Why do we see teacher expertise as needing knowledge, skill and judgement (even though most people seem to focus on just one of these)?


In their chapter in the second edition of the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, Stigler and Miller claim that “most teacher education and professional development programs for teachers have focused on making teachers more knowledgeable; few actually give teachers opportunity to practice the skills of teaching” (2018, p. 441). Recently, with the growth of interest in coaching and teaching techniques, some approaches to teachers’ development have moved in the opposite direction to focus on classroom skills more explicitly. But these often then seem to place less emphasis on teachers’ theoretical knowledge—as if we can’t have both. And both types generally say little about the importance of teachers’ judgement and intuition.

The need for judgement

In some approaches to education improvement, judgement is ruled out entirely. Interventions require “fidelity” and are designed to prevent teachers from deviating from the script, driven by the fear of the “lethal mutations” that often arise when we allow individual teachers and school leaders to make their own choices. Of course, this fear is real and important; given a choice, many teachers and school leaders do indeed make bad choices. Intuition is often wrong, and we are right to be sceptical of where it leads us (Kahneman, 2012). So, a plausible approach is to prescribe ever more tightly, specifying and policing the kinds of compliance required to get faithful implementation of an “evidence-based” programme. Some school leaders also follow this route, mandating “non-negotiables” that all teachers must comply with.

Unfortunately, such approaches to faithful programme implementation have been found to have small effects at best (Lortie-Forgues & Inglis, 2019). Aside from their impoverished view of the complexity of teaching and undermining of teachers’ autonomy—with consequent negative effects on motivation and joy in work—attempts to improve practice by tightening compliance are, on average, simply not very effective.

(It should be noted that there may be some groups of teachers or contexts for which these prescriptive approaches are more effective. In particular, the expertise reversal effect [Kalyuga et al., 2003], whereby novices generally need more structure than experts, may be relevant here.)

In the Great Teaching Toolkit (GTT), we see teachers’ judgement and intuition as crucial. So much of the complexity of classroom interaction depends on subtle choices teachers make, mostly below the level of conscious awareness. No one can observe classroom practice without being struck by the importance and intricacy of context; the very same practice can be right in one situation and wrong in another. It follows that the way teachers adapt techniques to their context is a feature, not a bug. Adaptation is the lifeblood of effective teaching (Hatano & Inagaki,1986). Intuition becomes something we have to work with, to develop and celebrate, not to squash.

And, it turns out, this is a feature of most other kinds of expertise too (Ericsson, 2018). Experts see things differently: they focus on the underlying patterns and structure in a situation, not its surface features; they pay attention to what really matters; they internalise the causal mechanisms that determine outcomes and act on them directly; they predict consequences and evaluate their own impact against these sophisticated counterfactuals; in doing this, they draw on a depth of experience, recognising patterns, constantly formulating, testing and developing explanatory theory (Ericsson, 2018; Stigler and Miller, 2018). All these thought processes can be characterised as “intuition” (Hogarth, 2001).

In short, developing teachers’ judgement and intuition is crucial to learning to be more effective.

A balance between knowledge and skills

Underpinning this intuition is an integrated balance of theoretical knowledge and practical skills.

In the GTT, what teachers need to know is grounded in research evidence. Specifically, the model for Great Teaching that we set out in our evidence review (Coe et al., 2020) provides the structure (see editor’s note, below). Great Teachers understand the evidence and formal theory that explain the importance of:

  1. Understanding the content they are teaching and how it is learnt;
  2. Creating a supportive environment for learning;
  3. Managing the classroom to maximise opportunity to learn;
  4. Presenting content, activities and interactions that activate their students’ thinking.

But just understanding the formal theory is not enough: teachers have to be able to apply it in practice in their context and connect their own experiences to it. This more personalised, applied theory corresponds to the notion of a “mental model” that features in most versions of “deliberate practice” (Deans for Impact, 2016; Ericsson & Pool, 2016).

Part of the justification for the importance of knowledge is the need for adaptation, outlined above. If teachers just learn a technique or skill, they may have the kind of “routine expertise” (Hatano & Inagaki, 1986) that allows them to perform this technique effectively under standard conditions. But to be able to adapt and apply it in a different situation they need “adaptive expertise”: an understanding of why, when, how and with what it should be used or modified.

The development of techniques is also a specific focus of the GTT. Sometimes people worry that focusing on techniques may be atomistic and oversimplistic, reducing the complex art of teaching into a set of decontextualised skills. Actually, we learn complex skills most effectively by breaking them down, using “decompositions of practice” (Grossman et al., 2009) to identify, isolate and practise specific elements of classroom teaching. The learning from such practising may be accelerated by using “approximations of practice”—simulations or rehearsal opportunities that are simpler and lower-stakes than the real thing, to scaffold the learning (Deans for Impact, 2016).

Both decompositions and approximations are key elements of deliberate practice (Deans for Impact, 2016). Deliberate practice also requires the development of skills to be supported by challenging and specific goals for improvement, as well as feedback to inform learning. Both goals and feedback are a core part of the GTT environment.

Although teaching skills can be developed and practised in this artificial way, those skills then need to be applied, incorporated and embedded in the classroom. Again, the GTT provides for this, scheduling practice in context to ensure skills become integrated, fluent and automatic.

Further support for this balanced view of expertise is found in the review by Sims et al. (2022) of the impact of CPD. They find that programs that instil insight, motivate goals, teach techniques and embed practice have slightly bigger effects than those that do not do all four. (There are, however, caveats to this support, as the small difference may not be clear, given the number and differences of the studies.)


If teacher expertise is the strongest determinant of student achievement, and the main function of professional development is to develop expertise, then how we think about expertise really matters. Expertise does not just grow naturally with experience, but it can be developed—given the right conditions. Expertise requires a balance of knowledge, skills, and judgement. To be effective, professional development needs to address all three.

Designing a CPD package that systematically develops the most powerful knowledge, skills and judgement for all teachers—and then helps them to embed that into everyday practice—is a challenging task. For a school to create something this complex and of high quality is pretty much impossible. Fortunately, the Great Teaching Toolkit does it all, in a way that is flexible and easy to use. Find out more here.


(Editor’s note: Sometimes people think the GTT is the Evidence Review, perhaps because it was the first part we published. But the GTT is a genuine toolkit of resources, including evidence summaries, courses, feedback instruments, structures for collaboration, and more. In other words, a comprehensive CPD package.)



Coe, R., Rauch, C. J., Kime, S., & Singleton, D. (2020). Great teaching toolkit: Evidence Review.

Deans for Impact. (2016). Practice with purpose: The emerging science of teacher expertise.

Ericsson, K. A. (2018). An introduction to the second edition of The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance: Its development, organization, and content. In K. A. Ericsson, R. R. Hoffman, A. Kozbelt, & A. M. Williams (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (pp. 3–20). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316480748.001

Ericsson, K. A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise (NV-). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Grossman, P., Compton, C., Igra, D., Ronfeldt, M., Shahan, E., & Williamson, P. W. (2009). Teaching practice: A cross-professional perspective. Teachers College Record, 111(9), 2055–2100. https://doi.org/10.1177/016146810911100905

Hatano, G., & Inagaki, K. (1986). Two courses of expertise. In H. Stevenson, H. Azuma, & K. Hakuta (Eds.), Child development and education in Japan (pp. 262–272). W.H. Freeman and Co.

Hogarth, R. M. (2001). Educating intuition. Chicago.

Kahneman, D. (2012). Thinking, fast and slow. Penguin Books London.

Kalyuga, S., Ayres, P., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2003). The expertise reversal effect. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 23–31. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15326985EP3801_4

Lortie-Forgues, H., & Inglis, M. (2019). Rigorous large-scale educational RCTs are often uninformative: Should we be concerned? Educational Researcher, 48(3), 158–166. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X19832850

Sims, S., Fletcher-Wood, H., O’Mara-Eves, A., Cottingham, S., Stansfield, C., Goodrich, J., Herwegen, J. Van, & Anders, J. (2022). Effective teacher professional development: New theory and a meta-analytic test (507; 22). https://doi.org/10.26300/rzet-bf74

Stigler, J. W., & Miller, K. F. (2018). Expertise and Expert Performance in Teaching. In The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (pp. 431–452). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316480748.024

  • Wendy Winnard (NPQLTD)

    Thanks so much for this. I’m delivering a session on this element. One would assume it would be directed to ECTs but SLT need to recognise its importance, as do seasoned teachers. Especially important to identify those lethal mutations, adapt and chunk deliberate practice whilst developing adaptations to deliver subject knowledge.

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