Mastery in Teaching

Staff development network

Dr Mark Dowley March 4th, 2024 · 2min read

The evidence

There is an unfortunate amount of research suggesting that, after a point in time, professionals don’t improve.

For example, multiple studies have shown that teachers gradually reach their plateau after 3-5 years (Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor, 2006) and there is little evidence that improvement continues after 3 years (Rivkin, Hanushek, and Kain, 2005).

This isn’t just a problem with teachers. Researchers at Harvard Medical School published a review of the quality of doctors’ care over time. In every one of the 50+ studies, doctors’ performance grew worse over time or at best, stayed the same (Choudhry, N. K., Fletcher, R. H., & Soumerai, S. B., 2005).

In many facets of life, we learn enough to get by. We reach ‘good enough’ and seldom push beyond this to reach mastery. This may be true for many aspects of our life, exercise, demonstrating patience, cooking, listening, home improvement skills or in our professional life.

In some activities, it is easier to measure expertise than others. For example in chess, the 100m sprint and ballet, it’s relatively easy to tell who are the top performers by who wins the world championship or is the most in demand. These skills have been learned for decades and there are clearly structured training techniques to improve in these fields.

In education, we lack clearly defined criteria for superior performance (though we are getting closer) and beyond that, no clearly defined training activities to develop the required skills. Which raises the question: How do we improve teacher performance?

Expert in human performance and professor at Florida State University K. Anders-Ericsson gives an example of how to do it in our organisations. The first thing is to find expert performers, then look for ways to measure that performance and finally identify what they do differently. In the classroom, this can mean using some metrics from Jim Knight that include:

  • Percentage of students engaged in the class (eg. how many students are doing what they are supposed to be doing)
  • Number of disruptions (calling out, interrupting teacher etc.) in a 10min period
  • Percentage success rate of learning (measured by checks for understanding, exit cards or feedback tickets)
  • Time from when the lesson begins to when students are working (maximising learning time)

Then look for what the best do differently. For example, the best teachers often use routines, seating plans or have a variety of behaviour management strategies they apply (such as proximity, non-verbals, directed choice). It may also be that they break down difficult concepts into manageable chunks and check for understanding at each point.
These all form part of a process from Ericsson & Poole (2016) about developing expertise, it includes:

  • Identify key skills that impact performance
  • Develop training methods to improve those skills
  • Focus on specific goals – not vague overall performance
  • Work towards a series of small changes that will gradually improve performance over time.

View the book here

Let’s imagine a teacher and coach are working together and aiming to increase engagement after the transition from instructional phase to the independent work phase of class. Developing this practice could mean watching a video of a classroom and pausing it at the point of transition and asking questions that bring the thought processes of the teacher to the surface.

For example:

  • What might be some actions you will take next?
  • What are you paying attention to?
  • How are you deciding what to do?
  • What would you like your students to be doing differently?

Finally, the most important part of developing expertise or the hallmark of an expert is that even once they become one of the best in their field, they keep trying to get better.


Happy coaching,


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