One of the joys of writing this column is that it gives me the excuse to pause and reflect upon my recent learning about research and practice and to consider how it may be of interest to you, my readers. Over the last month or so I have been particularly taken by what it means to be a master practitioner and how research can help us attain that level of practice. It started with my recent move to Middlesex University (England) as Director of Programs for their Professional Doctorate Program. The candidates in this program undertake a doctorate in and through their own practice. Unlike the conventional doctorate where the focus is on academic knowledge, this doctorate’s focus is on practice itself, including all the messiness of real life and context. Within my new role, I have the opportunity to work with senior practitioners from a range of professions and talk with their professors and senior academics. It is fascinating to note that we are all intrigued by the question, ”What makes mastery?”

All of us are struck by the great similarities between different disciplines–it seems that the process is the same, although the technical knowledge may be vastly different. For example, I had the delight of working with Dr. Susan Melrose, a professor of the performing arts, and I loved her perspective–to quote: “Disciplinary mastery is always relational: it is undertaken somewhere, by and for someone, with reference to (and thereby rearticulating the terms of) one or another disciplinary tradition”–this has a resonance for me when thinking about coaching. As we meet with our clients we are co-constructing a ‘performance’ with them. As we seek to probe what mastery really looks like and how it can be acquired, we are in the same realm as the performer seeking to construct a depiction of Hamlet or Sleeping Beauty which communicates and explores anew some aspect of what it means to be human.

The question of mastery has real power for coaching when we consider where we are as a profession. If we are to construct the boundaries of what constitutes our body of knowledge and practice, we need to be able to articulate in a clear manner what it means to be a master practitioner in our field. Here we differ from a performance artist in that we need to differentiate ourselves from other related disciplines. The academic requirements, i.e., the amount of stuff we need to know, are relatively straightforward. They are not easy, but they are straightforward. There may be differences in the focus of some courses depending upon the preference of the professors teaching them–but the amount and depth of study are monitored by the university accreditation boards and audited against the standard of a current body of knowledge in the area. However, with all due respect, we know that passing a master’s degree is not indicative of mastery in a profession. A master’s degree identifies that you have the required technical knowledge, NOT that you have the required professional knowledge and skills. For this we need to develop–through practice--the professional know-how and ‘gut feel’ indicative of a seasoned practitioner. This is the elusive but necessary ingredient of mastery.

So what might it be? The literature shows us a variety of perspectives and comes up with ‘practice wisdom’ and ‘expert intuition,’ both of which try to identify the process by which a practitioner produces a decision or constructs a flexible innovative intervention within the context they find themselves, i.e., their particular client or situation. It is relational, as Susan Melrose says. Let us take a moment to reflect: When was the last time you surprised yourself in practice and thought, “I wonder where that came from? Why did I do that? It worked but where did I get it from?” Probably quite recently! Your expert intuition was in full flight. You probably rationalized your decision or design AFTER the event, but it arrived like magic at the time. As Schön1 would have said, you were ‘knowing in action.’

We are starting, as researchers, to get some sense of what is happening in practice wisdom so we can help practitioners attain the holy grail of mastery. It is not appropriate to call it ‘intuition’ --expert or not--as this is a catchall phrase suggesting it is innate and without rational basis. My own view is that we are working with a kaleidoscope (I thank one of my students, Steve Wigzell, for this metaphor), each color contributing to the pattern is one aspect of what we are bringing to the interaction. For instance, we will bring technical knowledge from various disciplines: learning theory, change management, etc., but also our knowledge of context, the pragmatics in operation, our own values and beliefs, our experience in similar situations, etc. All these and more are part of the color spectrum we have in our kaleidoscope. For each client and situation, we rotate the kaleidoscope again to produce a pattern unique and specific to that client and situation.

The creation of each new pattern has to happen fast and effortlessly ‘in the moment’ through ‘reflection in action,’ and, as such, is the result of using images, examples, and understandings achieved through practice. A person’s performance nearly always uses several kinds of knowledge (technical, experiential, etc.) in some integrated form and is influenced by both context and feelings.

What recent research has shown is that the transition from novice to competent practitioner can happen when one or two areas of work are mastered. The transition from competent to master practitioner needs the practitioner to not only be using a broad and deep knowledge base, but also to be actively creating knowledge by applying their expertise in new arenas. To create new knowledge, experts must be well versed in the problems and methodologies of the field in which they work and actively engaged in problem finding. These experts are posing questions and instituting investigations that push the boundaries of their work.

So there we have it–if you want to develop expertise and be a Master Practitioner, you must be a problem finder and hence a researcher!

Enjoy your problem finding!