Approaches to Professional Learning #4: Adaptive Expertise and Professional Conversations

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Teachers need all kinds of expertise to carry out their work.  Some of it is “routine” – developing effective responses to known challenges in a stable context.  Teachers do indeed need this kind of expertise, being able to implement instructional and classroom management strategies without needing to think about it too much.  But we all know that “known” and “stable” is not generally a good description of the classroom environment!  In order to respond to the changing and complex nature of classrooms, education, knowledge and students, something beyond routine expertise is needed.  The literature, championed by Helen Timperley (see references below), has called this something “adaptive expertise”.

Helping teachers develop such adaptive expertise requires a similar character trait to be exercised by school leaders and leaders of professional development such as instructional coaches.  They lead with adaptive expertise for the purpose of developing it in their teachers.

How to Build and Maintain Professional Relationships

The central component of this approach is professional conversations. These are informal and formal conversations between teachers, and/or between teachers and leaders, that focus on teaching practice and improving student learning.  Leaders of professional learning need to develop dispositions, understanding and skills in order to facilitate such conversations.

What I like about this approach:

  • It acknowledges the complex nature of education and provides a strategy for engaging with this reality rather than fearing it.
  • It fosters both individual and collaborative professionalism.  This is empowering for teachers.

Some challenges I see with this approach:

  • It requires a high level of facilitation skill from leaders, which may take considerable time and effort for them to develop.
  • Creating space for professional conversations to take place could be difficult.  A restructuring of schedules might be required to allow time for these conversations to develop.
  • Cultural norms of isolation and top-down power structures are entrenched in many schools. These would need to be replaced with more interdependent norms.

To explore this approach more…

A literature review by Helen Timperley (University of Auckland). It is long, but the first few pages contain a good summary if you don’t have time to read it all.  Or watch this short video on professional conversations, or this video on adaptive expertise.

Book: “Leading Powerful Professional Learning: Responding to Complexity with Adaptive Expertise” (Le Fevre et.al., 2020)

Book: “Talk About Teaching! Leading Professional Conversations” by Charlotte Danielson

Networking with other Christian schools.
Approaches to Professional Learning #3: Instructional Coaching
Approaches to Professional Learning #5: Action Research
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