Teacher Expertise Research Paper

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Research on teacher expertise is concerned with the knowledge and skills that characterize the successful teacher. The term ‘teacher expertise’ covers both the teacher’s professional know-how and an approach to research that compares experienced and successful teachers (experts) with beginning teachers (no ices) and so-called intermediates (teachers who have already gained some experience). This research approach ties in with basic research on experts in experimental psychology. This field has shown that peak performance in experts is due particularly to knowledge gained through training, as well as through many years of practical experience. In teachers, this professional knowledge covers a wide range of different domains: professional knowledge on the curriculum is joined by pedagogical knowledge on how to teach the subject. Moreover, ideas on the philosophy of the particular school subject are also important. Professional knowledge is not only significant as the content of teaching, but also influences the actions of experts by shaping their categorical perception of classroom events and of students. Teacher expertise also includes action routines that permit quick responses in complex situations.

Whereas it may be taken for granted that members of many qualified professions (such as physicians or engineers) can be called experts, this is not the case for teachers. Less than one-half of the respondents in a survey of teacher-training students considered the expert concept to be appropriate for their future profession (Bromme 1997a). One reason behind this is the idea that teaching and training students is— particularly in elementary school—such an eminently personal process of intersubjective communication that it is impossible to describe the critical requirements in terms of the expertise concept. Expertise, according to this argument, is an idea that has more to do with a technological rationality. In contrast, the teacher-as-expert approach emphasizes that the art of teaching is based on knowledge and skills that can be acquired through training and refined through practice, and that is accessible to empirical analysis.

1. Three Paradigms Of Teaching Research

An inspection of the recent history of research on teaching and learning will make it easier to understand the origins of the teacher expertise approach. Over the last 50 years, three paradigms of teacher research can be distinguished (Bromme 1997b).

1.1 The Teacher Traits Paradigm

Empirical teaching research in the 1950s and 1960s focused on the search for positive teacher traits. The interest was in finding personal characteristics that would explain differences in the type of educational impact (not necessarily in learning gains) and could be measured with psychometric instruments. However, this paradigm had two main weaknesses: first, the personality traits proved to be either trivial (cruel teachers have an unfavorable impact) or very complex; second, it was unable to explain how these characteristics impact on different classroom situations, different subjects, and different school grades.

1.2 The Process–Product Paradigm Of Searching For Effective Teacher Skills

The methodological influence of behaviorism led to the emergence of the process–product paradigm which measured the effect of narrowly defined teacher skills on student achievements in the classroom. It studied individual teacher behaviors, such as the number of questions, praise following student statements, the clarity of the teacher’s language, or requests for students to answer questions. These skills were defined as closely as possible to behavior (i.e., with a low level of inference).

When the process–product paradigm first emerged, it was assumed that the teacher exerted a direct influence on the students’ learning process. However, it became clear—roughly at the beginning of the 1970s—that the impact of a specific teacher action on student achievement depended just as much on the students’ own activities, interpretations, and interactions as on the subject, the timing of the action, and the sequence (not just the aggregated frequency) of prior events. This reveals one of the weaknesses of a research paradigm that searches for isolated teacher skills. One outcome of this weakness was a brusque rejection of the process–product paradigm; another, its programmatic remodeling. The expert paradigm is a product of this remodeling (Weinert et al. 1992).

1.3 The Expert Approach In Teacher Research

Because the art of teaching consists, above all, in selecting appropriate actions for each situation and modifying one’s activities according to the type of student, teaching content, the stage reached in the academic year, and the goal of teaching, it also becomes apparent that the teacher’s decisions and deliberations take on a particularly important role. Their direct, action-related cognitions are, in turn, embedded in more long-term considerations regarding the syllabus and in lasting goals and values. Furthermore, they call for the perception of student characteristics and classroom events and, naturally, lasting knowledge on the contents of teaching and the teaching process. These cognitions are the focus of research on teacher expertise.

The process–product paradigm broke down the person of the teacher into a bundle of subskills and was not concerned with whether these could all be realized in one person. The expert approach, in contrast, searches for the competence of the teacher in the sense of a coherent ensemble of knowledge and skills that coalesces in the individual. In line with the personality paradigm, the expert approach brings the person of the teacher back into the focus of research— no longer in terms of generally defined personality traits, but as the necessary knowledge and skills for designing teaching processes, however.

This remodeling was accompanied by a change in the metaphor guiding research and, simultaneously, in the underlying general psychological theories in studies on the teaching-learning process: The (successful) teacher is now viewed as an expert, and this expresses a programmatic reference to the questions, research methods, and perspectives of research on experts in cognitive psychology (Ericsson and Smith 1991). This field investigates the cognitive conditions underlying peak performance on complex mental tasks. One example is the empirical confirmation that the ability of good chess players to memorize rapidly complex constellations of figures and reproduce them exactly is not based on a general (topic-unspecific) higher memory capacity, but on the knowledge about chess positions acquired through many thousands of hours of practice. Further findings on experts concern their problem-solving strategies, metaknowledge, and self-monitoring strategies, as well as their categorical perception of problems.

The expert approach not only focuses on experts as peak performers like chess grand masters. When addressing other domains of expertise (e.g., medicine, physics), it is also concerned with professionals (possessing practical experience and good performance) by comparing them with novices and intermediates. A consistent pattern of findings indicates that it is particularly domain-specific declarative and procedural knowledge that permits expert performance. This does not just involve a quantitative difference (experts simply know more). It is the qualitative differences in the contents and organization of knowledge that are more decisive.

2. Who Is To Say Who Is An Expert?

Naturally, specifying how experts should be defined for research implies a normative decision. A favorite measure is student-learning gains—although, of course, any computation of this measure has to control statistically for the variety of preconditions present among students. The vast number of other factors in addition to teacher behavior influencing student achievements makes it necessary to use large samples, along with major standardizations of teaching contents, before this criterion can be applied for the selection of experts. Such conditions are not always available—often just for practical reasons. Furthermore, studies on expert knowledge are difficult to carry out with large samples, because tapping the professional knowledge of teachers often also requires intensive individual interviews and observations.

Therefore, experts are also identified with further external criteria, such as: ratings by colleagues, superiors, and students; classroom observations; completion of certain training; extent of training; and, finally, length of professional experience. The latter naturally takes it for granted that one can talk about experts only in the sense of professionals. The term no longer implies any particular quality of instructional outcome.

3. Examples Of Studies On Teacher Expertise

3.1 Differences In The Categorical Perception Of Classroom Events

Berliner (1992) and his colleagues compared the cognitive processing of photographed classroom situations, videotapes, and written information on students in experts, novices, and intermediates. They found clear differences in the categorical perception of classroom events: whereas the experts’ perspective was characterized by concepts about typical classroom events and consideration of the class as a whole, novices tended to perceive the separate individual students in the class. Experts tended to interpret what they saw, whereas novices only described the scenarios (Carter et al. 1987).

It seems that teachers perceive the lesson and structure it for themselves more holistically in the form of typical classroom episodes. This perspective also shapes their recall of past classroom events. Bromme (1987), for example, asked experienced mathematics teachers immediately after the lesson whether they could remember problems encountered by individual students and the progress they had made. At first glance, results seemed disappointing: teachers could recall hardly any problems or the learning progress in single students. Instead, their answers revealed that the categorical units of recall (and probably also of situation-specific perceptions) were not so much individual students but more the classroom episodes that provided the communal staging of the teaching content. Putnam (1987) has suggested that these proposed screenplays in teachers’ minds should be called curriculum scripts. They are part of the teacher’s professional knowledge and form a focus of empirical research within the expert paradigm.

3.2 Stable But Flexible Pursuit Of Action Goals

A further empirical finding on expert teachers addresses the flexibility of their actions. Leinhardt and Greeno (1986) have reported, for example, that their experts were characterized particularly through a situationally appropriate (stable but flexible) pursuit of an elaborated repertoire of goals. Concrete goals in the classroom were, for example, checking homework in all students, presenting a mathematical algorithm, or carrying out practice exercises. However, expert teachers pursued these concrete action goals in completely different ways depending on which difficulties arose. Moreover, compared with novices, they also pursued a larger number of different subgoals simultaneously.

The idea that the intraindividual breadth of the action repertoire is one of the conditions underlying successful work is also confirmed indirectly through similar findings on the interindividual variance in the classroom activities of expert teachers. The students’ learning processes can be supported and encouraged by teachers in a broad variety of ways. Weinert et al. (1989) have shown, for example, that expert mathematics teachers who achieve not only above-average learning gains in their students but also a reduction in the divergence in achievement in their class differ greatly in the teaching behavior they use to attain these goals.

3.3 Routines And Flexible Action

Such flexibility nonetheless also presupposes routines; in other words, many of the behaviors needed to teach the lesson are enacted without any particular conscious decisions. As in any complex activity, practiced routines facilitate action and provide the necessary preconditions for setting targets, carrying out finetuning, and simultaneously bearing other aspects in mind. Research on teacher expertise also discusses routines in another sense that has to be distinguished theoretically from the psychological process of automating complex activities. The concept of routine is also used to describe the socially established activity patterns that teachers and students pursue during the lesson. It has been confirmed empirically that it is favorable for teachers to establish a set of behavioral rules as quickly as they can after taking over a class. These then provide, so to speak, the framework for spontaneous behavior. Agreement on set behavior patterns also reduces cognitive strains and encourages the formation of routines in the former sense. Furthermore, routine expert activity is strongly domainspecific and is determined by the extent of prior experience: when experienced teachers have to face new demands (e.g., a new teaching method), they tend to behave in similar ways to novices (Rich 1993).

4. Important Variables Related To Expertise

4.1 Expertise And Experience

Basic cognitive research on expertise in narrowly defined domains (e.g., chess) has confirmed empirically that years of practice is an important predictor for the establishment and development of expert knowledge. Can a (linear) relation between job experience and teaching success also be found in teachers? Although empirical findings are inconsistent, indications are that the relationship is curvilinear (Barnes 1985). At the beginning of their professional career, teachers have to accumulate practical experience. However, as the years of teaching go by, stress factors also emerge that, in turn, impact on teacher behavior in a way that generally does not lead to further improvement but to more of a deterioration in instructional outcomes. Emotional exhaustion and its effects due to occupational stress have been summarized under the label ‘burnout.’ Because enthusiasm about the contents of teaching impacts positively on the learning gains of students, it is plausible to assume that any strains impairing such enthusiasm may increasingly mask the positive effect of cumulating experience. Moreover, burnout is a contributing factor in the relatively high proportion of teachers who quit their jobs before reaching retirement age. The resulting selection effects could also be one reason for the inability tofind any statistically significant relations between occupational success and the length of job experience.

4.2 Expertise And The Extent Of Subject-Matter Knowledge

As well as confirming the role of length of practice—as mentioned above—basic research in cognitive psychology has also revealed that the extent and quality of domain-specific knowledge are important predictors of experts’ achievements. In the case of teacher expertise, it has to be noted that, as with years of teaching, moderating factors have to be taken into account when assessing the relation between subjectmatter knowledge and the expert’s instructional outcomes.

In the 1970s, some surprising empirical studies were published that revealed no measurable connection between the extent of teachers’ subject-matter knowledge and instructional outcomes. Druva and Anderson (1983) have summarized the empirically established relationships between the extent of education in the natural sciences and both teacher and student behavior, as well as performance in class. The number of courses the teachers had taken in sciences (as a measure of their subject-matter knowledge) explained about 10 percent of the variance in student performance. Although this may seem rather small, it is actually a good predictor of student performance, because individual teacher-related variables are never able to explain more than a relatively small part of students’ learning outcomes. It seems to be self-evident that teachers must possess the subject-matter knowledge they are supposed to teach.

This, however, does not permit the conclusion of a direct linkage between the extent of subject-matter knowledge and students’ outcomes as measured by standardized tests. The relation between subjectmatter knowledge and student outcomes can be ascertained only by making qualitative differentiations in subject-matter knowledge; in other words, by analyzing more precisely what professional knowledge experienced teachers possess. On the side of teaching activity, there is a need for both a theoretical and empirical clarification of which mediating processes are to be found between the quantity and, above all, the quality of the teacher’s professional knowledge and instructional outcomes. Up to now, such mediating processes have been described mostly only in case studies (e.g., Stein et al. 1990).

5. A Cartography Of Teacher Knowledge

A comprehensive description of the professional knowledge of teachers requires some kind of cartography of teacher knowledge that could define the most important areas more precisely and allow a systematic study of the impact of the proposed variables on the instructional process. It is not enough to take the catalogue of subjects that teachers have to study during their training, because this overlooks areas that develop only implicitly and through practical experience. Extending a proposal from Shulman (1986), the following categories can be proposed.

(a) Content knowledge. This covers all elements of knowledge that refer to the field to be taught or the school subject (e.g., knowledge from the domain of mathematics in mathematics teachers).

(b) Curricular knowledge. The contents of learning in, for example, mathematics instruction are not just a simplified form of mathematics but make up an autonomous canon of knowledge. The relevant instruction concepts cannot simply be derived from the state of knowledge in the scientific discipline. Instead, ideas about the goal of teaching (e.g., concepts on general education) intermingle with subject-specific meanings. A psychological analysis of professional knowledge requires discrimination between content knowledge and curricular knowledge, because the aspects and focuses essential for implementing the curriculum may well conflict with the self-images of teachers who perceive themselves primarily as competent representatives of a discipline.

(c) The philosophy of the school subject. These are the ideas regarding the usefulness of subject-matter contents and how they relate to other areas of human life and knowledge. The philosophy of the school subject is also an implicit content of teaching. During, for example, the mathematics class, students learn whether their teacher considers that the essence of mathematics is operations with a clear, previously defined language, or rather the referential relations of the symbols applied, or that mathematics is primarily a tool for describing reality. Numerous studies on sciences and mathematics have provided empirical confirmation that these general ideas impact on teaching practice (e.g., the type of teacher explanations or the integration of student utterances into the development of the subject matter (Brickhouse 1990)).

(d) General knowledge on pedagogics and didactics. This covers that area of knowledge that is important for optimizing teaching-learning situations but is relatively independent from the individual subject. It includes, for example, knowledge on how to generate and maintain the necessary patterns of interaction and working styles for the planned course of instruction, or knowledge about how to deal with difficult situations and problem cases. This field can be differentiated along the same lines as the domains of subject-matter-related knowledge to produce two subdomains. The first domain encompasses knowledge in a narrower sense, such as empirically tested facts, rules, or tricks of the trade. A second domain refers to the aspects of pedagogic philosophy. This includes, for example, normative ideas and issues such as educational goals and attitudes.

(e) Subject-specific pedagogic and psychological knowledge. The logical structure of the subject-matter content does not permit any inherent decision on the optimal design of teaching. Empirical analyses of teaching have revealed broad variations in the didactic approach of different but equally successful teachers, even when they are teaching exactly the same curriculum (Leinhardt and Smith 1985). This shows how highly individualized the knowledge of professional teachers can be. It is something that emerges during the course of their careers through an increasing integration of general pedagogic, didactic, and psychological knowledge and specific subjective teaching experiences.

Systematic (empirical) research on the internal structure of teacher knowledge is only just beginning. Any study of the professional knowledge and actions of teachers also has to consider the possibility that research participants accumulate their own experiential knowledge that may well differ from the available theoretical concepts learned during their professional training. If this possibility is not taken into account, the real wisdom gained through practice may be underestimated.

6. The Psychological Structure Of Professional Knowledge

Whereas the cartography described above deals with the semantic content—in other words, the different domains of teacher knowledge—it is also necessary to distinguish the psychological structure of knowledge, i.e., the quality of mental representation. This requires further conceptual differentiations. One widespread but very imprecise differentiation is that between declarative knowledge (e.g., on facts and relationships) and procedural knowledge (i.e., the know-how for putting actions into effect). However, empirical analyses of teacher expertise require more precise theoretical differentiations of knowledge types like those proposed by, for example, de Jong and Ferguson-Hessler (1996). The authors discriminate between, for example, situational knowledge (referring to typical episodes and contexts), conceptual knowledge (about facts and principles within one domain), procedural knowledge (about actions), and strategic knowledge (a metacognitive component). However, the knowledge domains described above do not appear within one knowledge type alone. For example, curricular knowledge includes not only conceptual knowledge, as is immediately apparent, but also episodes containing typical task structures for the lesson. Likewise, the philosophy of the school subject should not be classified to strategic knowledge alone, but also contains elements of conceptual knowledge.

A differentiated discrimination of content domains and knowledge types is important, because it can explain why the formation and development of expertise requires a variety of different types of learning.

7. Teacher Training: The Development Of Expertise

The structural ways in which teachers are trained vary greatly from country to country as well as according to the type of school within each individual country. Nonetheless, an inspection of the dimensions of this variation reveals that the organization of teacher training is always based on a—frequently only implicit—different weighting of knowledge domains and knowledge types. In other words, each specific organizational structure of teacher training also reflects different ideas about what makes up the expertise of teachers and how it comes about.

The first organizational dimension deals with the relation between curriculum-related and educational-psychological training. In many countries, training for teachers in secondary education tends to focus on subject-matter and curricular aspects, whereas elementary school teachers receive more instruction in educational psychology and didactics.

A further dimension is the proportion of practical elements in training. There are major differences regarding how far teacher students participate in actual lessons during their training. Likewise, variations are to be found in the relation between teachertraining institutions and the universities. Teachers do not all receive university training for all types of school in all countries. In some cases, the entire course is completed outside the university system in independent academies. In other cases, some phases of training take place at universities; others, in special teachertraining institutions. These practices are associated with different ideas about the best way to impart situation-and context-related expert knowledge.

A further dimension involves the specialization of courses available for teachers. In some systems, the decision to aim for a teaching qualification is made before entering tertiary education. In other countries, teacher students are recruited among persons who have already completed part of their university education, bringing different degrees of polyvalence into training. This, once again, harbors the issue of the domain specificity of the knowledge that teachers need to acquire in order to fulfill their professional tasks.

All these differences reflect critical conditions in the development of expertise, and they also weight different components of expertise in specific ways. For example, an intensive, academically oriented training broken down into subject-matter fields and oriented toward the corresponding scientific disciplines may well facilitate the development of subject-matterrelated knowledge. However, the above-mentioned cartography of knowledge also shows the need to distinguish between subject-matter domains (e.g., mathematics, history) and the canon of knowledge on the subjects taught in schools. This reveals that there is also a need for special training elements that address cognitive processing of this difference.

However, at the present time, there is no general, empirically and psychologically founded model of the development of individual expertise from which a normative model of teacher training could be derived. Indeed, the wide breadth of potentially effective teacher behaviors would indicate that such an unequivocal model is probably impossible. Nonetheless, a few general findings provide at least indirect orientations regarding questions on the design of ways to train teachers. Some examples are: (a) It is clear that the development of expertise takes a domain-specific path. Therefore, training should be oriented toward the particular field of work at the earliest possible stage. (b) Expertise covers different types of knowledge, and its development requires time: time for an active analysis of the theoretical foundations of the profession (e.g., the subject-matter-related knowledge) and enough time to gather practical experience. (c) Because the mere length of a career does not lead to the development of expertise, metacognitive foundations for processing personal events are also required, so that merely passing thorough one’s career actually turns into an experience leading to improved performance. (d) The research on teacher expertise reported above has shown that situation-related, experience-based knowledge (e.g., on appropriate teaching-learning arrangements structured as academic tasks for students) is an important part of expert knowledge. It can also be confirmed that the development of these components of expertise needs to be supported by the teacher students’ personal confrontation with real-life situations. Nevertheless, the hidden curriculum of field experiments is not enough by itself to provide an adequate preparation for high performance as a teacher (Putnam and Borko 2000). Immersion in practical experience can also lead, for example, to a reactivation of personal experiences as a student that may tend to trigger rather negative instructional behaviors. Hence, the development of teacher expertise also requires components of teacher education that make it possible for teacher students to distance themselves from and reflect on the prior experience they bring with them from their own school days. This concerns categorical and metacognitive knowledge that has to be conveyed in an academic way and in a form that also promotes a thoughtful detachment from the primary experience.


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