How Do We Develop Expertise in Teaching?

Imagine two teachers. Both teach English, both are similar in age, experience, and the students they are working with. The only difference is that one teaches 5 periods of the same class (one prep). The other teaches 2 periods of one class and 3 periods of a different class (two preps). I’m wondering: which teacher do you think is going to be more effective?

I’m honestly torn between the two. This year was my first with multiple preps after enjoying 2 years with only one prep, and this year also felt like my hardest so far. Though I’m not averse to hard work, I felt like my teaching (and, consequently, my students’ learning) was negatively impacted because I had to split my attention on different curricula.

I certainly see both sides of the argument. On the “multiple prep” side, I can see how those who teach multiple preps (or even, as one of my wonderful colleagues did, multiple preps in multiple subjects) are more likely to identify pedagogy that is most effective because they have to try many different approaches. They develop a better understanding of those elements that make good teaching, which carry across different classes and content areas. In addition, they work with a broad base of students and a wide range of abilities.

However, I cannot help but wonder how much much time I spent worrying about the content of my two preps this year, rather than reflecting on what strategies and ideas improved my teaching. Contrast this with having only one prep – I feel like I had more time to spend improving how I am teaching rather than what I am teaching.

The other factor I cannot help but think about is the development of expertise. I wrote my Master’s thesis largely on how we develop expertise, and the absolutely critical element in doing so is logging many hours (10,000 was the magic number) of practice. However, it’s not just any practice. I can’t just go swing a baseball bat 10,000 times and suddenly hit like Albert Pujols or Babe Ruth. Instead, the focus is on deliberate practice – practice that is focused on improving specific small skills at a time. This is why great musicians always practice their scales – because it is a deliberate focus on improving the little things.

The question I am left with is this: do teachers get more opportunities for deliberate practice when they have multiple preps, or when they have only one prep? My guess is that one prep lends itself better towards developing expertise because of the focus on one curriculum and added time for reflecting on instructional practice, however, I have absolutely nothing to support this other than my own personal opinions/biases.

So I leave this open to you: which is most likely to produce “expert” teachers? I’d love to hear (and respond to) your thoughts on this one.

Note: For more information on research into expertise and expert performance, I highly recommend the works of Anders K. Ericsson. In particular, his paper, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, is quite good. A good primer on the subject is The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Expertise and Expert Performance. Finally, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is a great introduction to the topic of expertise, as well.


7 responses to “How Do We Develop Expertise in Teaching?

  • Crystal

    I teach 5-6 preps every year and agree that in the beginning I was more concerned about what instead of how I was teaching. Now I think it’s different and keeps me on my toes. I need to process your thoughts more before responding anything else, but I wanted to leave a comment so I’d see other responses 🙂

    • thehurt

      @Crystal: Thanks for the comment. I think that’s where I’m at with the multiple preps – I didn’t get enough time to focus on the actual teaching, but instead was embroiled in the content of the class. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this one.

  • Mort Dunder


    In regards to this question of multiple versus one prep, I am initially inclined, at first glance, to agree that one prep allows for continuity, consistency, and focus. Hence, through repetition, one can improve their technique. However, I see the other side of the debate in that additional preps could allow one to “think outside of the box” and thus improve upon their expertise. To that end, in all due respect to your point about deliberate process (and the outstanding analogy regarding scales in music), I believe that multiple preps allow us new filters to see old situation through and push us to expand our horizons. Most importantly, I think that multiple preps enable us to “learn to learn.” After all, isn’t that what we ask of our students?
    Thanks for allowing my “two cents” on this topic!

    • thehurt

      @Mort: Interesting thoughts. I think that’s definitely where I am at, as well – I like the consistency of having one prep because I spend less time focused on content and more time focused on instructional techniques, strategies, etc. At the same time, I recognize that teaching different content also forces me to use greater variety in my teaching style.
      I would also argue that we can certainly continue learning even with only one prep. To me the difference is simply in what we are learning – is it more content, or is it how to improve teaching? I think that’s why I tend to side with fewer (in my case, one) preps.
      Finally, I wish I could take credit for the music analogy, but that was simply sharing what Ericsson wrote about in his work. Mine wouldn’t be nearly as effective. 🙂

  • Don Carreras

    I truly believe that the number of preps does not matter. What is really important and leads toward expertise is your ability to assess and adapt. If you only have one prep, you can adapt your lesson for the next class. Now this isn’t beneficial for the first class you teach, so your goal should be to master the art of assessment so that you can adapt as you teach.

  • Jackie Matos

    I prefer to have only one prep because I can then focus on teaching techniques and reflect on the lesson. The same lesson may have went well in one class and not the others. Why did it happen? What activity could I have incorporated in the lesson to make the students have a better understanding of the topic? I too worry about the content of my 3 preps rather than reflecting. Having only one prep would allow me as a teacher to focus on the one prep and give me time to find new strategies to teach the topics for the course. There’s just not enough time in the day to plan for the 3 preps, reflect, and create multiple technology incorporated lessons. I find that I do that for one prep and for the other 2, I just rush though the content. I am not pleased with that and I want to plan and reflect appropriately. All teachers, no matter how many years of teaching experience they may have, should always reflect on the daily lessons presented.

  • George S.

    I typically teach 3-4 different preps (out of a 5 teaching period day), and I find myself sometimes feeling that I would be doing a better job with less preps. However, after reading several of these posts, I agree that it is the development of the delivery that is probably more important than the depth of the topic that makes it relevant for the students.

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