An expert is someone who is particularly skilled in a specific area, and the study of expertise looks at what characteristics experts possess, what procedures they follow, and how they differ from non-experts. Expertise studies received impetus in the 1960s with the development of artificial intelligence, and attempts to build machines capable of simulating areas of human expertise. Popular domains for early study were chess, problem solving, and medical diagnosis. By the early 1990s, interest in the area was such that Ericsson described understanding expertise as ‘one of the most exciting challenges in cognitive science today’ (Ericsson and Smith 1991: vii). Around that time, a number of books on expertise research appeared, including one written by authors particularly interested in applied linguistics—Bereiter and Scardamalia (1993).
It seems to have been Carroll (1967) who suggested that a way of finding out about good (expert) language learners would be to collect together a group of them and study what they had in common. A number of ‘good language learner’ studies followed, the best known being the Canadian project of Naiman, Fröhlich, Stern, and Todesco (1978). Work like this led to studies in learning strategies, of which Oxford (1990) is a well-known example. In the general educational field, there is a body of work looking at teacher behaviour, particularly lesson and course planning (Clark and Yinger 1987), while Berliner (1995) provides a general model of teacher expertise. As regards language teaching specifically, Woods (1996) focuses on teacher cognition, and a major study undertaken by Tsui (2003) in Hong Kong involves case studies of four teachers representing different levels of expertise, and looks inter alia at how their expertise develops.
Other areas that have received attention are language teacher education and task design; see the contributions by Waters and Samuda in Johnson (2005) (an edited collection which overviews work in the language learning and teaching fields). The Lancaster University LATEX (LAnguage Teaching EXpertise) research group has also stimulated a number of recent studies. Johnson, Kim, Liu, Nava, Perkins, Smith, Soler-Canela, and Lu (2008) look at expertise in materials evaluation as does doctoral work being undertaken in South Korea; procedures followed by expert textbook writers are also being researched at the same level, while a study reported in Johnson and Jackson (2006) focuses on the expertise of trainers in various skills (sports, music, and aircraft piloting), and considers implications for language teaching.
The research methods used to study expertise have been various. Some employ batteries of psychological tests to search for important characteristics; others prefer case studies or verbal reports (including think-alouds and stimulated recall techniques). Studies involving comparisons between experts and non-experts are particularly common. It can also be pointed out with some justice that expertise studies, at the moment at least, are rather atheoretical, being based (or ‘grounded’) on data provided by subjects, rather than systematically exploring theoretically motivated hypotheses. This will doubtless change with time, as more coherent theoretical frameworks for expertise are developed. In the meantime, the research does provide rich and often fascinating observations of use to many in the language education field who are concerned with helping to develop expertise in language learners or trainee teachers.