What makes an expert? The research behind effective professional development

|5 min read

Editor’s Note:

This is an updated version of a blog post originally published on July 1st, 2019

Does putting in the hours automatically lead to better teaching? Not always. Find out what you can do to grow your expertise and prevent arrested professional development.

The idea of becoming an expert in your field can be a big motivator. We like to think that we get better at the things we do every time we do them. That as we continue to practice, we become more expert at it.

It’s tempting to believe this because it makes intuitive sense. If you run more, you’ll get better at running. If you teach more, you’ll get better at teaching. It’s comforting to assume that you’re on the right path and by doing what you’re doing, you’ll get to where you want to be.

But this isn’t the whole story. Unless you’re a beginner, repeating the same tasks (especially ones you’re already good at) won’t lead to improvement. At some point, your progress will stall and you’ll plateau before you’ve made it to where you want to be.

Becoming a reflective practitioner

Donald Schön, a philosopher of adult education, argued that developing expertise is a process. No one can jump from novice to expert without gaining the necessary experience.

He warned that accumulated experience, while necessary, won’t make you an expert. It’s important to reflect on what you’re doing while you’re doing it, but it’s also important to take time afterward for a debrief.

Experience without reflection can trap you in a cycle of repeating the same mistakes. The next time you’re doing something, try to take the time to think about what worked and what didn’t. Then make adjustments the next time a similar situation comes up.

Practicing in the real-world forces you to confront new and complex situations every day. Instead of keeping your head down and pushing through, Schön’s insight is that growth only happens when we learn from the challenges we face.

10,000 hours well spent?

Another researcher who agrees that not all practice is created equal is K. Anders Ericsson.

Ironically, his work was the basis of Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that doing something for 10,000 hours is enough to develop expertise in it. In some ways, this is the opposite of what Ericsson is saying.

After reaching a certain level of expertise, practicing what you know causes you to stall. Relying on familiar experience without challenging yourself may even cause your skills to deteriorate.

Instead, Ericsson recommends Deliberate Practice to help you grow and maintain your expertise. Deliberate Practice is practice that pushes you beyond your comfort zone by keeping you challenged and engaged.

Ericsson’s research suggests repeating that same task causes you to complete them automatically. Deliberate Practice counters the brain’s tendency to automatise tasks, challenging you to think about what you’re doing.

How to grow expertise

Both Schön and Ericsson agree that finding a coach or mentor and engaging in ongoing training are useful strategies.

Considering the role mentors play in helping us to challenge ourselves, Schön (1987) wrote that: “Coaches will emphasize indeterminate zones of practice and reflective conversations with the materials of a situation.”

When discussing the causes of exceptional performance in some physicians, Anders found that: “Some of these professionals’ performance can be linked to special training and practice motivated by increased standards, such as certification in specialities.”

Both are emphatic that experts are made, not born, and the guidance of an expert mentor is part of what makes an expert teacher, doctor, athlete, and so on.

Most people struggle to devise a plan that provides new challenges and addresses their weaknesses. Seeking out the guidance of others can give your professional development a boost.

Lev Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development, the idea that a coach can help you push past the limits of what you can do alone, is a useful model for this. When you work with an expert whose abilities are beyond your own, you get to see how they approach problems. Engaging with people like this will force you to grow up to their level.

What makes an expert teacher?

So, what’s the secret to avoiding stalled development? It’s practice, but practice that is deliberate, directed, challenging, and followed by reflection. This idea is intuitive in physical activity. If you want to improve, pushing yourself is a better strategy than sticking to what’s comfortable. This is true of cognitive activities as well.

No matter how good you are or how long you’ve been teaching, what makes an expert teacher is finding new ways to challenge yourself. You can set these challenges for yourself, but the most effective way to improve your expertise is through education, coaching, and working with talented peers.

Anders Ericsson, K. (2008). Deliberate practice and acquisition of expert performance: a general overview. Academic emergency medicine, 15(11), 988-994.

Ericsson, K. A., Prietula, M. J., & Cokely, E. T. (2007). The making of an expert. Harvard business review, 85(7/8), 114.

Schön, D. A. (1987). Jossey-Bass higher education series. Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Francisco, CA, US: Jossey-Bass.