“Theories of Professional Learning”

flickr photo by ianguest http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/21460106882 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Aimed at teacher educators, this guide is intended to support those involved in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) by providing a critical overview of some theories of professional learning that influence ITE. Those chosen include some with which I’m acquainted (experiential learning, pedagogical content knowledge, communities of practice), some I’ve merely heard of (cultural history activity theory) and other which are new to me (clinical practice models, craft knowledge and apprentice models). Although the title offers us ‘Theories’, we clearly have some models in here, though in describing learning, perhaps they perform similar functions? (What precisely is the difference between a theory and a model anyway? My feeling is that the former provides a more robust description/explanation of a set of circumstances, supported by systematically gained empirical evidence)

As the author points out, the different theories can be classified according to their focus:

  • On the individual mental processes which learners use or the social context within which the learning occurs.
  • How we learn or what we need to learn.
  • Those driven by empirical evidence and those built from theoretical models.

Might another distinction be the degree to which the learning is externally mandated by our circumstances (professional development?) or internally driven as a result of our passion and desire for self-improvement (professional learning?). In each chapter Philpott considers the implications of each theory for ITE and in some instances we see a degree of tension where the theory has arisen to explain an informal situation (e.g. communities of practice), but is being deployed to design learning opportunities. All of which encourages me to ruminate whether theories/models which have descriptive or explanatory power can be used to design learning.

The one chapter I didn’t mention above is that given over to the work of Michael Eraut and how people learn in workplace settings. Eraut sees the knowledge that people bring to their professional practice being formed from different constituent parts which are developed in different ways. One significant aspect of this is how knowledge is transferred between practitioners and the circumstances needed to facilitate that. This might have something to offer in interrogating what is happening when teachers say they’re learning from each other on Twitter. I definitely want to follow up the Eraut references and explore his work more deeply. (Anyone who uses wave-particle duality as an analogy for knowledge has to be worth reading!)

In bringing the book to a close, the author acknowledges how complex a process professional learning is and contends that

To maximise the value of professional learning opportunities, we need to carefully design them and actively facilitate them.

Which generated in me a degree of tension I need to resolve. I have always associated professional learning as a less formal, more user-driven process, so when I see opportunities being designed or facilitated, that feels to me more like professional development. Either this is a manifestation of a bias I need to acknowledge, or I need greater clarity in distinguishing between professional learning and professional development … or the most likely scenario, I misinterpreted what Philpott is saying!

Philpott, C., 2014. Theories of Professional Learning: A Critical Guide for Teacher Educators. Critical Publishing Ltd, Northwich.

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