When seen in the driver’s seat, it is barely possible to distinguish between an advanced driver and a novice. Insofar as it is possible at all, it will mostly not be down to the actual operations that they perform (which are largely the same for any driver) so much as their body language and general ease with the task in hand.
Even when being driven by those two people, much of what makes one more accomplished than the other may only rarely be noticeable, for it resides in the domain of cognition. It is perhaps only in extreme situations that the expertise of the advanced driver may become visible, through the speed of their reflexes, and the strategies they can deploy. In many cases, however, the fact that experienced drivers are known to focus much further away from their own vehicle may simply mean that their expertise rests in the ability to avoid difficult situations in the first place.
It is also true that advanced motorists are taught to break some of the rules hard-wired into novices; for example, there are skills that involve using the whole road to corner safely and comfortably – where appropriate – that would leave a novice quaking. But that does not make it poor practice: it is simply that the master has better appraisal of complex situations and a wider range of appropriate responses to hand.
It is not so different in the classroom. Not many attributes will give away the level of experience of an individual teacher; perhaps age may be an indicator, but even that is not reliable since the profession has mature entrants. The basics of classroom craft are little different no matter what the level of experience.
What makes the difference is what the master-teacher knows, how this enables them to interpret what they are encountering – and how they then react. We might call this Experience. And once again, expert reaction may on occasions involve judicious breaking of the rules of supposed ‘good practice’.
There seems to be something of a backlash against the notion that skilled teaching is largely an intuitive matter, that experience is indeed important. The proponents of evidence-based practice argue that intuition, let alone ‘common sense’ is too dependent on the limited perception of the individual, and that it often misinforms or causes complacency. What is needed, they say, is considered practice based on the results of aggregated evidence.
I consider this to be a false dichotomy. It is not that the arguments for evidence are wrong, so much as naive – and impracticable. A significant proportion of a teacher’s time is spent reactively – adapting according to whatever circumstances arise in their class. Some can be anticipated, but many cannot. There is simply not time for rumination on what the evidence would say before a response is necessary.
The point about expertise being unconscious still holds. Having watched expert teachers amongst my colleagues for several decades, it seems evident to me that they operate at an intuitive level: the teacher is the person, and there is no need for them actively to ponder their response: they just drop automatically into ‘teacher mode’.
The trick of mastery is to reconcile these two elements: leaving a novice to work entirely on intuition may indeed lead to poor outcomes, since even if they have excellent technical skills, they probably lack the insight with which to ‘read’ a situation and reach instinctively for a good solution. A Master, on the other hand, will have precisely that back-catalogue of experience to draw upon (of which they may be only dimly conscious), which will allow them to respond in an effective (but not always predictable) way to a given situation. Embedding good practice in intuition is the answer, though what works on the ground may still not always be what aggregate research suggests; the circumstances of teaching are too situation-specific for that.
It is precisely this catalogue of prior experience that is a distinguishing characteristic of a Master, for it allows them to contextualise what they are encountering in a far deeper and more nuanced way than someone who lacks it. (There have been cases of clinicians correctly diagnosing people in restaurants just by noting their demeanour and subconsciously matching it against prior cases; try legislating for that…).
This is why it is both safe and advisable to allow experienced teachers latitude in their personal practice.
The problem is that this means that school managers have to relinquish control over what happens in their classrooms. The path to achieving mastery also makes it almost impossible to specify or prepare for. The course-leader of a significant teacher training establishment recently conceded to me that far too little is provided to help teachers move towards such excellence. Nobody seems to know how to do it. This is in part because that process does not ‘fit’ neatly with institutional practices; indeed it largely has to be done for oneself – and the traditional way has simply been by serving time. In the meantime, school-based professional development has too often become little more than a means of reinforcing institutional policy agendas.
I did significant work in this area to develop my own practice, and in recent years I offered a series of successful and popular CPD sessions to my colleagues. The intention was not to refine classroom craft (which was often already good) but to enhance the perspectives and contexts which people use to interpret what they encounter.
I regret that my personal misfortune brought this programme to a premature end, so I have been developing an online course using those materials and many more. I will be launching this in the coming weeks as an affordable resource for those who want to take the initiative of moving their own practice forward, and who are not afraid to break with convention in order to do so.
Watch this space!