Episode 5 – Book Launch: Developing Expertise for Teaching in Higher Education

On 10th March 2022, I hosted a formal online launch of ‘Developing Expertise for Teaching in Higher Education’. A video recording, with captions, is now available to view as well the:

Podcast (MP3)

The book is available to purchase from the Routledge website. The code ESA22 will give you a 20% discount up to 30 June 2022.

Episode 4: Making time for CPD – 1: a story, not a list

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Image of interacting cog wheels

This series of blogposts explore different aspects of my model of expertise of teaching in higher education. This model has three interacting dimensions: pedagogical content knowledge, the artistry of teaching, and intentional learning & development. 

Today we’re going to have a look at intentional learning and development and, in particular, making time for this within our teaching practice.

Learning and development, or continuing professional development (CPD), are critical for the acquisition and maintenance of expertise in any field or profession. But in higher education often there are a number of barriers to engaging with CPD, not least ‘time’. People often express to me that they’re far to busy to be doing any CPD (except when they really have to, as I discuss in my blogpost “necessity is the mother of professional development”). This is an interesting reflection of the expectations of CPD within higher education. In many other professions, healthcare for example, we very much expect our doctors or healthcare workers to regularly be engaging with CPD so that they’re up-to-date with all the latest approaches. And yet we don’t seem to have this same expectation for teaching in higher education.

When I’ve read draft applications for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy or National Teaching Fellowships or any other sort of rewards and recognitions where people have to outline their continuing professional development, they often read as lists of activities: I went on a training workshop, I did a PGCert, I read some literature, I did some research. When I’m supporting people in writing these sort of applications and I ask them about the development of their teaching, that’s often what they start with: “let me check my diary, see what events I’ve been to”. This can be a really difficult way of thinking about it because, if you are reflecting back on your professional development, trying to remember what you’ve done is not that easy; and planning to fit these activities into your busy schedule in the future at best postpones them and, at worst, means they never get done.

Having CPD as a list of activities externalises it from your everyday practice, your everyday experience of your teaching.

When I interviewed nine National Teaching Fellows as part of my research I asked them how they developed their teaching. Each of them started their response from the point of view of their teaching and of their students’ learning. They told me about how their teaching had evolved and changed over time. Then they told me about what had informed that evolution of their teaching: going on training events, participating in a workshop, having a conversation with colleagues, reading some literature, sharing good practice and so on. So they were engaging in what we think of as CPD but they conceptualised it as the evidence that informed the evolution of their practice.

I was hearing a narrative about their teaching development rather than a list of CPD activities. Summaries of these narratives can be downloaded from the resource section of the expertise guide on this website.

I would suggest that a first step for making time for continuing professional development is to try to change how you conceptualise it. When you are updating a module, or a teaching session or a learning resource think about what evidence would help you improve it. These activities are part of your everyday practice, they are things that you should be doing anyway throughout the year and, particularly, at the beginning of the new academic year when you’re preparing for your next cohort of students.

Conceptualising CPD as a story, rather than a list of activities, and as something that is embedded in your everyday practice will help it to become part of the everyday rather than a separate add-on for which you have to find time.

Thanks for reading! Next time we’re going to look at Pedagogical Content Knowledge and the wobble-board of professional identity.

Episode 3: 3 Circles of Presence

Photo of Helen facilitating a workshop (many years ago!) – which circle do you think she’s in?

This series of blogposts explore different aspects of my model of expertise which includes three interacting dimensions: pedagogical content knowledge, the artistry of teaching, and intentional learning & development. Normally I write this blogpost first and then read it out for my podcast as a kind of script. This time I recorded my podcast and then transcribed it into this blog. So it will be interesting to see if there is any difference in the written word when it is transcribed from the spoken word (albeit it edited to make grammatical sense in this written context and to remove repeated or incoherent words).

This week I’m going to be exploring an aspect of artistry of teaching, and a particular aspect of performance looking at Patsy Rodenburg’s 3 circles of presence and how these might relate to teaching. If you’d like to hear from Patsy herself about the 3 circles then I recommend you watch her TED talk. In addition, this blog from Acting Coach Scotland provides a helpful synopsis. This is my interpretation of the 3 circles in the context of teaching:

So if you imagine each circle is a concentric circle around yourself and at some point it’s also going to engage with your students as part of those concentric circles. In the first circle you’re very much focused on yourself, you’re inward, your body may almost be physically collapsed or turned inward. And often we might take this approach when we’re a bit nervous, we may have our heads down reading our notes afraid to make eye contact or notice if anyone’s got their hand up in case they want to ask a difficult question. But, actually, we might also want to use it as a device to draw in our students, for example if we’re looking at a particularly interesting microscope slide or writing a particularly difficult equation and we want our students to come in with us (metaphorically or literally) and look at some close-up.

By contrast, the third circle of presence is where we’re kind of outward and beyond our audience or our students. Often we go into that circle, again perhaps when we’re a little bit nervous or we want to ensure we’re projecting our voices appropriately. But, again, we’re not really connecting with our students around us, we’re talking over the top of them. And, again, there might be situations when this is appropriate, for example when you’re out in the field and you’re looking at some geographic features in the distance. You might want to go to that third circle in order to draw your students’ attention to something that’s beyond them.

But, in general, it’s the second circle that we want to spend our time within. This is where we’re with our students, where we’re engaged with our students. If you’ve ever been at the theatre or a concert where you’ve felt that the performer is speaking to you or playing just for you despite the size of the audience, that’s second circle. It’s that engagement. It’s not necessarily an intense eye contact but it’s that acknowledgment that you’re students are there, that you’re bringing them in with you. And it also requires a body language that’s open and almost embracing. If you’re like me and you use your hands a lot when you’re talking, often I find myself making gestures that are outwards and then bringing them in, bringing the students in (metaphorically) through my hand gestures.

This second circle, as I’ve suggested in terms of theatre and music, is a fantastic way of connecting with your audience, and it’s a way of demonstrating your passion for your subject, for what you’re teaching and what you want your students to learn. And so, in that second circle, you’re fully present in the moment as well, you’re there with your students, you’re not distracted by other things such as your nervousness, your notes or something that’s beyond your students. You’re all in there together in the room or even online.

These ideas of circles of presence don’t necessarily just apply to being physically with your audience, with your students. I think they can also apply to online teaching. The way in which you’re engaging with the invisible audience, albeit through a small web cam on your computer, the way in which you’re thinking about their presence and your own presence can be reflected in your voice. If there’s a video there it can also be reflected in what they see of you in terms of your expressions.

If you’re interested in ideas on how you can improve your performance with an invisible audience, my friend and singing coach Hattie Voelcker made a really interesting video on this topic which will be relevant for teachers as much as it will be for singers and other performers.

At this point on my podcast, I then briefly illustrated the 3 circles of presence in audio format only – which clearly won’t come across in a transcription – do have a listen, I’d be interested to know if you can hear a difference between the three. In the first circle I’m in on myself, I’m probably a little bit nervous and I’m looking down and I’m reading my notes. Third circle, I’m looking out and beyond and I’m possibly pointing at something in the distance but I’m very much not making eye contact or connecting with you. Second circle, I’m really thinking about you as my audience and talking to you as if you’re in the room here with me. My body language is more relaxed, my arms are certainly moving around as I’m talking.

Thanks for reading! Next time we’re going to go back to the theme of Intentional Learning & Development and have a look at how we can make time for professional development within our other busy activities in higher education.

Episode 2: Deliberate Practice

Image of Helen playing the piano

In the last episode, I looked at the broad characteristics of expertise for teaching in higher education. I suggested a model that comprises three interacting dimensions in the form of a Venn diagram: Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK), Artistry, and Intentional Learning & Development. In this episode, I’m going to explore one approach to ‘intentional learning & development’ which is commonly featured in the expertise literature, that is ‘Deliberate Practice’. As well considering how this might look, I’ll suggest some ideas to get you started in applying this approach to your learning and development for teaching in higher education.

Ericsson (2017) suggested that, in many if not all areas of work and endeavour, most people reach an acceptable level of competence and comfort and then just stay there, with no interest in continuing to improve. This is OK if it works for you and your students but it’s unlikely to be an effective long term strategy. The subject matter may change, the student cohorts certainly will and unexpected events (such as the current Covid pandemic) may force different ways of working. But if you have already developed a mindset for evolving your teaching you will have the tools to help you rapidly adapt. And Ericsson et al (1993)’s idea of Deliberate Practice is one such tool.

Practice, in the sense of rehearsal, is clearly important for many fields and professions. You have to practise the piano, speaking in another language or injecting a needle for example.  This practice can occur in ‘safe’ situations: playing the piano without an audience, chatting with a friend or using a simulated vein. We also hear talk of academic practice, a doctor’s practice, professional practice. In this context, “a professional practitioner is one who encounters certain types of situations again and again” (Schön, 1983, p60). However, simply repeating the same thing again and again will not necessarily lead to expertise. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. Repeating the same thing again and again will mean that you get very confident at doing that thing in that particular way. Which is fine if it’s correct and continues to work. If it’s wrong or stops working, it can then be extremely difficult to unlearn and relearn a different way; you have to break down the neural pathways and rebuild them in a different configuration. So practice has to be thoughtful, considered, planned and, in that way, each situation encounter, each classroom experience becomes an opportunity for Deliberate Practice.

What is deliberate practice?

In the words of Ericsson et al in their 1993 seminal paper: “deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further” (page 368). So the practice, or the way the situation is addressed in its next encounter, is deliberately and intentionally planned, rather than just being a mindless repetition. In their description, Ericsson et al set out the three constraints which limit individuals from achieving expert performance: resource, motivation and effort. However, these constraints can be reconceptualised as the factors required to improve practice and develop expertise.


Learning and development can’t happen overnight nor in a vacuum. The development of expertise takes considerable time. Research indicates that, for many fields, a minimum of ten years practice is required to achieve world class levels of achievement. Particular physiological or cognitive characteristics (natural talent) may give some individuals an advantage, but Deliberate Practice is seen as the defining factor for developing higher levels of performance. If sufficient time is taken, expertise can be developed by all, and each day that goes by will see small improvements along the way.

As well as time, the other resources required are learning materials and access to a teacher or coach. Of course, it is possible to learn something entirely independently, but a teacher, mentor or coach will be invaluable for providing feedback and steering you in the appropriate direction. Feedback is key to Deliberate Practice; we need to know, see or hear how we are performing in order to identify where improvements are required and whether our practice is improving our performance. In music, this feedback might come from you recording yourself playing and listening back, or a friend or teacher listening and telling you what they hear, or even from an audience reaction to a formal performance. In sport, feedback comes from how you feel, comments from your coach, how well you interact with team-mates, or how you perform versus competitors. Taking on board and responding to feedback is essential to practice that is deliberate, rather than mindless repetition.

Learning materials can take many forms. They might be a text, video or audio with information and guidance; or perhaps specific tools, exercises or activities to help hone your skill; or maybe just be a quiet space to think and plan.

But even with all these tangible resources available, it may not be possible to practise and improve if the environment is not conducive. For young people, their family or close community must be supportive and willing to take them to their practice spaces or provide appropriate resources at home. For professionals, a culture of learning and development within the workplace is necessary if the majority are to be motivated to practise and improve rather than just a self-driven minority.


Given the resources that are required to engage in Deliberate Practice, you have to be highly motivated to persist throughout your career to develop and maintain expertise. As will be discussed in a later episode, this motivation can be extrinsic and/or intrinsic and is strongly influenced, positively or negatively, by the people and environment around you. As Ericsson et al (1993, page 368-369) suggest: “The lack of inherent reward or enjoyment in practice as distinct from the enjoyment of the result is consistent with the fact that individuals in a domain rarely initiate practice spontaneously.

Sustainable Effort

So it’s important to acknowledge that Deliberate Practice takes effort, be it cognitive and/or physical. In order to maintain motivation and the ability to practise, it should be limited to frequent but sustainable efforts. In many if not all fields, better progression can be achieved through small amounts of practice every day rather than long practice sessions undertaken once every few weeks or so. A habit of frequent practice is also easier to integrate into the day-to-day such that it becomes part of one’s work rather than a burdensome add-on.

What does Deliberate Practice of teaching look like in higher education?

Deliberate Practice, is about intentionally considering how you teach rather than just doing the same thing again and again. Practice, in the sense of rehearsal, is more problematic for teaching than for, say, music or sport. Whilst you can run through a talk a few times, it’s much harder to rehearse something more interactive. And, even with a talk, something unexpected will always happen that you can’t necessarily prepare thoroughly for such as a surprising question or a technological glitch. So, whilst you can prepare and plan your teaching session, you can’t practise it in the same way that e.g. a violinist in a string quartet might. Rather, you can prepare the broad structure but the performance is much more like a player in a jazz band who uses what they know to respond to the other musicians rather than exactly reproducing what they had perfected in rehearsal. After, or even during, the performance they will consider what went well and what could be improved. This then provides the focus for further practice. Exactly the same process occurs in teaching: after the session, or even during, you consider what worked well and where you might need to make small changes to help improve students’ learning and understanding. You then intentionally apply this to the planning of your next session such that “daily experiences in the classroom can become a site for deliberate practice” (Stigler & Miller, 2018, pp 447-448).

Once you have identified something in your teaching that you want to focus on improving, there are a wealth of resources available to help you. Feedback is available from many different sources: your students, peers and your own self-evaluations. Feedback can help you both identify the focus for your Deliberate Practice and inform you of whether the changes you plan are likely to be effective. If you are doing a PGCert or other course for new lecturers, it’s likely that you will be involved in peer observation – colleagues will observe and feedback on your teaching and also you may get the opportunity to observe, feedback to and learn from others. One of the most useful sources of feedback, particularly when you are thinking about your teaching and how to make small changes, is conversation with colleagues. In my research interviews, a National Teaching Fellowship-winning psychology lecturer shared their view on the importance of conversation: “I share an office with X … and we have been in the same office together for 11 years and we talk about our teaching all the time. I think you have to really, really have to have the space to reflect on it.  I think the emotional labour of teaching is massive and I think there is very, very little opportunity for people to exercise and talk about their experiences unless you happen to make that relationship.”

The importance of a teacher, mentor or coach is emphasised in research on Deliberate Practice and the development of expertise. If you are taking a formal qualification in teaching in higher education, make the most of any tutor support available not just to understand the needs of the course but to explore your own teaching and how you might improve it. Alternatively, you may have a formal mentor or buddy to support you in your new role – be proactive in going to them to chat about your teaching experiences. If you have neither of these support mechanisms provided for you, then seek out a colleague with whom you can informal conversations about teaching – they might be someone you share an office with, someone recommended by your Head of Department, or even a colleague at another institution that you know through your research or professional practice.

These professional conversations will enable you to plan and practise deliberately through taking an evidence-informed approach, rather than just basing your plans on your own personal ideas and experiences. There are also many other ways in which you gather ideas and evidence to inform your Deliberate Practice and a suggested list of these is provided in my Expertise Guide.

The others elements of Deliberate Practice, motivation and sustainable effort, will be discussed in a later episode, including tips and strategies. Newer teachers are likely to have significant extrinsic motivation in the form of probationary requirements, student evaluation targets and other formal expectations of your improving performance. Intrinsic motivation may come from a desire to feel more comfortable teaching or to do your best to facilitate your students’ learning. If you are taking a formal teaching course, you may have assignments or activities that will provide deadlines or goals to help structure your Deliberate Practice. The institutional culture and climate in which you work will also have a strong influence, depending on whether or not it is conducive to encouraging teaching and teacher development. Whether or not you have these external factors influencing your teaching development, integrating and conceptualising Deliberate Practice as part your everyday teaching work and not an add-on, will help you to manage your workload. Particularly when you are newer to teaching, small and frequent applications of Deliberate Practice can be more effective and time efficient. Though there may be times when you want or need to make much larger changes to your teaching. In this case, having already developed a Deliberate Practice approach will give you the flexibility and resources to respond to bigger challenges.

Applying Deliberate Practice to Your Teaching

Deliberate Practice is about taking small steps to develop your teaching with the intentional goal of wanting to improve. It is a process of identifying a specific focus for improvement, undertaking activities that will provide evidence to inform a change to your teaching (including gathering and responding to feedback), then applying and evaluating that change. You will also greatly benefit from support from a tutor, mentor, coach or buddy to help provide feedback and discuss your ideas. If this process sounds familiar, you may have encountered it in the similar model of experiential learning proposed by Kolb (1984). The Deliberate Practice model goes further by identifying the particular conditions that are required to enable it to happen effectively. Check out my Expertise Guide for a one page activity guide to Deliberate Practice for teaching in higher education.

Final Word

Remember that developing expertise takes time. Taking small steps will add up to greater confidence and improved teaching (and learning). Sometimes the change may be so subtle that you may not notice a difference on a day-to-day basis. One of the benefits of taking a structured approach to your development and in writing down where you want to improve, is that you can review this in a year or more’s time and see how far you have come.

As you become more experienced and you develop your confidence and skill in teaching, you will find that things you previously had to think hard about and carefully plan and prepare for now become much less effortful and much more automatic. This is all part of the process of developing expertise. The idea of Deliberate Practice is based on the journey taken by a novice as they develop mastery; a later episode, on progressive problem-solving, will look at a model of expertise development based on the comparison of experts with experienced non-experts, and how they utilise the time freed up by the automation of skills.

In later episodes we’ll also explore different ways of conceptualising intentional learning & development to help you better integrate it into your wider academic practice, including relating it to concepts of career narratives (CPD as a story), and reflective practice (CPD as research).

Thanks for reading! In the next episode I will be discussing an element of Artistry in Teaching and how Patsy Rodenburg’s 3 circles of presence might be applied to improve student engagement. Don’t forget, you can access a podcast version of this blog in my Expertise Guide.


Ericsson, K.A. (2017) Expertise and individual differences: the search for the structure and acquisition of experts’ superior performance. WIREs Cogn Sci, Vol.8

Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R. Th. & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993) The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, Vol. 100(3), pp 363-406

Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Prentice Hall, New Jersey

Schön, D. (1982) The Reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action. Routledge, London

Stigler, J.W. & Miller, K.F. (2018) Expertise and expert performance in teaching. In:Ericsson, K.A., R.R.Hoffman, Kozbelt, A. & Williams, A.M. (Eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (2nd Edition). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 

Episode 1: The foundations of expertise

Photo of Helen standing on a trig point in the Brecon Beacons

In this first, extended episode, I’m going to draw on the literature and consider how a generic model of expertise might be applied to the specific profession of teaching in higher education. My interest in the concept of expertise developed out of working with ideas around ‘ways of thinking and practising’ (McCune & Hounsell, 2005) in the disciplines (King, 2008 a & b; King, 2012; King & Cleaver, 2014. A geoscientist by background, my early career was in geoscience education and I was keen to better understand things like threshold concepts (Meyer & Land, 2003) and decoding the disciplines (Pace & Middendorf, 2004) as a way of supporting students to become geoscientists rather than just doing geoscience. This led me eventually, via the National Academies’ book ‘How People Learn’ (Bransford et al, 2000), to the literature on the nature of expertise, how expertise is much more than just content knowledge and skills, and that it’s possible to be an experienced non-expert in any field or profession.

I was drawn to the notion of expertise as a refreshing alternative to the ever-popular and yet elusive, in terms of a definition, ‘excellence’. Being a fan of etymology, I enjoy the derivations of these two words:

  • Excellence, as being outstanding, comes from the Latin excellere (ex – ‘out, beyond’; celsus – ‘lofty’)
  • Expertise, on the other hand, is all about process and comes from the Latin expertus (past participle of experiri – ‘to try’: also the etymological origin of ‘experience’ and ‘experiment’)

For me as an educational developer with a passion for supporting colleagues in higher education to develop and improve their teaching, the difficulty with ‘excellence’ is that it self-defined, exclusive (not everybody can be outstanding or above average), a point to be reached or a static road. Whereas expertise arises from deep foundations of research and literature, it is a dynamic & agile process that is potentially available to all who wish to access it.

Before I introduce the generic characteristics of expertise, I just want to explain my use of terminology. I’m very deliberately using the noun ‘expertise’ rather than ‘expert’. Expert is a common term that’s used colloquially to mean someone who is very knowledgeable in a particular subject area or highly proficient or elite at a particular skill. Often these are the people we see or hear in the media. In this usage, it can sometimes be easy to equate being an expert with being experienced. Whereas, as eluded to above, it is possible to be highly experienced and to not have the characteristics of expertise. The notion of expertise, as discussed in the extensive literature, embodies a number of other characteristics in addition to knowledge and skills.

The generic characteristics of expertise

I have categorised the generic characteristics of expertise into three key dimensions. Skovholt et al (2016) provide a really helpful synopsis of the first two in their ‘Brief History of Expertise’. Initial work around expertise identified the following commonalities across a range of field including chess, physics, football and music:

Dimension 1: Knowledge & Skills

  • High performance based on knowledge & skills developed through study & experience in a particular domain

Dimension 2: Ways of thinking & practising:

  • Pattern recognition: the perception of large meaningful patterns in the domain of expertise, which results in the ability to perform skills faster than novices
  • A problem-solving approach that is qualitatively different to that of novices, including taking more time at the beginning of a problem to understand it from various viewpoints before attempting a solution
  • Automation of skills brought about through many hours’ practice which can exhibit as an effortless grace or ‘flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)

The classic example of pattern recognition comes from Chase & Simon (1973)’s research with chess masters. When asked to recall a chessboard configuration set by the researchers, chess masters exhibited superior recall than novices. However, this was only the case if the configuration was one that could feature in a real game of chess. If it was a made-up configuration that was not possible in chess, then the masters were not significantly better at recall than the novices. So the extensive experience in the domain of expertise enabled the absorption of a vast number of patterns. Their research revealed similar findings in other domains, leading them to conclude that expert performance  / expertise in a domain requires huge amounts of knowledge and a pattern-based memory system that has been acquired through many years of experience.

The difference in approaches to problem-solving is apparent in my own experience of problems within the realm of physics when I was an undergraduate student. My personal learning strategy was to memorise the particular equations related to a topic and wheel them out for appropriate problems. This served me well for all my topic-specific, theoretical exams but failed me badly for the ‘General Physics’ exam which could be about any topic and usually based on real-life problems. As a novice, I would try to figure out what numbers I needed to plug into what equation. A more expert approach, would be to step back and consider the nature of the problem first and develop a qualitative description using any known data to get a sense of the order of magnitude of the solution, and then apply the appropriate equations.

A third element of what I’ve categorised as ‘ways of thinking and practising’, is the idea of automation of skills that develops as a result of extensive experience or practice. This might be thought of as a kind of effortless grace or flow. Many of us experience this when driving a car. I remember my early days as a novice driver being highly conscious of every move I had to make in manoeuvring my manual car: checking my mirrors, turning on the indicators, checking my mirrors, touching the brakes, putting the clutch in, changing gear etc. Now, after 32 years of driving all of these things are automatic and I can do them whilst holding a conversation or listening to the radio and watching the road.

Dimension 3: Intentional learning and development

It’s clearly recognised that many hours of practice are important for the development and maintenance of expertise. Here practice can mean rehearsal and also experience, in the sense of the repetition of a professional activity (professional practitioners encounter similar situations again and again; Schön, 1982, page 60). However, simply clocking up hours of experience and practice is not enough to develop expertise, this approach simply means the practitioner becomes good at doing that particular thing in that particular way (we all know teachers who are proud to claim to have taught in exactly the same way for many years but we wouldn’t necessarily consider them to have expertise). Expert practitioners continually engage in ‘deliberate practice’ (Ericsson et al, 1993) or ‘progressive problem solving’ (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993) to identify specific areas for improvement and to work on these drawing on feedback and other evidence to inform their practice. Bereiter & Scardamalia suggest that the automation of skills brought about through extensive experience frees up time and cognitive space to engage in continued improvement in the domain. They compare the nature of experts with experienced non-experts, and suggested that experienced non-experts tended to reduce problems to a known solution rather than exploring the problem in different ways – a bit like a fly repeatedly attempting to get through a closed window. Ericsson et al also note this plateau of competence that is reached by many performers and professionals in a range of fields and industries. Only a very few seem to continue to develop, improve and reach higher levels of performance.

A personal example of this is in learning to play musical instruments. I had piano lessons from a young age and, although I wasn’t particularly dedicated in my practice, I slowly progressed up through the grades. Now I play purely for myself and not for progression or performance. I play the pieces I know, when I get to a section I’m not so good at I bumble through it or even skip it entirely. And so I’ve reach a plateau in my playing skill. If I wanted to improve, I could engage in deliberate practice – relying on automatic skills such as being able to sight read music – and really focus on those sections I have difficulty with. But, generally, I choose not to. I’m quite happy with the level of competence I have reached and have no desire to perform at a higher level on that instrument. Playing the banjo, however, is a whole different ball game. I started learning in October 2017 with the intention of applying what I know about expertise and deliberate practice, and I am hearing and feeling that continuous improvement – though I’m not sure how popular the intense repetition of chords and phrases is with my household and neighbours! Interestingly, when I had piano lessons the nature of practice was never discussed so I didn’t really know how to do it except to keep playing things over and over. My experience with my banjo teacher and members of the international Bluegrass music community is very different, where approaches to practice are an explicit part of the learning process.

This third dimension of expertise, intentional learning & development, is summarised neatly in Perkins’ (2008) suggestion that expertise is a process of proactive competence.

The characteristics of expertise in teaching in higher education

So, how are these three dimensions manifest in the profession of teaching in higher education? I’ve based the following suggestions on my observations of highly effective teachers in HE, self-reflections of my own practice, discussions with participants at various educational development conferences and research with 9 UK National Teaching Fellows using their award as a proxy for expertise (King, 2019). I present these very briefly below and will be exploring each of them in considerably more depth through this blog series.

Dimension 1: knowledge and skills = Pedagogical Content Knowledge

I have equated the knowledge & skills required to teach in higher education with Shulman (1986)’s Pedagogical Content Knowledge. This is the interaction of knowledge and skills from both the subject area and from pedagogy (the science, art and skill of teaching), and is developed through experience, study and an understanding of good pedagogical practice. What makes higher education different from other levels of education, is that teachers may experience an ‘identity wobble board’ with their multiple roles as subject specialists, researchers, professional practitioners, administrators and teachers all interacting or perhaps bumping up against each other within this Pedagogical Content Knowledge. An expertise approach might be one that finds a way to resolve this and conceptualise one’s role as an integrated whole.

Dimension 2: ways of thinking & practising = Artistry of Teaching

This is, perhaps, the least explored aspect of teaching within a higher education context. What is going on within the teacher when they practise their craft – the problem-solving, pattern recognition, automation of skills which enable ‘flow’? I have characterised this as artistry, after Schön (1982). It’s those, often intangible characteristics, reflection-in-action, intuition, improvisation in the classroom, authenticity, rapport which you can recognise in expert teachers compared with novices or experienced non-experts. These are the human elements and often the ones most neglected when considering what support newer teachers might need. Whilst they may emerge from experience, they can also be nurtured through mentoring and professional development.

Schön describes competence as the ability to follow routines and respond to known situations, but teaching is rarely routine. As Schön says “let us search, instead, for an epistemology of practice implicit in the artistic, intuitive processes which some practitioners bring to situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value conflict.” (1982, p49) So, to continue the music analogy, teaching is not like being in a note perfect string quartet, playing in front of a quiet, respectful audience in a well-managed auditorium. It is much more like being part of a jazz band playing the tunes we know but improvising, riffing off each other and the audience in a late night bar.

Dimension 3: intentional learning & development

What does intentional learning & development look like for teaching in higher education? If we ask someone what they do for professional development, they are likely to come up with a list of activities – a PGCert, attending workshops, reading the literature – what is harder for them to articulate (and I have seen this in many applications for HEA Fellowships and excellence awards) is how these activities informed or impacted on their teaching.

In my semi-structured interviews with the 9 National Teaching Fellows, we explored how they learnt to teach and how they develop their teaching. Their descriptions fitted with the models of deliberate practice and progressive problem-solving, and it was particularly striking that they focused their answers on how their teaching evolved, rather than on the particular activities they did to learn and develop. Of course, the evolution of their teaching was informed by evidence from various activities including conversations with colleagues, workshops, pedagogic research and evaluation, the literature etc. But they talked about it as the story of their teaching journey. So what came across was that professional development was an integral part of their teaching, rather than an add-on activity.

So, we might think about intentional learning and development for teaching in higher education as an intentional, self-determined and purposeful process of evolving one’s teaching, which is informed by evidence gathered from a range of activities (King, 2019). And this intentional learning and development is really important. Particularly, as noted before, because expertise is domain specific. How many of us have felt confident and expert as teachers with one cohort of students, only to find things work differently with another; or perhaps we’re asked to teach a topic outside of our specialism; or suddenly we have to teach online after years of being in a real classroom. We become and feel like a novice again. However, we are not starting from scratch. If we are used to this evidence-informed approach to evolving our teaching, we have the tools to develop our expertise in a different direction.

Thanks for reading! In the next episode I will be discussing Deliberate Practice, how this relates to teaching in higher education and how you might apply it to improve your teaching.


Bereiter, C. & M. Scardamalia (1993) Surpassing ourselves: an enquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Open Court, Illinois

Bransford, J.D., A.L.Brown & R.R.Cocking (Eds.2000) How People Learn: brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press, Washington D.C.

Chase, W. G., & Simon, H. A. (1973). The mind’s eye in chess. In W. G. Chase (Ed.), Visual information processing (pp. 215–218). New York: Academic Press

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row

Ericsson, K.A., R. Th. Krampe & C.Tesch-Romer (1993) The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, Vol. 100(3), pp 363-406

King, H. (2019) Continuing Professional Development: what do award-winning lecturers do? Educational Developments, 20.2, pp 1-4

King, H. (2012) Disciplinary Thinking: Exploring Learning and Practising in the Academic Disciplines. International Consortium for Education Development Conference, Bangkok

King, H. (2008a) What on Earth? …Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge in the Geosciences. 2nd International Threshold Concepts Conference, Kingston, Ontario

King, H. (2008b) Researching Threshold Concepts: Ways of Thinking and Practising in Geoscience. Geological Society of America Annual Meeting, Houston, Texas.

King, H. & E.Cleaver (2014) Expert Ways of Thinking & Practising in the Disciplines: a Fresh Starting Point for Curriculum Design (workshop). International Consortium for Education Development Conference, Stockholm

McCune, V. & Hounsell, D. (2005) The development of students’ ways of thinking and practising in three final-year biology courses. Higher Education, Vol. 49(3) pp 255–28

Meyer, J.H.F. & R. Land (2003) ‘Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge 1 – Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising’. In Rust, C. (Ed) Improving Student Learning – Ten Years On. OCSLD, Oxford

Pace, D. & Middendorf, J. (Eds., 2004) Decoding the Disciplines: helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 98

Schön, D. (1982) The Reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action. Routledge, London

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, Vo.15 No.2 pp 4-31 Skovholt, T.M., M. Hanson, L. Jennings & T. Grier (2016) A Brief History of Expertise. In: Skovholt, T.M. & L. Jennings (Eds.) Master Therapists: Exploring Expertise in Therapy and Counseling, 10th Anniversary Edition. Oxford University Press

2020 Expertise Symposium

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Word cloud of feedback from participants at the closing session of the Expertise Symposium

The first event hosted by the HEPPP research network was the inaugural ‘Exploring Expertise in Teaching in Higher Education’ symposium. This event was predicated on the pioneering research of HEPPP convenor, Helen King, and featured presentations from over 25 contributors from the UK, Australia, Canada, China, the Netherlands and USA. Originally intended to be a 30-participant, local event on campus at UWE Bristol, the opportunity for live and asynchronous activity online opened up by the Covid-19 pandemic meant that over 500 participants registered to attend from all over the world!

The event was hugely successful and launched an exciting “new discourse” (Jackie Potter) for teaching in higher education. See Twitter #expertiseLTHE

The presentations were categorised into four topics: Perspectives on Expertise, Pedagogical Content Knowledge, Learning & Development, and Artistry of Teaching. The latter three topics being the interacting dimensions of Helen’s model of the characteristics of expertise in teaching in higher education(HE) which draws from the generic characteristics explored in the extensive expertise literature.

Videos of all the presentations are available as a playlist on UWE’s Academic Practice Directorate YouTube channel.

A number of common themes arose from the 15 live presentations, 13 asynchronous videos and participant chat (see summary video on YouTube).

  • Teaching as a community endeavour:
    The benefits of collaboration, pair-teaching, sharing perspectives and expertises, and learning from other disciplines.
  • Reflection:
    “Understanding our own experiences so we can develop our pedagogies” (Leo Africano). Reflection from multiple perspectives including scholarship.
    This links to improvisation in teaching: noticing, dialogue and dynamic reflection-in-action.
  • Expertise as Care:
    The importance of respectful relationships with our students, breaking down barriers, empathy.
    Caring about what you do as a teacher, being motivated by wanting to do your best and improve your students’ learning.
    Caring for ourselves and managing the emotional labour of teaching.
  • Teaching-Learning Interaction:
    From examples of pair-teaching and mentoring, we learn from supporting others in their teaching. We learn from our own teaching, and when we have opportunities to be learners we learn about teaching from that perspective.
    Dsygu = the Welsh word for teaching and learning.
  • Performance:
    Performance is not acting or pretending to be someone else. It’s about being yourself with an audience. Acknowledging and supporting the development of one’s teaching authenticity / persona.
    Balancing our multiple personas / identities as professional practitioners, researchers and teachers – the “identity wobble board” (Rachel Wood). How does our identity shift as our pedagogy evolves?

This symposium was presented as an inaugural event to be followed up in 2021/22 with a second event hosted by another institution. Watch this space for more information!