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74 MARCH 2005
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The nature of expertise

Mark Smith

I finished last month’s column questioning the nature of expertise. Residential child care is beset with “experts.” Every time something goes wrong we are treated to some “expert” inquiry or opinion. Most of these opinions of course are proffered from the comfort of an armchair. It’s the kind of expertise that rarely chimes with the real-life experiences of practitioners.

The outside expert as a phenomenon doesn’t seem to be peculiar to residential child care. I was prompted back to the subject by something I read in the sports pages over the weekend. Last Saturday was the big game in Scottish football, Celtic against Rangers. The Celtic goalkeeper spilled the ball to gift Rangers a soft goal, which helped them go on to win the game. Ever since, commentators have berated the poor goalkeeper. One of the most vocal critics apparently has been a sports psychologist. His interventions led to a stout defence of his goalkeeper from Martin O'Neil, the Celtic manager. O'Neil is quoted as saying, “If you are going to wheel somebody out, make sure it’s at least somebody with a bit of pedigree or somebody who’s done it and not just somebody with a few degrees.”

As someone who plies his trade in a university I wouldn’t want to be too critical of a few degrees, but O'Neil is basically right. Professional expertise isn’t something we learn in text books or professional journals. Nor is it something conferred on us because we have particular initials after our names. It’s something we learn on the shop floor from the more experienced workers around us. That’s where we start to inherit the gilded knowledge of a professional discipline. That’s where we get the “feel” for the job that we know when we see it in good workers. The attributes of these good workers don’t necessarily match the checklists of our personnel departments.

What I’m saying isn’t anti-intellectual. It’s borne out by current thinking around learning in higher education. Notions of situated learning and reflective practice vest expertise in the being and doing of everyday practice.

One of the problems facing practitioners in residential child care is that they rarely see themselves as experts and even less often do they assert themselves as such. I was speaking to a Masters student recently who was questioning whether he was really good enough to be doing a Masters thesis. That level of achievement would confer on him an expertise he didn’t feel he had. On the one hand, such attitudes are reflective of residential child care’s status as poor relation within social work and a “learned” belief that we don’t have anything worth saying. At another level though, it reflects reality. Few of us who have earned our spurs in residential child care feel that we’re experts. It’s all too easy to acknowledge what we don’t know. That’s because, despite the managerial pretence that there’s some abstract “best practice” out there that we just have to learn and operationalise, we don’t and can’t really “know” residential child care. We feel it, we reflect upon it, we are endlessly curious about it, we try to get better at it; but ultimately we will never really know it.

The above statement isn’t a counsel of defeat or nihilism. I came across a lovely catchphrase recently in Frances Ricks' book. She says that knowing is a learning disability. When we think we know something, we cut ourselves off from the possibility of further learning. And in residential child care there’s always further learning. That’s why practitioners can be so reluctant to profess any expertise. They know they’re only as good as their last shift.

The trouble with this of course is that if practitioners don’t claim expertise, that role is abrogated to “experts” who don’t even have the experience to know what they don’t know. Maybe it’s about time we started to assert our expertise, imperfect and tentative though it may be.

And lest I talk myself out of a job altogether, I do believe there is a place for academic learning. However, it needs to fuse with and to be grounded in practice experience, rather than in some abstract set of high falutin” principles that are easy to “talk” but a lot harder to “walk.” That’s why we need “experts” who, in the words of Martin O'Neil, have a bit of pedigree.


Frances Ricks, Jennifer Charlesworth, Gerard Bellefeuille, and Anne Field (1999) All Together Now: Creating a Social Capitol Mosaic.

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