Several years ago, my friend and colleague Dr. Kieran O’Mahony introduced me to a concept that has shifted my thinking about how we support teachers and students. It’s also an interesting example of how a slight change in language can create a new way of looking at things.
Kieran referred to the work of researchers Giyoo Hatano and Kayoko Inagaki (and later included in John Bransford’s How People Learn) on how we look at expertise. Traditionally, this has been a term that simply described an individual’s skills and knowledge in a particular area. Hatano and Inagaki described two separate classes of expertise, however – routine expertise and adaptive expertise. They are very different.
Routine expertise is the mastery of a fixed skill, where you essentially do the same thing, but with increased accuracy and efficiency. Think of playing the guitar, bricklaying, ski jumping, or any of thousands of jobs and avocations. Adaptive expertise, on the other hand, is the ability to take on a new challenge or task that you’ve never seen before. It still requires skills, knowledge, and experience, but also the ability to learn new skills, find new knowledge, and create new solutions in the face of new problems. Being able to be innovate is a basic skill needed for adaptive expertise.
I think this model helps to explain why so many efforts to improve education fall flat. Many professional development programs seem to operate on the assumption that teaching is a routine expertise, and that simply by practicing and repeating those skills (hopefully under effective guidance), teachers will get better at what they do and student success will increase.
The problem is that teaching is an adaptive expertise. The conditions in classrooms are constantly changing, whether it’s new curriculum, new standards, or new administrative priorities. Every group of students is different, and often individual students appear in our classrooms with experiences or needs we’ve ever seen before. Good teachers don’t simply do the same thing over and over, but instead know how to adapt every day to meet the ever-changing needs of their students and demands of their profession.
It’s not strictly either/or, of course. Some aspects of running a well-organized classroom are indeed routine, such as (obviously) developing good classroom routines. I was definitely better at classroom organization after a year of practice and guidance from Mary, my wonderful facilitating teacher years ago. But teachers also need to be adaptable, and to make whatever modifications are needed to meet their students where they are on any given day.
This concept has become the thread that ties together many of the initiatives I find so compelling – neuroscience in learning, personalized learning, culturally responsive learning, Maker education, design thinking, and STEM/STEAM. Innovating, monitoring, revising, and adjusting are integral to all of these models, with a focus on empowering both teachers and students to take ownership of their learning. It also makes a powerful lens for examining coaching and professional development. The support a teacher needs to develop routine expertise is very different than what they need to develop adaptive expertise.
Perhaps most importantly of all, we want students to have the opportunity to develop these skills. In order for that to happen, teachers need to be able to practice them. I work the phrase “You cannot provide what you do not have” into just about every workshop or presentation. (For you Latin buffs, the original Roman quote is Nemo dat non quod habet.) Whatever kind of experience we want students to have needs to mirror what teachers do. It won’t work to have students spend every day watching adults that aren’t empowered to be flexible and innovative professionals.
Wikipedia has a great overview of this topic at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adaptive_expertise
You can see what Kieran is up to with neural education at http://neuraleducation.com/