that it provides you with opportunities to reflect on your own professional practice and encourages you to try out some new strategies in your classroom.

My first session with trainee teachers in September explored what I somewhat cheekily called ‘the conspiracy of expert teaching’…

Now, let me be clear: I don’t actually believe in conspiracy theories. I don’t wear a tinfoil hat, think the moon landings were faked on a Hollywood stage, nor believe the world is run by a secret cadre of lizard people. Although, truth to tell, I’m beginning to wonder about that last one.

No, conspiracies theories are not for me. But the similarities between Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy – two former Presidents of the United States – have always made my spine tingle.

They do have an awful lot in common, after all…

Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846; John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946.

Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860; John F Kennedy was elected president in 1960.

The names Lincoln and Kennedy each contain seven letters.

Both men were particularly concerned with civil rights.

Both their wives lost children while living in the White House.

Both presidents were shot on a Friday. Both were shot in the head.

Lincoln’s secretary, Kennedy, warned him not to go to the theatre; Kennedy’s secretary, Lincoln, warned him not to go to Dallas.

Both were assassinated by Southerners. Both were succeeded by Southerners.

Both successors were named Johnson: Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was born in 1808; Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was born in 1908.

Both assassins were known by three names which comprised 15 letters. John Wilkes Booth was born in 1839. Lee Harvey Oswald was born in 1939.

Having assassinated Lincoln, Booth ran from the theatre and was caught in a warehouse. Having assassinated Kennedy, Oswald ran from a warehouse and was caught in a theatre.

Both Booth and Oswald were assassinated before their trials.

You’ve got to admit that it’s a little spooky. The hairs on the back of my neck are standing up.

But, as I say, I don’t actually believe in conspiracy theories. I do, however, believe in coincidences…

So, what’s the difference?

Well, when you think about it, coincidences aren’t spooky at all; they are perfectly rational and express a simple, logical pattern of cause and effect.

Take, for example, the conspiracy – sorry, coincidences – of expert teaching…

I have taught a lot of lessons over the last two decades and have observed countless teachers toil away at the chalkface. And whilst context has always been key and pragmatism all, I’ve come to discern a set of common characteristics shared by all the most effective teachers – those who help their students to make progress, achieve good outcomes, and to be fully prepared for the next stage of their education and lives.

What follows, then, are in my experience the top 10 characteristics that all expert teachers have in common…

First, with expert teachers, lessons are clearly planned. In other words, there is a laser-like clarity about the knowledge and skills to be learned. Now, let me draw an important distinction here: a planned lesson is not synonymous with a lesson plan; we’re not talking about documentation but rather about a thought process and the reality of what happens in the room. These lessons could be scribbled on the back of a stamp for all I care. What matters is that the teacher knows what he or she expects students to learn and why that is important. Talking of which…

Also, with expert teachers, lessons are sequenced. In other words, there is a logic to the order and organisation of lessons. What is taught today builds upon and extends what was taught yesterday and will be built upon and extended by what is taught tomorrow. Prior knowledge is activated and then added to, forging ever more complex schema in long-term memory.

What’s more, sequencing allows these teachers to articulate the bigger picture – to explain what students are learning, why they are learning it, and what they will do with that learning. This helps build intrinsic motivation. It also ensures students have the requisite knowledge to be able to understand new concepts – because we all process new abstract information within the context of what is already concrete and familiar. Sequencing, in other words, is a way of helping students to cheat the limitations of their working memories and make sense of the curriculum.

Second, the content being taught by these expert teachers is ambitious, broad and balanced. They have high expectations of what all students can learn and the knowledge, skills and understanding students acquire allow them to hit the ground running at the next stage of their learning journey. The content is sufficiently broad so as to prepare students for what comes next but is also taught with appropriate depth so as to ensure genuine understanding and aid transferability.

Third, all students are taught the same curriculum thus ensuring equality, but…

…those with additional needs are supported through adaptive teaching strategies, such as scaffolding, thus ensuring equity. In other words, students who start with less are given more help to access the curriculum and to achieve in line with their peers.

Students’ starting points are ascertained and gaps in prior knowledge – and any misunderstandings or mistakes students bring with them – are identified and filled. Differentiation does not take the form of giving students different tasks to do or expecting less of some students, but instead students are helped to access the same task. Crucially, any additional scaffolding falls away over time, ensuring students become increasingly independent.

Fourth, as well as knowing the bigger picture of learning, students know how, when and why they will be assessed and how prior learning will be activated and built upon. Students are only assessed when an assessment will lead to feedback, and feedback is only given when there is time carved out in lesson for them to process it, question it, and act upon it. The results of assessments are used as learning opportunities – often in the form of whole class feedback on the most common errors – rather than simply to draw lines in the sand.

Fifth, with expert teachers, there are opportunities for retrieval practice and thus the building of schema in every lesson. The shape and form of this retrieval practice – and when it happens within the lesson – is dependent on the context, but it happens frequently to prevent knowledge decay and to help students connect prior learning to new learning.

The sixth “coincidence” of expert teaching is that teachers have excellent subject knowledge and excellent pedagogical content knowledge, and they use this to enthuse students with clear and insightful explanations. Teachers pre-empt misconceptions and questions during explanations, too.

Teachers then model excellence and, while doing so, think aloud – making their invisible thought processes and decision-making visible to students, thus making their implicit expertise explicit to the novice student.

Next, teachers engage the class in co-construction, producing a model together. Students provide the substance while the teacher asks probing questions, drip-feeds technical vocabulary, and passes the baton between students so they can comment on and add to each other’s contributions. Teachers also use questioning effectively to engage students and to provide on-going formative feedback.

Ninth, in lessons, activities are varied – with teacher explanations or modelling “chunked” with questioning, practice activities, or group discussions which aid students’ retention and increase their attention spans.

During these activities, all students, not just the high-performing ones, are stretched and challenged – both in terms of the pace and pitch of teaching and in the feedback given to help students improve further.

The tenth feature is that expert teachers show warmth towards students and clearly care about their success – which is rewarded by loyalty and hard work. Expectations of students are high, both academically and in terms of attitudes to learning; study skills are explicitly taught and applied in lessons.

The nature of expertise

So, those, in my experience, are the top 10 characteristics – or coincidences – that all expert teachers share. But don’t just take my word for it…

David Berliner (2004) researched the nature of expertise in teaching and devised eight characteristics. Here is a selection…

Expert teachers develop automaticity for the regular routines and actions they perform in the classroom. In other words, whereas new teachers might take several hours to plan a lesson, an expert teacher could plan the lesson more effectively in just a matter of minutes.

When solving problems, expert teachers are more sensitive to the demands of the task and to the social context. In other words, when asked to plan a lesson, expert teachers tend to want to know more information about the classroom in which they will be teaching and about the starting points and backgrounds of the students they will be teaching.

Expert teachers are more flexible in their approach than novice teachers. Experts are more likely than novices to find solutions that are tailored to the particular circumstances rather than use a one-size-fits-all approach. They are also more likely to adapt their style and tone as a lesson progresses, whereas new teachers tend to project the same emotions throughout a lesson.

Although new and experienced teachers do not differ in the amount of knowledge they have, they do differ in the way they organise that knowledge. Experts know how students respond to the subject content – what they tend to find easy and difficult, what they tend to need help with, and what they can do independently – and this informs the way they teach that content.

I will leave the last word, though, to students. In my experience, whenever students are polled on what they want their teachers to be like, they say they want teachers who respect them, who are knowledgeable in their subjects, who are friendly, approachable and willing to listen, who are positive, enthusiastic and have a sense of humour, who encourage and help them to succeed, and who set work that is both interesting and challenging.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mj_bromley for more teaching tips like these.

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