Written by Phil Taylor, MA Education and Maters in Teaching and Learning Course Director, Education, Pedagogy and Professional Studies Co-ordinator
The newly-formed Practitioner Education Research Cluster within the Faculty of Health Education and Life Sciences has begun to share and discuss ideas on professionalism and professional identity. This is bringing together perspectives from across different disciplines and practices, drawing on experience in diverse healthcare and teaching roles. Our initial stimuli for re-thinking professionalism have come from two articles, by Hargreaves (2000) and Stronach et al (2002), which over a decade ago drew attention to debates that are still current and ongoing. While agreeing that notions of professionalism are multiple and difficult to pin-down, some common themes and interesting differences have started to emerge from our discussions. My reflections on this process so far, still in its early days, are written from an educational perspective, though the opportunity to listen to and learn from healthcare experiences has already been invigorating.
First, we have shared the notion that professions do not pre-exist as entities, but arise from occupational groups with common goals, experiences, expertise, qualifications and language. Professionalism entails the acquisition of knowledge and skills specific to an occupation or discipline, but further, application of this expertise to contexts and clients is of crucial importance. This has the potential to be a source of confidence to ourselves as professionals and also to those we care for or educate as our clients, patients, learners. Professionalism, as discussed by our research cluster, therefore becomes inextricably linked to ways of meeting the needs of others, providing public service or benefit and fulfilling a greater good, working with others ethically and responsibly. Commonly expressed values in building positive relationships with others were trust, partnership and empathy.
There are also emergent tensions in the ideas we have shared, between professionalism in a culture of openness and trust where problems are shared and resolved in teams, and professionalism as a set of standards to be complied with and used for accountability purposes. One member of our cluster spoke of expectations of ‘being professional’, seemingly important to members of professions, used as both stick and carrot. Also mentioned were political interference and hyper-accountability as eroding professionalism and leading to more entrepreneurial and instrumental professional identities. We began to explore the possibility that professionalism can create barriers or boundaries as well as forge relationships, perhaps exemplified by expressions such as ‘overstepping the mark’, or ‘beyond my pay grade’. This connects to experiences of some occupational or practitioner groups not always being considered as ‘professionals’ in the same way or with the same status as others with whom they work, for example teachers, early years practitioners and teaching assistants in schools.
Some of these tensions resonate with Stronach et al’s (2002, p.131) characterisation of the professional situation of teachers and nurses as ‘unstable’, with particular emphasis on the potentially negative impact on professional motivation brought about by audit cultures. For Hargreaves (2000), in teaching, these are symptoms of ‘de-professionalization’ along with the lessening role of higher education in initial teacher education risking practice that:
‘can at best only be reproduced, not improved’ (p.168).
Hargreaves’ (2000, p.175) solution of a ‘postmodern professionalism that opens schools and teachers up to parents and the public’ is apparently not favoured by Stronach et al (2002, p.130), who link this position to discourses of performativity, effectiveness and improvement. Both articles associate stronger professionalism with greater trust but, in my reading, divergence appears over issues of how to build and motivate this trust.
Hargreaves’ (2000) solution to de-professionalisation, for ‘professional effectiveness and public credibility’, is for teachers to ‘set and meet an exacting set of professional standards of practice‘ (p.171, italics in original), recognising this as a ‘paradoxical challenge’ (p.176). For Stronach et al (2002) such standards of practice seem to invoke a deficit model that risks demotivation, insisting that healthy practice ‘needs exercise rather than medication’ (p.132). They conclude that professionalism relies on ‘positive trust’ rather than ‘performance ranking’ (Stronach et al, 2002, p.131) and that
‘excellence can only be motivated, it cannot be coerced’ (p.132).
For a group of academics and practitioner educators, perhaps a key to both fostering this motivation and re-defining professionalism lies in another theme arising from our research cluster discussions; one with which I think both Hargreaves and Stronach et al might concur. That is, a commitment to continual learning.
Hargreaves, A. (2000) Four Ages of Professionalism and Professional Learning. Teachers and Teaching, 6(2), 151–182.
Stronach, I., Corbin, B., McNamara, O., Stark, S., & Warne, T. (2002) Towards an uncertain politics of professionalism: teacher and nurse identities in flux. Journal of Education Policy, 17(1), 109–138.