Experts and novices perceive differently. Experts see patterns and cues faster than novices and they can act on them quickly and with more appropriate strategies. This can be compared to tennis players. Expert tennis players see the patterns in the game and their opponent’s movements and they begin moving before the ball is hit. A novice waits to see where the ball is going and then begins moving. This is similar to teaching, where experts see the classroom differently to novices. A recent study into teacher expertise can help guide our thinking about developing expert teachers.
The study showed that expert teachers perceive the class differently to novices and that professional learning focused on perception, improved student outcomes. In ‘How we learning about teacher learning’ (Kennedy, 2019), professional learning was grouped as focusing on one of three categories; teaching behaviours, content knowledge or strategic thinking. The evidence now suggests that the third category has the greatest positive impact on teacher effectiveness.
This means that when working with our colleagues we need to discuss what we are thinking, what are options we are considering and then why we chose to do what we did. For example, an expert teacher might place themselves at the corner of their room, ignore a student’s hand up because she can see two students beginning to drift off task. She walks by the students, uses proximity and a verbal reminder to the students to continue work, then goes to the student with a raised hand. After 10 seconds of take up time, she checks that the students are back on task. A beginning teacher might not notice the two students, or if they do, speak across the room to get them back on task. We can teach our developing teachers what to look for in a classroom as well as the required strategies they need to execute.
When watching video of teachers it can be helpful to inquire, ‘tell me what you are paying attention to here’. This gives an insight into their perception of the class. The challenge for beginning teachers is that they don’t see what an expert teacher sees when they view a class, nor can they understand all the actions not taken. Our job as coaches is to help teachers perceive their class like an expert. This means paying attention to engagement, opportunities for feedback, student faces, the energy in the room and the information the teacher uses to guide their next step in the class. It’s not just what the teacher does, it’s understanding what the teacher perceives that allows them to make the decision about what to do next.
Finally, the study suggests that the most effective professional learning programs are designed and carried out by people who personal knowledge of the intricacies of teaching (and the context in which they are working). The study found that once a PD program is ‘packaged’, it loses its effectiveness. So, workshops that introduce strategies from experts will only take you so far, teachers need one-to-one time to look at their classrooms and discuss what they are paying attention to and what they see. One of the goals of coaching, and the use of video, is for us to support our colleagues in seeing a classroom like an expert.