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