Best in class: do we even know what expert teaching is?

Teacher training is sometimes criticised as being too reliant on weak evidence bases, or leaning on research that is decades out of date or ideologically driven. Peps McCrea of the Institute for Teaching describes the new approach they have taken to designing their Masters in Expert Teaching programme as a response to these concerns.

We started designing the master’s course about 18 months ago, and one of the first questions we needed to answer was: what even is expert teaching? When we went looking, there were few clear answers.

Fortunately, we found a few pieces to the puzzle, which we’ve been working to fit together. We recognise that we’ve still got a lot to learn, but this article is an overview of where we are in our understanding so far.

What do expert teachers do?

In any field, experts are those people who can tackle the most persistent problems of their profession in reliably effective ways. In teaching, our most persistent problem is helping pupils learn, and so expert teachers are people who consistently help pupils make progress.

This impact definition is compelling, particularly as it focuses on the very thing we want to improve. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to measure.1 The relationship between teaching and learning is noisy and ephemeral – it’s tricky to tease out which aspects of teaching influence learning and so we end up with little insight into how we might actually help teachers get better. The impact definition is insufficient for designing teacher development.

An alternative approach is to think about what expert teachers actually do that leads to this impact. The literature on this appears to coalesce around four broad categories:

1. Perception

Expert teachers see their classrooms in different ways to novices. Like the goalkeeper who focuses on an attacker’s posture to anticipate where they will kick, expert teachers are tuned in to the most critical, revealing and often subtle movements of their classrooms.

They perceive events at a deeper level, filtering out everything that doesn’t enable them to draw conclusions about pupil learning. In many ways, experts can be distinguished as much by what they don’t see as what they do.2

2. Simulation

Expert teachers are able to mentally simulate the consequences of various actions and events over a range of familiar situations. This allows them to anticipate what might happen well in advance, and so make the most effective professional judgement. This explains why their lessons often appear to just happen in fairly uneventful ways – they are constantly several steps ahead of their pupils and others in the room.3

3. Execution

Although they tend to do less than their colleagues,4 and sometimes take longer to arrive at a decision, expert teachers consistently select the most effective actions across a wide range of situations. They are also more flexible and opportunistic in their choice of actions, and carry them out with fluency and precision.5

4. Conservation

Expert teachers do much of their work on automatic pilot. This enables them to devote a large proportion of their mental capacity to monitoring the complex, chaotic environment of the classroom. It also allows them to focus their attention and energy on only the most important teaching processes, and tackle unexpected problems as they arise. As a result, expert teachers are highly sensitive to what happens during a lesson. They can monitor and recall what happens during a lesson, even if they are engaging with individuals.

Defining expertise by what teachers do certainly makes our picture of expert teaching more tangible, but it still doesn’t necessarily tell us how to help teachers get there.

For a definition of expertise that has the power to fuel teacher development, we need to look at how expert teachers think. More specifically, we need to examine their mental models – what they know, and how this knowledge is organised to guide perception, decision and action in the classroom.

What do expert teachers know?

Expert teachers have vast, complex and refined mental models for the domains of their practice. They don’t know everything, but few others will know as much as them about their subject, what their pupils know about their subject, or how to help their pupils learn their subject. Crucially, they know all this in ways that enable them to act with fluency and precision. Expert teacher knowledge falls into four broad buckets:

1. Path knowledge

Knowledge of the pathway towards mastery of a curriculum. This includes the concepts and processes that pupils need to know at different stages of their educational journeys,6 how these things might be best represented and sequenced, and the common misconceptions that pupils can develop along the way.7

2. Pupil knowledge

Knowledge of what their pupils know and don’t know, what motivates and concerns them, and how these things change over time. The development of pupil knowledge is produced (and limited) by teacher assessment knowledge – how to assess with validity and efficiency.8

3. Pedagogical knowledge

Knowledge of how learning works and how to catalyse it. This is about understanding what goes on ‘under the hood’ of the classroom, and draws on fields such as cognitive, evolutionary and behavioural science – alongside personal experience – to help teachers build a ‘mental model of the learner’.9

4. Self-regulation

Knowledge of how to analyse, evaluate and iterate their own thinking and behaviour in order to produce a greater impact, including an awareness of cognitive biases and how to mitigate them.10 Expert teacher knowledge is threaded throughout with their personal and professional values. They care deeply about their craft, their subject, and about elevating the life chances of their pupils. As a result, they take full responsibility for their actions, and are generally driven to continually improve their practice.11

If you ask an expert to teach a different subject or year group, or even give them a new group of pupils, they are no longer likely to enable consistent learning. In short, expertise is highly domain-specific.

Importantly, it’s not just what teachers know that makes them expert – it’s how that knowledge is organised. The mental models of experts are extensive, actionable and fluent. They are organised around the cues they routinely encounter in their classroom as a result of multiple interactions with their pupils.

The vast majority of this knowledge can be accessed and used rapidly, with very little effort. Its automatic nature also means that expert teachers are not always aware of, or able to fully articulate, what they are doing. It can also be hard for them to make and sustain significant changes to their knowledge and habits.

Implications for education

To summarise, a teacher needs to have extensive, well-organised knowledge in each of the above domains to perform with expertise. For example, if you ask an expert to teach a different subject12 or year group,13 or even give them a new group of pupils,14 they are no longer likely to enable consistent learning. In short, expertise is highly domain-specific. Even the PE teacher who is proficient at teaching fitness may be lacking when it comes to teaching racket sports.15

This model of expertise has various implications for schools. For example, the ‘interview lesson’ conducted by many schools during recruitment can limit just how expert a teacher can be in this situation. It also raises questions about how to make the best use of human capital in schools. Is it better for secondary teachers to specialise in phases or for primary teachers to specialise in particular subjects?

In short, teacher mental models dictate what teachers do and what teachers do dictates the impact they have. If we want to help teachers improve, we must strive to develop a greater understanding of all three of these components, how they relate to each other and the implications for how we organise our schools. Without this, our vision of expertise will be incomplete and our power to develop it will remain limited.


1. Christodoulou, D. (2017) Making good progress? The future of assessment for learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

2. Miller, K. (2011) ‘Situation awareness in teaching: what educators can learn from video-based research in other fields’ in Sherin, M., Jacobs, V. and Philipp, R. (eds) Mathematics teacher noticing: seeing through teachers’ eyes. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 51–65.

3. Berliner, D.C. (2004) ‘Describing the behavior and documenting the accomplishments of expert teachers’, Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 24 (3) pp. 200–212.

4. Schempp, P., Tan, S. and McCullick, B. (2002) ‘The practices of expert teachers’, Teaching and Learning 23 (1) pp. 99–106.

5. Wolff, C. E., Jarodzka, H. and Boshuizen, H. P. A. (2017) ‘See and tell: differences between expert and novice teachers’ interpretations of problematic classroom management events’, Teaching and Teacher Education 66, pp. 295–308.

6. Westerman, D. A. (1991) ‘Expert and novice teacher decision making’, Journal of Teacher Education 42 (4) pp. 292–305.

7. Sadler, P. M. (2016) ‘Understanding misconceptions: teaching and learning in middle school physical science’, American Educator 40 (1) pp. 26–32.

8. Wiliam, D. (2016) Leadership for teacher learning: creating a culture where all teachers improve so that all pupils succeed. West Palm Beach, FL: Learning Sciences International.

9. Willingham, D. (2017) ‘A mental model of the learner: teaching the basic science of educational psychology to future teachers’, Mind, Brain, and Education 11 (4) pp. 166–175.

10. Ericsson, K. A. (2015) ‘Acquisition and maintenance of medical expertise’, Academic Medicine 90 (11) pp. 1471–1486.

11. Ibid. 4.

12. Sternberg, R. J. and Horvath, J.A. (1995) ‘A prototype view of expert teaching’, Educational Researcher 24 (6) pp. 9–17.

13. Kini, T. and Podolsky, A. (2016) Does teaching experience increase teacher effectiveness? A review of the research. Learning Policy Institute. Available at:

14. Ibid. 3.

15. Ibid. 3.