(4) Key differences between beginning teachers and those with a high level of expertise

Here is the final extract from How do Expert Primary Classteachers really Work? A Critical Guide for Teachers, Headteachers and Teacher Educators by Tony Eaude.

One key insight of the Cambridge Primary Review (Alexander 2010, pp 416–18) is that expert teachers seem to act and think in subtly different ways from novices, rather than just doing the same things better, or quicker, or more economically. To explore this, let us look at the box below which summarises the five stages identified on pages 3 and 4 and the types of strategy, approach and characteristic involved.


Developing expertise entails moving from a dependence on external rules and guidelines to a reliance on tacit knowledge, accumulating case knowledge to decide on what matters most. In terms of approach, this involves an increasing level of flexibility and fluidity, based on prediction of likely responses and intuition, but with the ability to be more analytic when necessary. Most intriguingly, it calls for moving from acting deliberately and consciously towards relying more on intuition, except when encountering what is beyond one’s immediate experience.

Teachers with a high level of expertise make complicated situations easier for themselves and for learners by the use of predictable rules and routines. But they do not restrict children’s learning by oversimplifying tasks and experiences, recognising the complexity

and variety of different children’s learning processes. They enable and encourage different routes, both conscious and unconscious, into learning. While simplifying teaching strategies makes teaching easier, and is necessary at times, it is less likely to develop deep learning for either the child or the teacher. In Schwab’s words (cited in Shulman, 2004, p 175), arguing that teaching is an art,

[e]very art has rules but knowledge of the rules does not make one an artist. Art arises as the knower of rules learns to apply them appropriately to the particular case. Application, in turn, requires acute awareness of the particularities of that case and ways in which that rule can be modified to fit the case without complete abrogation of the rule. Teachers with the least experience are likely, rightly, initially to follow relatively simple rules and only gradually to gain the self-assurance to depart from them – and know the situations when this is appropriate.

Expertise involves trust in intuition, informed by evidence from theory and experience of specific situations, as the basis of discernment and judgement rather than unthinking compliance. As Sternberg and Horvath (1995, p 12) suggest, expert teachers are proficient at ‘working the system’ to obtain needed services for their students, adding that such practical ability or ‘savvy’ is a nontrivial component of teaching effectiveness. So, they do not just comply with what they are told, but exercise autonomy based on their informed judgement. While they comply with the rules and expectations that really matter, such teachers are prepared to bend the rules when this is in the children’s interests. This is not to say that teachers should not comply with some external expectations, but that, in relation to how to teach, they should have the confidence to decide the pedagogy most appropriate to the particular context and group of children. However, such judgement has to be informed by the collective experience of others, if it is not to be a matter of personal whim.

A primary classteacher with a high level of expertise works on several fronts at any one time, with multiple goals which will vary for different individuals and groups. Inevitably, primary classteachers will teach some subject areas and some children better than others, but their expertise involves meeting a broad range of goals, over time, creating an inclusive and potentiating learning environment, based on a wide range of teacher knowledge. This cannot be adequately judged on the basis of test results or the observation of a single lesson, especially when this is as part of an inspection or monitoring process; just as the architect is not judged only by the building’s roof or the shape, but by the success of how well the whole building works in that context, for those who use it.

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