What is a professional, or professional learning?

Any discussion of ‘professional learning’ immediately runs into problems. What do we mean by professional anyway? The term has become somewhat blurred in recent years and, using the online dictionary (Dictionary.com, 2011) as our starting point, we can identify four ways in which the term is often used:

1)      The “learned professionals” – traditionally lawyers, doctors and clergy. These professions have clearly defined characteristics such as skills based on theoretical knowledge, intellectual training, testing of competence, restrictions on entry, a code of conduct and an altruistic service (Millerson, 1964, cited in Perkin, 1985). Nowadays, the list would generally be expanded to include such professionals as accountants, surveyors and architects (Neal & Morgan, 2000).

2)      Someone who is paid for doing an activity, which others practice in their leisure time. This is particularly used in relation to sport (Warrior, 2002), where the distinction between “professionals” and “amateurs” is well established. This is also the sense in which the popular BBC show Strictly Come Dancing announces their “professional dancers”. The professionals on the show have made a career of dancing and earn their living from it, whereas the celebrities are doing it for fun.

3)      It can be used in the used in the very general sense of anyone who is paid to do a job. Someone can reasonably be described as a “professional carpet-fitter”, for example.

4)      The term can be used to refer to a standard of behaviour – “x handled that like a professional”.

These uses are very different and may even be contradictory. Consider the term “professional foul”, which gained currency in football after the 1980 FA cup final, when Willie Young of Arsenal deliberately fouled Paul Allen of West Ham, who had a clear run at the goal. At the time, it was only punished by a free kick, but subsequently such fouls became punishable by being sent off (Wikipedia, 2011). This is “professional” in the sense that footballers are paid to win matches however they can (meaning 2), but is clearly incompatible with any idea of professional ethics (implicit in meaning 1).

What is professional learning?

Ideas of “professional learning” could be associated with any of these definitions – after all, a sportsman or professional dancer should constantly seek to improve. However, it is most commonly associated with meaning 1, where there are generally two types of professional learning.

Firstly, one of the defining features of a profession is that it requires training to master a body of established knowledge. This body of knowledge can then be applied in a variety of situations. Here is Henry Mintzberg (2009), contrasting engineering, a profession, with his own area of expertise, management:

“…engineering does apply a good deal of science, codified and certified as to its effectiveness. And so it can be called a profession, which means that it can be taught in advance of practice, out of context.”

This training is often referred to as Initial Professional Development (IPD) and is usually assessed by examination, often in combination with specific work experience. This is how you become a doctor, lawyer, architect, accountant and so on.

However, following their IPD, professionals have a duty to keep their skills up to date. What this means will vary enormously according to the professional’s career specialism and current role. A prescribed body of knowledge is no longer adequate, so they must make the transition to “self-owned, self-directed learning” (Dealtry, 2004). Hence, most professional institutes have a requirement that their members practice ongoing learning, usually referred to as Continuing Professional Development (CPD). For example, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales use an approach of “reflect, act, impact & declare”. They offer examples of activity that could comprise CPD which include: technical reading, meetings with experts, conferences, online learning, reading magazines, newspapers and journals and registering for updates and email alerts (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales, 2011).

So how does all this apply to e-learning? That will be a question for my next blog post.

Dealtry, R. (2004) ‘Professional practice: the savvy learner’ (online), Journal of Workplace Learning, vol. 16, no. 1/2, pp. 101–109. Available from: http://libezproxy.open.ac.uk/login?url=http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/13665620410521567 (accessed 8 December 2011).

Dictionary.com (2011) Professional http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/professional (accessed 9 December 2011).

Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (2011) Our Guide to CPD http://www.icaew.com/en/members/cpd/what-is-cpd/our-guide-to-cpd (accessed 9 December 2011).

Mintzberg, H. (2009) Managing, Harlow, Pearson.

Neal, M. and Morgan, J. (2000) ‘The professionalization of everyone? A comparative study of the development of the professions in the United Kingdom and Germany’, European Sociological Review, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 9-26. Available from: http://libezproxy.open.ac.uk/login?url=http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/esr/16.1.9 (accessed 9 December 2011).

Perkin, H. (1985) ‘The Teaching Profession and the Game of Life’, in P. Gordon Is Teaching a Profession? University of London, Institute of Education.

Warrior, B. (2002) ‘Reflections of an educational professional’ (online), Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education, vol. 1, no. 2. Available from: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/hlst/documents/johlste/0030_warrior_vol1no2.pdf (accessed 8 December 2011).

Wikipedia (2011) Professional Foul http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professional_foul (accessed 9 December 2011).


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