Towards Expertise: Fostering a Culture of Professional Learning Embedded in the Everyday

In a 2019 SEDA blogpost, I outlined a model of expertise for teaching in higher education which arose from engagement with the extensive literature on expertise, discussions with colleagues, and SEDA-funded research with nine National Teaching Fellows. This model has been refined and further explored through an international symposium and subsequent Routledge / SEDA series book (King, 2022). To summarise: I categorised the generic characteristics of expertise into three, overlapping features and translated these into the context of teaching in higher education:

3 inter-related elements of expertise: pedagogical content knowledge, artistry of teaching, and professional learning

Two of the blogposts in this series, by Rich Bale and Erika Corradini, explored facets of the Artistry of Teaching and Pedagogical Content Knowledge respectively, Deanne Gannaway’s post considered a whole-university approach to developing expertise and, in this post, I will look at Professional Learning.

Professional learning, development or practice is essential for the development and maintenance of expertise (e.g. Ericsson). There is no shared definition for professional development in higher education but the literature commonly refers to processes and activities “that, through strengthening and extending the knowledge, skills and conceptions of academics, lead to an improvement in their teaching and consequently to an enhanced learning experience for students” (Inamorato et al, 2019, p.4). These might include attending workshops or conferences, reading relevant literature, conversations with colleagues, peer observations and so on (e.g. Ferman, 2002; King, 2004). As well enhancing student learning, engaging in professional development can also have a positive impact on career progression.  But, despite evidence for the benefits, the engagement of teachers with these activities is often variable and unsystematic. Barriers to engagement include resistance to change, lack of formal requirements or incentives, and lack or perceived lack of time (Inamorato et al, 2019; King, 2019).

The term ‘professional learning’ has been advocated as being more appropriate for the higher education context than ‘professional development’ (e.g. van Schalkwyk et al, 2015; Trowler & Knight, 1998) as models focus on the intrinsic actions and goals of practitioners themselves. This intrinsic motivation is more likely to engender expertise development (Ericsson et al, 1993) and engagement with good teaching practices (Stupnisky et al, 2018). As the expert practitioner progresses in their career their professional learning activities become more autonomous and self-determined (e.g. Schön, 1982; Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1982; Eraut, 1994), and it is this progressive problem solving (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993) or proactive competence (Perkins, 2008) that distinguishes the expert from the experienced non-expert. This is the approach to expertise development that I saw in my research with the National Teaching Fellows and that led me to suggest a way of conceptualising professional learning in higher education as a “self-determined and purposeful process of evolution of teaching and research practices, informed by evidence gathered from a range of activities” (King, 2019). It’s a definition I use in workshops with early career and experienced lecturers in helping them to consider and plan for their own development.

But, “excellence in higher education is commonly assessed through outputs, in this case measures such as student satisfaction or graduate outcomes…This effectively ignores [the] critical feature that distinguishes those with expertise from those with experience: a commitment to professional learning. If higher education institutions are to achieve their missions of excellence in education, then they must also foster and enable a culture of professional learning for teaching that is integrated into everyday practice rather than being seen as an add-on. Without this active institutional-level commitment, expertise in teaching will only ever be a subculture of the few.” (King, 2022, pg. 10)

The importance of learning and development has been promoted and supported through SEDA’s work over the last 29 years and the work of educational developers across the UK and internationally. It’s heartening to see it recognised in policy through the Office for Students in England in the recent TEF Guidance which suggests two examples of evidence for the quality of the student experience might be:

“e. Evidence about how the professional development of staff enhances academic practice.

f. Staff feedback or other evidence about how recognition and reward schemes are effective in delivering excellent teaching” (OfS, 2022, pg. 32)

Research and anecdotal evidence suggests that the lived experience of those who teach and/or support learning in many institutions does not include an embedded conception of professional learning, and that workload models do not always support this essential component of expertise development and maintenance. Will the new TEF guidance help to shift institutional cultures, at least in England? What else might change the current thinking about professional development, and what examples already exist of a successful culture of embedded professional learning in higher education? Examples on a postcard (or in the comments below)…

Helen King is Professor of Academic Practice at the University of the West of England and Co-Chair of SEDA. She holds an NTF, SFSEDA and PFHEA.
T: @drhelenking


Bereiter, C. & M. Scardamalia (1993) Surpassing ourselves: an enquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Open Court, Illinois

Dreyfus, H. & S. Dreyfus (1982) Mind over machine, Free Press, New York

Eraut, M. (1994) Developing professional knowledge and competence, The Falmer Press, Basingstoke

Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T. & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993) The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406

Ferman, T. (2002) Academic professional development practice: What lecturers find valuable, International Journal for Academic Development, 7(2), 146-158

Inamorato, A., Gaušas, S., Mackevičiūtė, R., Jotautytė, A. & Martinaitis, Z. (2019) Innovating Professional Development in Higher Education: an analysis of practices. EUR 29676 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg

King, H. (Ed: 2022) Developing Expertise for Teaching in Higher Education: practical ideas for professional learning and development. Routledge / SEDA

King, H. (2019) Continuing Professional Development: what do award-winning academics do? Educational Developments, 20(2), 1-5

King, H. (2004) Continuing Professional Development in Higher Education: what do academics do? Educational Developments, 5(4), 1-5

(OfS) Office for Students (2022) Regulatory advice 22: Guidance on the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) 2023.

Perkins, D. (2008) Beyond Understanding. In: R. Land, J.H.F.Meyer & J.Smith (Eds.) Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines. Sense Publishers, Rotterdam

Schön, D. (1982) The Reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action. Routledge, Abingdon

Stupnisky, R.H., BrckaLorenz, A., Yuhasb, B. & Guay, F. (2018) Faculty members’ motivation for teaching and best practices: Testing a model based on self-determination theory across institution types. Contemporary Educational Psychology 53, 15–26

Trowler, P., & Knight, P. (1999) Organizational socialization and induction in universities: Reconceptualizing theory and practice. Higher Education, 37, 177–195

van Schalkwyk, S., Herman, N., Leibowitz, B., & Farmer, J. (2015). Reflections on professional learning: Choices, context and culture. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 46, 4-10

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