Learning Experiences: An Adaptive Expertise Primer

In looking at all the philosophical perspectives about what education for the future looks like, I keep coming back to a concept that I was exposed to a couple years back when visiting The Cannon School in North Carolina.

Central to their educational philosophy was the concept of adaptive expertise.  Upon exposure, I went on a near obsessive, doctoral style research and consumption odyssey to become as expert in this area as possible.I was very impressed with the school, its mission, and the people, so I decided to immerse myself in the literature available on the concept that is at the core of who they are as a school. As with many other “new” concepts, I found such connection to existing philosophies in my catalog.  Yet I also was able to expand my philosophical horizons and research interests in the rich soil that the literature provided.   My process, as always, included not just reading great material, but also annotating, synthesizing, creating, writing, and implementing the new ideas into my current contexts.

There were two seminal pieces that helped me to glean some basic understandings of the concept, but also had enough depth and complexity for me to go further as I felt the need, desire, and opportunity.  The original research was conducted by Giyoo Hatano in the mid 1980’s.  His work “Two courses of expertise” (Hatano, 1986) is the most highly referenced on the concept.  The second source that helped me dive deeper and strengthen the complexity of my understanding, while also admittedly challenging my comprehension and synthesis skills, is Susan Sherringham’s  (2007) “Designing for the future :anadaptive expertise and organizational learning in design”.

Adaptive experts have rich content knowledge, routine expertise, and opportunities to solve novel problems that develop an adaptive expertise. Since learning happens in both social and cultural contexts, socio-cultural conditions and considerations must be factored into the development strategies.  One of the exciting parts of the Sherringham (2007) piece is that the field of design is the discipline to which the concept of adaptive expertise is applied.  This area of design, while seemingly new to me at the outset of my process, resonated with me on such a deep level because so many of us are designers in our chosen field. I was easily able to translate what the design components meant in terms of educational design.  Designers are essentially the catalysts for generating new ideas and shaping innovative change.  Future designers design for the unknown in constantly changing/ shifting contexts ( As Jose Esteves reveals in his updated video Shift Happens,  we need these designers as today’s learners are going to be solving problems that don’t exist yet, using tools that don’t exist yet).  Thus adaptive expertise is evolution, it is organic,innovative, dynamic and living.

Sherringham (2007) explains the difference between routine and adaptive expertise as,  adaptive expertise is “characterized by flexible, innovative, and creative competencies within a domain rather than speed, accuracy, and automaticity of solving familiar problems”.

In his initial paper, Hatano (1986) presented 6 points.  In my process, I looked at how each point was relevant to education, independent schools, and schools where I have worked.

His first point states that experts possess rich and well-structured domain knowledge that can be readily used.  From this point, I asked the questions: What is the knowledge (who decides? How and when is it taught? How is it practiced, reinforced, assessed so that it becomes “readily usable”)?   My takeaway regarding how this point is relevent in education is that vertical teaming is integral, not just for scope and sequencing of content/skills, but also with instructional strategies, student activities, and assessment practices.  Further, the teaming should not only be vertical, but also horizontal across different disciplines at the same grade or divisional levels.  Knowing the big picture creates opportunities to develop cross-domain expertise.

Hatano’s (1986) second point states that gaining expertise requires years of experience solving problems in a specific domain.  This point brings Duckworth’s Grit and Ericsson’s 10,000 rule to mind.  For educators, we need to nurture the grit, the passion for practice, while also being strategic in our planning.  For instance, how well do we sequence problems while continuing to keep our students in the Vygotskian Zone of Proximal Development?  How well do we develop, implement, review, revise and apply language, process and evaluation? The answer once again seems to be found in vertical teaming practices.

The third point states that the acquisition of knowledge and skills is accompanied by socio-emotional changes.  As a long-time middle school educator, this point is integral.  High attention must be paid to the social emotional development of our students.  It is part of the curriculum, part of the integral relationships, and central to student success and well-being.  Maslowian philosophies must be present for students to grow, succeed, and be happy, confident, and resilient in the process. Further,  as social emotional changes occur, interests change rendering differentiation an essential practice.  Teachers understanding these changes, and how to adjust strategies, activities, content etc to fit students needs is necessary for student success.  Here the horizontal communication and 360 degree attention to the whole child through regular shared observations makes for better experiences for the students, and a lower possibility that a student will fall through the proverbial crack.

The fourth point in Hatano’s (1986)work is one that resonated with me on a very deep level, and for those who have read this blog, the connection will be obvious.  Point four states that the process of gaining expertise is assisted and supported by other people and artifacts.  Relationships are once again, at the center of the process of gaining expertise.  Support, nurturance,  and encouragement, coupled with attention to keeping students in the aforementioned ZPD through differentiation are central to the fourth point.  Hands-on manipulative-based learning, project based (service) learning, and interdisciplinary work all fill the needs outlined in this area.

That expertise occurs in socioculturally significant contexts, represents the fifth of Hatano’s (1986) points.  This point resonates the PBL-minded educators who also have been pioneers in the service learning program development process.  Learning is not (should not be) separated from solving socially significant problems and performing tasks that have social relevance.  I previously outlined the idea of problem-based service learning that this point seems to support.  Further,  differentiating according to interests has some roots in this point as most of our interests come from the sociocultural contexts that we have experienced during our lives.

Finally, Hatano (1986) states that expertise is distributed.  It is shared, used purposefully, meaningfully, and strategically.  Teachers share with students, with each other and with parents.  Students share with each other, and leaders share with the whole community.  This distributive sharing of expertise enriches a learning community, and inspires in all members the integral growth mindset.

Over the course of my process with this concept, I have delved deeply into the literature available, discussed fervently with experts and novices alike, synthesizes based on my own experiences, created (such as with this blog) products that reflect this synthesis, and have shared with others my knowledge about this concept. I am certainly not an adaptive expert in adaptive expertise, but through deliberate practice, application to familiar and novel contexts, and with great grit, verve, and passion, I may get there some day.  If I don’t, as always, I will truly enjoy the process and journey.


Hatano, G. and K. Inagaki (1986). “Two courses of expertise.” Child development and education in Japan: 262–272.

Sherringham, Susan (2007). “Designing for the future : nadaptive expertise and organizational learning in design” University of Technology Sydney, NSW, Australia



I have been in education for over 40 years.  Yes, I was a student for 19 of those years, but I feel confident that those years were intergral in helping to shape my perspective.

From this experience, I have a very simple attitude towards grades. The traditional grading process is antiquated. Period.

When the Kindle first came out, I remember so many friends saying that they would never switch to using digital readers (some are still fighting the good fight in this area). They would say “I love the smell of the book” or “I love the feel of the book and the pages in my finger tips”.  My response was that even though people once loved their horses and buggies, and loved the smell and feel of the ride using that method of transport, I have never in my life seen a horse and buggy on my commute to school.  It is about time we put the traditional grading model out to pasture.

I taught English for 17 years, during which time I became quite the grammar guru. But to this day, I still consider myself to be at best 90-95% proficient in comprehensive grammar.  So what are realistic expectations for our students? What do these numbers, percentages, letters really mean? Can we continue to pretend that the same grade on a Geometry test on triangles for 8th graders in Enid Oklahoma means the same thing as a test on the same content for 10th graders in Tampa? Heck, the same score may not mean the same thing as a test down the hall in Enid.  Further, what formative, growth oriented message do these number grades send?

Not only is the ambiguity of what the grades mean at archetypal murkiness, but the reception of the information these grades provide is far too negative a summative finality in the minds of students and parents.  If a student receives a 75% on a test, he/she doesn’t plaster it on a t-shirt and walk around saying “Hi, I am a 75%”.  Yet, it certainly feels this way sometimes.

Further, when parents talk about how their child doesn’t talk to them about school, I always ask about the questions the parents ask.  If the question is “what did you get on the test?”, then the response is simple and generally followed up with a generic statement (often coupled with emotion in one direction or the other).  “I got an A!”- to which the parent response is “Great”! Or “I got a 75%” to which the parent will then cross-examine the child in a way that rarely manifests real information about the learning experience.

I alway suggest parents ask a question more akin to: What parts of the test did you really feel good about and why?” and “What parts were most challenging- how do you think we can better prepare for next time?”  These are disarming questions that are about the learning and performance, not about numbers and emotion. As educators, we should be helping this process by restructuring how we communicate with students and parents about the learning that is happening in our schools.

For 11 years, I worked in a school that was very grade-centric.  Even there, I never felt like the grades were telling much of the story about the learning that was happening.  I always de-emphasized them with students and parents.  My only goal was to send my students off in May much better than how they arrived in August.   That typically meant different things for different students.  What allowed me to “get away with it”, was that I was very proactive in my communication with the students and their families.  There were no surprises and I made good on my promise to support student growth during our 9 month marathon together.  My hard earned reputation for doing so made the latter years easier when dealing with the grade-minded families.

What I communicated then is how I encourage my teachers to communicate now that I am in a school that does not communicate progress with grades, rather through weekly narratives and trimester narrative reports.   Yes, we do score student work, and we do keep track of percentages etc.  But we use the data to shape our communication and plan of action.  We always start with skills that students are mastering nicely, then we identify elements that need more work, and we finish with an explanation of the plan of action to improve.  This last piece often includes what we will do in the classroom, what the student needs to be doing on his/her own, and finally the healthy manner that parents can support the progress.  While this sounds like a laborious process, especially if a teacher has 130 students, the work on the front end is worth the time.  Not every student will need extensive narratives, and many students will be strong or need work on the same concepts.  Plans for improvement will also be similar across groups of students.  As a result, keeping a document with comments for each of the three steps will allow for efficient bulk edits, and copy and pasting.  Some simple personalization will go a long way in these communications.

Instead of getting a report with 75% on it and wondering what does that mean, parents and students will now get a note that says:

“Johnny showed mastery of addition and substraction this week.  He still needs to work on his multiplication skills.  We will work on some different strategies here at school, and we have given Johnny some additional practice and links to Khan Academy that he can view at his own pace.  At home, please feel free to help him review his work after he has checked his answers against the answer key.  Let us know if you have any questions”

Again, this takes longer- BUT it is worth the time to share real information about student progress and plans for moving forward.  Technology has made so many things easier and more efficient- this type of communication is a great example of how we can use simple digital tools to communicate without using number and letter grades.

Finally, the clarity of this communication brings parents into the conversation with real information, real terminology, and a sense that teachers and schools really know their child and are supportive of his/her individual needs, thus creating a partnership between school and home that truly benefits the student.

A brief comment on Teacher Efficacy

Working in great schools has revealed to me in a variety of forms what high levels of strong teacher efficacy can do for students.  As a leader of teachers, I am compelled to nurture this sense in all members of the school community as a teacher would work to instill similar efficacy in his/her students.  The question of what would be the biggest boost to a teacher’s sense of efficacy has a number of layers. A teacher can possess a strong personal teaching efficacy, where he/she believes strongly in his/her ability/capability to affect student cognitive and affective development, but that would represent only part of the composite efficacy requisite for total teacher efficacy.  Also requisite are a high level of general teacher efficacy, in that there strongly exists the belief that teachers in general have the aforementioned effect on student development; institutional efficacy, wherein lies the belief that the institution (school, program, department) is having the positive effect on student experiences and a high level of self-efficacy beyond the classroom.  This composite of teacher efficacy is complex, so to identify a single entity that would be “the biggest boost” is equally complex.  As a veteran educator of over 20 years, I can elucidate a very simple response to this complex question with a brief anecdote that I have shared over the years with colleagues and potential employers.  During previous job searches, I have been asked the following question:
“What is your greatest highlight or moment as an educator”
My response was the same each time, and it also represents the answer to this highly complex question about efficacy.
Every day when I walked from my classroom to the athletic fields, I crossed the upper school quad areas where many students that I had taught, and many who I had not but had gotten to know other ways, would be socializing between classes. Invariably, I stopped for conversations- about school, English, an assignment of great success, athletics, arts, family etc.  These were not forced interactions, nor were they initiated by me- they were genuine. Students who had success in my class, were translating that success into success in other classes, which provided me with professional efficacy. Students who were continuing to excel academically likewise boosted institutional and general efficacy.  Students’ interest in sharing their experiences, while also showing an interest by asking me about my family manifested high self-efficacy.  Those moments are invaluable- and exemplify the key to high levels of teacher efficacy requisite for a school to provide great experiences for its students.  Ultimately, the central catalyst has been the relationship that I shared with my students while they were in my class, and beyond.   These strong relationships directly boosted the efficacy of all involved.  Once again, relationships are at the center.

Mentoring Emerging Leaders

Leaders are held to a higher standard…

This represents an obvious statement….to adults.  But for emerging adolescent leaders, this fact is always a very difficult pill to swallow.  I have often said that the only requisite quality that all leaders must possess is that people follow them.  The reasons that people follow a leader are so varied, that my quick Google search of Leadership Qualities yielded 49 million hits in .19 seconds.

One of our responsibilities as educators is to help our students develop their strengths to the fullest, and to teach them how to use those strengths to benefit their community in positive ways.  Developing leadership is no different.  However, like an emerging math star who may show reticence in the face of increasing challenge, and thus needs adult mentoring and guidance, the emerging leader needs mentoring and guidance in facing the increasing expectations that he or she is held to a higher standard.

This week, I had a chance to sit down with a seventh grader who is undoubtedly an emerging leader in our community.  This student appeared to be on a path to life-long following as a 6th grader, but this year, he has increasingly shown a natural ability to lead, which has been manifested nicely by how willing and eager his classmates are to follow him in academic and social endeavors.

The reason for our sit down this week was that while he has shown very positive qualities in his leadership of peers, he has also shown some behavior that we do not want his classmates to emulate and imitate.  For most kids, the behaviors would be described as “little stuff”, age-appropriate “normal adolescent boy stuff”.  But for a leader, he needed to be made aware that he is held to a higher standard.  When I shared this with him, a proverbial “but this isn’t fair” look adorned his countenance.  The pill of this truth was very hard to swallow.  For some, the pill goes down even more roughly when the individual is a reluctant leader.  My conversation with this student would have been different if that were the case, but I know this student enjoys and embraces the leadership role.  As such, it is my responsibility to educate him and mentor him in his development in this role.

One word really seemed to resonate with him was we spoke. As I empathetically shared that I understood the challenge of being held to the higher standard as a leader, I explained that even though I still make mistakes that are under the higher magnification microscope, I take my role as a leader into these moments and model for people the important quality of humility in taking ownership for the mistakes.  The word ownership caused him to pause and look up at me.

One of the strengths of this student, and perhaps one of those intangibles that appeal to his peers, is that he often will learn from his mistakes and take ownership.  However, the main area he needs to work on is in always taking redirection from his teachers without the reflexive response of denial or deflection.  As we dove deeper into this topic, he began shaking his head assentingly.

The hard pill that is the higher standards leaders are held to represents a leadership lesson that all who lead need to embrace- and all who mentor young leaders need to support and guide.  Ultimately, the ownership of our behaviors reveals yet another reason people will follow us as examples for owning their own behaviors in positive and growth-minded ways.

Time Allocation Survey- responses encouraged!

This survey explores some of the thoughts I have been having about how we organize and use time in the learning process. Traditionally, every class gets the same amount of time, meets each day,  and has an equity share in homework allotment.  But not all courses are created equal nor do they all have the same needs. Thus we need to explore and discuss time, and the strategic, scientific, thoughtful planning and allocating of it. 

When looking at the time we have in the day to guide students in their learning, there are three major considerations that must be discussed.  In doing so, traditional territorialism and need for equity need to be removed from the conversation in the name of doing what is BEST FOR OUR STUDENTS.

1)    How long a block of time is really the right amount for different classes?  The one size fits all approach of each class gets the same amount of time every day does not seem efficient considering learning needs in each course.  Great work in the science lab requires longer blocks of time, while working with math concepts or a piece of short fiction does not require the same amount of time.

2)    Frequency of meeting for the courses during the week.  While math class may not need the same large block of time that science might, it does require the daily frequency of meeting times, whereas science may not.

3)    Allocation of homework volume according to courses.  Some courses require daily practice for students to grow towards mastery, while other courses develop mastery skills in the classroom environs rendering homework not as much a necessity.  Or making the nature of the work different than how it is defined now (flipped classroom lecture/podcast viewing for homework, as an example).

If we consider these three elements in allocating and scheduling student learning time, and if we are innovative, thoughtful, and collaborative in our development, while also being patient and reflective in implementation and revision, we can offer our students a higher level experience that is also more efficient for their lives- leaving time for them to enjoy being kids and pursue outside interests and passions.

Key Questions in the Discussion:

  1. What are your classroom time needs? Using the 20-25 & 5 rule, how many blocks do you need a week? (25-5 rule considers that student’s attention, energy, and stamina for a lesson lasts about 25 minutes, which followed by a 5 minute “break” will allow a refocus on instruction/ activities).
  2. What are your frequency requirements? Do you need to meet every day?
  3. How many of your lessons can be completed in one block? How many do you hope to have all students master in a week?
  4. What is the nature of the homework you assign and what is the immediate and relevant purpose of the work you assign?
  5. What is most cherished for you and what are you willing to sacrifice to keep it/ get it?
    1. i.e I would sacrifice meeting every day so that I can have a 90 minute block 2 times a week
    2. I would sacrifice nightly homework for a  double 25&5 block during the day
    3. I would sacrifice longer periods to meet every day and have a good chunk of homework time
    4. What else do we feel is integral to include in the daily schedule for our students to have the best social, physical, and academic experience while they are at school?

Class Time:

  1. 1X 25-5                      30 minutes
  2. 2X25-5                       50 minutes
  3. 3X25-5                       85 minutes

Frequency of Meeting Times:

  1. Once daily
  2. Twice daily
  3. Every other day/twice weekly

Homework in Terms of Minutes



Considering the Intangibles of Assessments

The topic of assessment is as hot as any in the education community.  With the fast-shifting world around us, the dynamics surrounding content & information in schools has likewise shifted.  The accumulation, synthesis, and output process that has dominated the assessment of learning for so long no longer requires that same accumulation, rather skills in access are far more integral for today’s learner and tomorrow’s leaders.

I had a great meeting with a grade level team this week where we discussed how we wanted to assess a student with some significant, documented learning difficulties.  While the student has great challenges with the retention of large amounts of information, she is tremendously organized and skilled in accessing information from her notes, computer, text etc.

Having shown little proficiency with material from a previous unit, we wanted to reward this student’s effort, skills with organization and access, while also identifying more accurately what she is learning.  We also know how important having success on an assessment would be for her self-efficacy.

Our approach reminded me about exactly what is happening when we give a test.  We are not just assessing how well a student can learn, study, prepare, and respond to test items with a combination of content knowledge and synthesis skills.  A test assesses much more than those areas.  For example,  processing and navigating the test format- what it looks like on the page- is a very specific skill that oftentimes a very well-prepared student will struggle to manage, sometimes resulting in performance that does not accurately reflect content knowledge and synthesis skill.  Further, how the instructions are phrased and how many steps a student must take to respond to a question can create a challenge that has little to do with the content of the assessment.  If there is a separate answer sheet from the test page, that is also a navigation skill beyond the content of the unit.

Another key component is student comfort.  So much has been researched about lighting, climate, sound levels, and time of day that we must consider these items when we look at assessment data.  Student comfort, which is not only affected by these elements, but also by how much sleep the students get each night, their nutrition and hydration, and the highly catalytic social emotional factors that can significantly affect a student’s performance on an assessment.

So while our assessment strategies are evolving, there will still be traditional assessment models used.  But as educators, we need to remain highly cognizant of all the factors that contribute to a student’s performance on an assessment and utilize the results accordingly.   If I observe a 7th grader mastering a pre-algebra concept all week during class and that student does not perform on a test in accordance with what I observed all week, it is my responsibility to consider ALL information I have about where that student is on the learning continuum, and not respond only to the test results.   I have often said that all assessment is formative assessment- this growth mindset has allowed me to grow in my assessment strategies, while also helping my students grow in their learning.  Part of that learning is including them in the conversation about these intangibles  that are part of the assessed skill sets when students take tests.

Lean on The Novices

I was recently asked by a colleague to share some advice about how to talk to a faculty member whom he perceived would be resistant to some upcoming changes.   Being a technology integrationist, he was admittedly sensitive to such resistance from past experiences when there was more such resistance in schools.  So we sat down and I asked him to recap the conversation and share with me what made him think the teacher would not be open to some of the shifts that are coming up this spring.

He indicated that the teacher was very excited about her current scope and sequence of technology skills.  This enthusiasm made my friend think that the teacher would be resistant.

From here, I shared my three category theory about change in schools, and he encouraged me to write about it.

Whenever there is change, and most noticeably with technology, teachers will fall (for the most part) into one of three groups.   Understanding these groups, who is in them, and most importantly how to work with each one are integral skills for the leader of the initiative/program/school.

The first group is the trail-blazing, torch carrying, fearless pioneers of the program.  They have the talent, skills, energy, and enthusiasm to lead the way.  This group needs little direction or motivation, but they do need to be engaged in discussion about their process to keep them from straying too far from the herd in their enthusiastic application of the initiative.  These are the positive deviants who with the same resources, do far more than their peers.

The second group is the open-minded novices.  This group lacks the skill and background in the new area, but are enthusiastic, willing learners with the optimal growth-mindset.   This group needs guidance, support, and time, but are plenty motivated.   Often teaming some trailblazers with open-minded novices is a good strategy for a variety of reasons.  It allows the trailblazers to develop teacher leadership skills, and nurtures a terrific collaborative community that builds continuity in the program.  Further, the process breeds in the novices the responsibility to share their experiences with the third group.  This practice is one of the effective methods in overcoming obstacles with the third group.

The final group is the resistors. They lack the skills, motivation, and desire to learn.  In fact they often can sabotage not only their own growth, but also the growth of others.   Often, they have developed compelling arguments against the new practice that seems very reasonable to them.   This group is obviously the biggest challenge.   However, there are strategies that I have found very effective.

First, since the first two groups can be matched up, much more attention can be paid to this third group.   I have found the one on one approach is most effective since most of the time, the resistance comes from a fearful feeling of vulnerability. Helping them feel safe, and assuring them that we will take things slowly are integral initial steps.

The first question I ask is what their ideal vision for their class is, or I ask them to describe a perfect lesson.  Then we brainstorm about how a new tool can help them fulfill their vision.  We start small, we make sure the first attempt is successful, and we encourage the reflection process.  Working with this group is not dissimilar to working with reluctant learners.  Maslow for teachers is integral, and helping a talented yet reluctant adult “see” the value will lead to overcoming some of the resistance.  Finally, letting the teacher’s vision drive the process gives the teacher ownership, which again helps with the resistance.

I mentioned earlier that the open-minded novice group would be important in helping this third group of resistors.   The open-minded novices’ experiences with being guided by peers, having success with technology, and understanding the collaborative culture in the school can often be infectious on the third group.   At the end of the day, the second and third groups really differ in their initial attitude (and mindset- growth vs. fixed), so the ability and experience levels are relatively the same.  Focussing on nurturing that attitude through the above strategies has been very effective in my experience.

Yet, it is not a perfect science or process, so there are a couple of simple dynamics that we work to avoid in gaining ground on a unified whole in implementation.  With two ends of the spectrum potentially speeding in opposite directions, my goal is to make sure that the gap between the pioneers and the resistors doesn’t become so big that all three groups are isolated on their own island.  I want to encourage the pioneers to charge forward, and not truncate their growth, and I can’t let the helplessness of the resistor group become paralysis.  Often, the connection of each group to the open-minded novices is the key.  Thus much of my approach is to lean on that group- connect the other two to them.

So my conversation with my colleague revealed that the teacher was not necessarily resisting, but that she was very happy with her current approach.  My advice to my friend was to ask her what her vision for technology use in the classroom is and then listen to her response.  The reality is that the teacher is an open-minded novice who merely needs some supportive guidance to take the next step with using technology in the classroom.