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Keep on running!

In my last post I wrote about the importance of teacher agency, as well as the facilitation and development of this by school leaders and teachers at all levels. In this post I wish to turn my attention to another key disposition and quality to be found in the most accomplished teachers. That of, adaptive expertise.

There are various definitions to be found of what is meant by adaptive expertise. Most talk of an individual's ability to solve problems, through the use of knowledge already gained, and applying this in different ways to solve problems, and meet changing situations. In education, we can consider it being about understanding the complexity of learning and of dealing with, and responding to issues, or dealing with situations where the responses and outcomes are different to those expected.

Helen Timperley has identified adaptive experts as being 'deeply knowledgeable about both the content of what is taught and how to teach it.' Whilst Timperley and others recognise the importance of routines to student achievement and wellbeing in the learning process, she also states  that those with high levels of adaptive expertise are able to 'identify when innovative' and different approaches are necessary. Such teachers are able to assess when they need to adapt an approach they are using in response to their learners reactions, in front of them.

Timperley has also spoken of  schools becoming organisations 'having adaptive capacity'. This she simply describes as the development of 'an organisational community that learns.' She says that  such organisations promote inquiry and develop teacher agency, both of which are desirable in all schools and teachers. Such schools are considering and reflecting on their performance continually, being steeped in learning for all, to improve what they do.

How many times have you come across schools and teachers who have plans in place, which they insist they have to follow step by step, with no deviations, to achieve desired outcomes? I have found these quite often during my own career, and may have been guilty of this myself as an early teacher. Planning is important for teaching and for school development. Without a plan, how do you know what you are going to do, or when you have achieved an objective? However, they become a problem when they are viewed as 'set-in-stone' and have to be followed step by step in a rigidly linear format. The best plans are flexible outlines focused on learning, that are adaptive, and adapted, during the teaching or development process. They are viewed as organic in nature, as they respond to the shifting sands of learning and development.

The very best teachers, and most highly skilled, that I have had the pleasure to work with, understood the need for the adaptivity required in excellent teaching. They understand that their plans for learning give them a starting point and a focus. But, that when the learning is underway, and learners are engaging with early activities designed to support next steps in their learning, it is their responses that will shape the direction of travel and future learning activity. They recognise the complexity of the learning process for individuals and for groups of learners, the factors that impact on that learning, and how these are in a constant state of flux.

Teachers with high levels of adaptive expertise are not overwhelmed by all of this complexity. They accept and understand it. It helps shape their teaching and organisation of learning. The very best make this constant juggling of demand look easy, but they are the most skilled, the ones who think most deeply about what it is they are doing, and what they are trying to achieve for all their learners. They better understand their impact on the learning of their learners. As they develop such expertise they consciously have to think about what is happening in front of them, and how this is going to affect their construction of the learning process. However, as they become more adept, such thinking and responding becomes subsumed into their professional identity and practice.

Some of the very best practitioners I have seen with this quality display what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes a 'flow' in their teaching and thinking. They are fully immersed in the learning process they are engaged in, and hardly recognise the many subtle changes in thinking and practice they make as they engage with their learners and deal with their responses. To the untrained eye such dispositions can be difficult to detect, when observing learning in any given situation, given rise to some thinking that teaching is an 'easy' or 'technical' activity rather than the highly skilled professional activity we understand it to be. Observing learning then speaking to such teachers afterwards about what was going on, can often make this level of expertise more visible.

When teachers have high levels of adaptive expertise, then so can schools enhance their adaptive capacity, as well as their ability to grow organically and persistently. Then we will be creating and developing those collaborative learning cultures that are essential to meaningful development, and which are grounded in a school's position on its development journey, as well as its context. Such cultures recognise everyone as learners and their responsibility to support the learning of everyone one else, students and staff.

Of course, you have to start from where you are, and each person and school starts from a different position. What we all have to do is commit to career-long learning and development, with the ultimate aim of becoming the very best teacher, and school, we can, with high levels of teacher agency which is underpinned by teachers, and leaders with high levels of adaptive expertise. Then we will be able to constantly develop in order to better meet the short and long term learning needs of all our learners.

The development of high levels of professional expertise starts with a commitment to grow, followed by baby-steps on our individual journey of development. There will be stumbles along the way, but each one will help us reach a stage where we are ready to run together, and be the best we can.

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