The Two Forms of Expertise

When we think of experts (you know, the ones we’ve had enough of, according to Michael Gove) we might think of a specialist surgeon, a researcher into climate change, or a Nobel prize winning physicist. Perhaps we’d think of a more everyday expert, like a financial advisor, or that talented mechanic who worked out what kept going wrong with our car. The chances are that we think of someone who has become very knowledgeable about something which most people would find quite difficult.

No-one becomes an expert in something easy. Despite my claims to the contrary, I’m not actually an expert in loading the dishwasher. I get annoyed when amateurs put the glasses on the wrong shelf, but the knowledge I hold is nothing special. To warrant the title of expert, we must have some rare insight and specialist knowledge which it has taken some considerable time and effort to acquire.

What has given experts a bad name in recent years is their tendency to get things wrong. This particularly applies to ‘expert’ economists who failed to predict the financial crash of a decade ago. We associate expertise with knowing the answer. After all, a mechanic who cannot fix our car is surely no expert? Our failing faith in expertise is evident in the wave of parents refusing to vaccinate their children, politicians talk of ‘alternative truths’, and the plethora of fact-checking sites which are now required to work out whether we are being lied to.

In education, we have also had our faith in expertise shaken. So many of the things teachers are told they should do in their classroom (by so-called experts) are later discredited. The policies imposed by government and school leaders which promise to improve schools and the working lives of those in them quickly fail, fade or falter. The failure of educational expertise fuels subjectivism – a stubborn belief that my own lived-experience is all I need to guide my actions – and a strong desire to be left alone to get on with the job.

We have an uphill struggle to re-establish faith in expertise, but do it we must. In relation to schools, society needs to have more faith in the expertise of teachers, teachers in the expertise of school leaders, and all of us in the policies of government. We all need to believe that those making decisions know what they are doing.

In my upcoming book, I make a case for putting expertise at the centre of our notion of school leadership. I am not the first to do so, and won’t be the last. Expertise starts with being knowledgeable (I made the case for this here and here), but, as Tom Rees of Ambition Institute says in his Schools Week article, ‘an argument for expertise isn’t one for simply more academic knowledge, it’s one for more expert use of knowledge in action’. Experts have to be able to do things with their knowledge – solving problems, offering good advice, providing insights, creating systems, building others’ expertise.

But the more I have thought about expert-leadership, the more troubled I have become by a potential misunderstanding about what we think expertise is. I have actually come to think of expertise as having two forms. Distinguishing between these two forms is, I believe, important in ensuring that we do not create yet another false expectation of what school leaders should be.

To understand the two forms of expert-leadership, suffixes are important! In particular, the suffixes which distinguish the words ‘complicated‘ and ‘complex‘. I have written about these terms before and it was the subject of my talk at the ResearchED National Conference. My contention here is that being an expert in a complicated field differs considerably from expertise over complexity.

Form K

I have given these two forms of expertise catchy names as a short-hand. The ‘K’ comes from the sound at the centre of the word complicated. The second, Form X, derives from the last sound in the word complex. Thus Form K expertise is that exercised in complicated situations, whilst Form X is expertise in conditions of complexity.

In a complicated field, it is possible to know most of what there is to be known: the domain of knowledge is open to mastery. Problems tend to repeat themselves, and each iteration is similar in dynamics to the last. Solutions implemented last time will likely work this time, therefore the expert will know the way forward as soon as the problem type has been identified. A systems perspective will prove useful as the effect of an action will be predictable.

Form K experts will be identifiable by their ability to ‘solve’ pretty much any problem they are confronted with. Their knowledge is vast and intimidating to the novice. The repetition of problems encountered will mean the expert is quickly able to identify what is wrong, work out how this subtly differs from previous similar problems, and make an informed judgement about what will work.

This conception of expertise is probably closest to what people think of as an expert – if we don’t know, then an expert will. Our mechanic is no expert if they fail to fix our car. A surgeon is no expert if most of their patients die on the operating table. We expect a high success rate, and for this to be achieved because they know considerably more than we do, and can turn this knowledge into performance.

If this is the common conception of the term expert, is it any wonder we lost faith in economists when they couldn’t even predict the greatest economic collapse since the 1930’s, or laughed at weather forecaster Michael Fish when he told us in 1987 that there wouldn’t be a hurricane.

Form X

In a complex environment, there is concrete domain-knowledge which can be mastered, but context and ‘soft’ knowledge is also very important. There are persistent problems which the expert must grapple with, but these manifest themselves in different forms over time. In organisational form, the solutions implemented will themselves lead to a morphing of the problem and there is a constant interplay between the actions of experts and the nature of the domain over which they exercise their expertise. Complexity leads to evolution such that the landscape constantly shifts and changes, like the dunes of a desert. The wicked problems have no ‘solutions’ in the sense of permanent fixes, rather a multiplicity of ways forward, each of which will appear more or less appealing from different perspectives.

Form X experts will thrive if they possess an ability to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity. Like the Form K expert, their knowledge is vast. However, the fluidity of the problems faced requires flexibility of knowledge; an ability to recognise proximate problem-states and adapt to situations which vary widely from any Platonic model held in the mind. The ‘complexpert’ will take longer to consider the problem, seeking advice and alternative perspectives. When they act, their actions will likely appear imperfect to some; easily dismissed as a fudge, a compromise or even incompetence. To the more generous observer, Form X expertise will show subtlety, nuance, patience, balance and wisdom. This is not the expertise of the show-off, the hero or the know-it-all.

Of course, school leaders will face both complicated and complex problems, therefore must be adept at both forms of expertise. The ability to recognise the difference is itself a part of the overall task of the expert. However, in my experience, Form X is required increasingly in more senior leadership positions. Middle leaders can rise to the ranks of senior leadership as Form K masters, and struggle to accept that their expertise now needs to take a different form. They may no longer be the one who has all the answers.

The distinction between Form K and Form X matters if we want to push forward with a view of school leaders as experts. Expertise certainly isn’t just about knowing a lot, nor is it only about how this knowledge is employed, at least not in complex environments. Expert leaders in schools, and those who they lead, must come to terms with the fact that expertise does not mean mastery of the domain – God-like omnipotence.

One criticism of my writing on leadership is that I underplay the importance of personality. My concern is that much of the literature starts with personality and builds a conception of leadership around the ‘traits’ people possess. It is not that I don’t think personality plays a part in leadership effectiveness, just that it doesn’t play the role it is often claimed that it plays. The liberating thing about an expert-leader conception is that expertise can be acquired by the introvert as much as the extrovert, the steady-Eddy or the charismatic, the caring or the cut-throat. Personality and style are secondary to what is of real importance. But there is one aspect of personality which may be critical, and that is the ability to deal with complexity, and how this affects our self-image, confidence and self-esteem.

If we want to restore faith in experts, and build expertise in school leaders, we should be careful to set out exactly what we want. Significant knowledge is possessed by those being led – curriculum knowledge, pedagogic skill – and the school leader needs sufficient insight into this expertise to be a credible and informed leader. But an attempt to master every domain is fruitless: why attempt to replicate expertise which already exists within the organisation? Leaders, particularly in more senior positions, must add value through their possession of Form X expertise – a capacity to lead in conditions of uncertainty and complexity. It is this they bring to the party, not simple solutions, quick-fixes or text-book answers. We should cast our leaders as those who are charged with navigating the ship through troubled waters, and not the Poseidon that can calm the seas.

Let’s build complexpertise in school leadership.


One thought on “The Two Forms of Expertise

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s