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What experienced teachers can learn from NQTs

Novices teach differently from their more experienced colleagues, says Adam Boxer – and understanding how can help every educator improve…

Adam Boxer
by Adam Boxer
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I recently saw a lesson where the teacher was hosting a whole-class discussion. A student in front of them and to their right called out an answer.

The teacher took a step towards that young person and said to them in a firm voice, “You know that you are not allowed to call out in my class. If you do that again you will have a detention”, then resumed their interaction with the rest of the group.

I think that even in my earliest days of teaching I would have recognised the importance of holding learners accountable with firmness and clarity.

But with experience, I saw something else that I don’t think I would have noticed back then.

As the teacher stepped towards the student, they held out their left hand, palm facing the rest of the class.

This potentially subconscious gesture sent a signal to the rest of the class: Don’t worry, I’m coming back to you in a second. Do not think that this means you can tune out and that you can lose focus. I am going to quickly deal with this and be back with you soon.

The signal anticipated student behaviour; a minute gesture prevented them from thinking that they could zone out of that part of the lesson.

As a novice teacher, my behaviour management was reactive. It used to be about the firm word after a student had called out. But the expert teacher I observed wasn’t just doing that; they were finding ways to head off poor behaviour before it had even started.

Differently wired

As I’ve read and learnt more, I’ve realised that the difference between novice and expert teachers is both quantitative and qualitative. In some cases, expert and novice teachers do the same thing, but the former do it better.

For example, a novice teacher might tell a student not to call out and what will happen if they do, whereas an expert teacher might be more concise with their language – firmer, clearer and generally more authoritative.

However, with other things the difference is qualitative. When it comes to management, expert teachers, through subtle cues and signals, preempt poor behaviour, whereas novice teachers respond to it.

And looking at learning, research by Borko and Livingston (1989) showed that whilst novice teachers plan for learning at the lesson level (ie what am I going to do in this lesson?) expert teachers plan for learning by starting with the content, and then thinking about the amount of time it will take (ie these students need to know x, y and z, I’ll start with x and finish in around six weeks with z).

In addition, expert teachers tend to make more high-quality on-the-spot decisions than novices. They might not finalise a problem or example sequence until they are teaching.

They are more effective at responding to the questions their classes ask, and using these as a springboard for further elaboration or explanation. Interestingly, Tochon and Munby (1993) discuss how experts and novices view the very concept of time differently.

Novices think of time in lessons as having to follow a rigid and preorganised route. Experts think of time in a much more flexible senses, anticipating that they will have to twist and turn to follow and respond to the vagaries of their class.

In a wide-ranging study, Berliner (1988) showed among many other findings that experts, on being shown pictures of classes, not only notice more details like student attention or orientation, but rapidly make inferences and assumptions based on those details.

The expert mind is wired completely differently from that of the novice.

Research in the cognitive sciences has provided further support for these findings. Starting with research by Chi et al (1981) and built upon by academics like Kalyuga (see, for example Kalyuga, 2010) it has been shown that the very cognitive architecture possessed by an expert in any domain differs from that of a novice in the same domain.

The amount of knowledge and experience they have built up enables them to spot patterns, make links, anticipate problems and generally apply a more sophisticated set of intellectual tools to any given context.

Time, effort and guidance

This all leaves us with an acute problem in terms of training teachers. There are no shortcuts or easy routes from novice to expert. It takes time, effort and guidance. Deans for Impact have proposed a model which follows Ericsson’s work in the field of deliberate practice (2016).

They argue that following set training components like isolated specific techniques and practising them in non-classroom environments can improve novice teachers rapidly. But we should be under no illusions as the difficulty of this process and the time scales involved.

To my mind, one ‘easy win’ for teacher trainers or for in-school mentors is simply to realise the difference between what is in their own heads compared to what is in their novice teachers’ heads.

We need to start realising that despite novice teachers being on the same professional level as expert ones, they are not on the same cognitive level.

Techniques that we use in our day to day teaching – like clear explanations, broken down content with plentiful practice, immediate and focused feedback, long term review, extensive link-making and gradually fading support – are just as necessary with novice teachers as they are with our students in the classroom.

Equally, there are things which we should avoid doing. Evidence shows that novice students are particularly ineffective at learning new material via inquiry or discovery based learning (Kirschner, 2006) – and yet in many cases our novice teachers are expected to do just that.

Perhaps we need to realise that what is implicitly obvious for us is not implicitly obvious for them. For example, ask a novice teacher to practise explaining a particular topic to you.

Point out to them the logical flaws, appropriate places to stop, examples, models, analogies, likely student problems and questions. Don’t let them have to accumulate that knowledge by getting it wrong in front of a class. If you already know it, why shouldn’t they?

3 things to remember when nurturing novices

  • Recognise that early career teachers ordinarily have a qualitatively different way of thinking from more experienced ones
  • Therefore provide them an appropriate level of support
  • Don’t leave them to figure things out for themselves – it isn’t beneficial!

Adam Boxer is a science teacher working in a comprehensive in North London. He specialises in applying findings from research to day to day classroom practice. Follow him on Twitter at @adamboxer1.

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