The ‘Root’ of Professional Learning

“Trinity Root Sculpture” by Ingrid Truemper. Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA
“Trinity Root Sculpture” by Ingrid Truemper. Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA

In my previous post, I have alluded to having a “light-bulb moment” with regards to my eventual EdD thesis. So far, I have had two conversations with “key” people and a third, and final, conversation to be had this week. One of these “key” people has provided me, for now, a working title for my thesis. In fact, it is this same individual whose Masters thesis gave me the “wobble” concerning originality in the first place. The title they suggested was: “To what extent can (e-)portfolios really support developing academic practice“. Indeed, the notion of the prefix “(e-)” comes from them as well, they go on to say that it “denotes paper or electronic portfolios, as much of the literature on the use of portfolios is applicable to either a paper-based or electronic format“. I will say more about the three “conversations” that I have had in a future posting.

Insofar as this post in concerned, I want to pick up on some of the themes, ideas and issues that have emerged with some of the reading that I have undertaken as part of this module assignment. The articles that I have read (thus far) are from Smith & Tillema (1998), Knight (2002), Orland-Barak (2005), and Crawford (2007). These will not be the only articles, I will be delving into some more and see what emerges from the literature as well.

The Smith & Tillema (1998) paper concerns two studies from two different universities (one in Israel, the other in The Netherlands) on how portfolios are constructed and compiled by school principals (the Israeli study) and managers (the Dutch study). It was quite clear that some of the respondents had some difficulties compiling these portfolios and struggled with being critically reflective, having said that, the “most frequent statement was that one learned more about oneself” (ibid. p. 203). There was tensions as to whether portfolios were a tool for personal and professional development or just for appraisal exercises. Possibly because of lack of experience or insufficient instruction, was the lack of familiarity in the art of reflection. Another inhibitor, seem to be around time pressures as well, with the authors concluding that:

The results show that people who think more favourably of self-directed learning use the portfolio as an instrument for personal development more easily and readily. Evidence was found that a conceptual change in views about self-directed learning and self-assessment is more likely to occur if the participants see the relevance of the portfolio process to their own work. Future work in promoting portfolio use as a learning and development tool could take this into consideration at the planning stage” (ibid. p. 204-205).

The Knight (2002) makes a play on continuing professional development (CPD) (for initial teacher education) being needed because no-one can hold all the propositional (conceptual, explicit) knowledge nor the procedural (practical, tacit) knowledge that is needed.  The notion of reflection is both contested and challenged, Knight (2002) argues:

In the past 20 years a great deal of faith has been put in the concept of ‘the reflective practitioner’ and the idea that reflection in, on, and for practice are promising ways of improving the quality of espoused theories (propositional or explicit knowledge) and of practice (procedural knowledge and tacit knowing). Like many enduring educational concepts, its rhetorical appeal has outstripped the evidence. Some objections, well captured by Donnelly (1999), are that reason only has limited access to that which drives our actions, which rather limits the promise of reflection for improving practice” (ibid. p. 232).

Furthermore, Knight (2002) positions the spotlight on the valorisation of non-informal learning asserting that “continuing professional development policies that do not appreciate the importance of the non-formal learning will be skewed and hence less effective than their proponents hoped” (ibid. p. 234).

Knight (2002) offers an interesting quote from Briggs & Peat (1999) that uses the analogy of the “not neat” but rhythmic “healthy human heart” as a mirror to the often messy and chaotic nature of professional learning:

… isn’t quite regular. It exhibits a strangeness that involves endless chaotic variations, microjolts, and tiny variations within each heartbeat … a healthy organism … [is] jiggling, moving, shifting, filled with positive feedback loops that push the system into new directions and negative feedback loops that keep processes from flying off into merely random oblivion” (Briggs & Peat, 1999:65, 67, cited in Knight, 2002:235).

These notions of complexity and organism had reminded me of the work by Dave Cormier (2008, 2012, 2014) on rhizomatic learning and my own blog post for “Open Education” MOOC from The Open University as a response to it. I began to wonder how much alike professional learning and rhizomatic learning could be and whether we could interpret, explain or describe professional learning through the Deleuzian concept of the rhizome. Of course, I could be barking up the wrong tree (no pun intended). There are a couple of papers around this that I think is worth investigating before dismissing it as a “novel” idea.

Crawford’s (2007) paper is an overview of a (then planned) three year research project which attempts to understand those influences upon CPD practices within the context of the UK Higher Education sector. Crawford contends “that to develop a meaningful understanding of CPD practices in academia, it is necessary to start with an exploration of what academics understand by CPD, what they do and why, taking account of the context within which that happens” (ibid. p. 56). I have located Crawford’s doctoral thesis on this, so will need to look a little deeper at the findings and it’s potential relevance to my own studies.

Finally, the Orland-Barak (2005) paper, which introduces the concept of two types of portfolio: “process portfolio” (as a method to become acquainted with the process of developing and structuring a portfolio, to understand its’ strengths and weaknesses, i.e. “learning by doing”), and “product portfolio” (to represent the products of learning, i.e. evidencing engagement, understanding and reflection of new material or experiences). Once again, the notion that the portfolio tool could be used to facilitate reflective practice is highlighted here as something that is a “‘taken for granted’ assumption …  espoused by educational theorists” (ibid. p. 28). In evaluating the style of reflective writing used, Orland-Barak draws upon Hatton and Smith’s (1995) four levels of reflecting writing:

  1. descriptive writing (reports of events or literature, which is not reflective at all, i.e. practical);
  2. descriptive reflection (providing reasons on personal judgement, i.e. ethical);
  3. dialogic reflection (a form of discourse with oneself and exploration of possible reasons, i.e. critical);
  4. critical reflection (involving reasons given for decisions or events which take account of the broader historical, social, and political contexts, i.e. transformational).

It would seem that in Orland-Barak’s study of two in-service courses for mentors and teachers in Israel, the predominate style of reflective writing tended to adhere towards the descriptive reflection category. However, there did appear to be an unintended outcome:

Although the value of the experience for participants’ professional development was not initially a focus of this research, the data suggest that both kinds of portfolio yielded benefits for the mentors. These were apparent in the participants’ expressed sense of accomplishment in the experience of documenting their professional learning through a writing medium, seldom practised in the teaching profession” (ibid. p. 37).

Orland-Barak (2005) comes to an interesting conclusion:

It follows, then, that, to some extent, reflection was enhanced by the infrastructure of engagement created in the product portfolio, where participants worked together towards the instrumental goal of constructing and presenting a group portfolio. An infrastructure of engagement provides physical and virtual spaces, mutual access in time and space, joint tasks, availability for help, and casual encounters and activities that bring about occasions for applying skills, devising solutions, making decisions, using creativity and for developing collegial interactions in the larger professional community” (ibid. p. 39).

If my conversations and readings are anything to go by, it looks like I am about to embark in the murky and messy waters of academic practice, professional learning and e-portfolios. I am beginning to test the waters as to whether my idea for a doctoral thesis is a feasible, practical and sound one. As that old Billy Ocean song goes: “When the going gets tough … The tough get going“.


Becher, T. & Trowler, P. (2001). Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Cultures of Disciplines. 2nd Edition. Buckingham, England: The Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) & Open University Press.

Briggs, J. & Peat, F.D. (1999). Seven Life Lessons of Chaos. New York: Harper Collins.

Cormier, D. (2008). “Rhizomatic Education : Community as Curriculum”. Dave’s Educational Blog, 3.1.2008. Available at: [Accessed 13.3.2013].

Cormier, D. (2012).  Embracing Uncertainty – Rhizomatic Learning in Formal Education. Available at: [Accessed 13.3.2013].

Cormier, D. (2014). Rhizomatic Learning – The community is the curriculum. Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU). Available at: [Accessed 18.2.2014].

Crawford, K. (2007). “Continuing Professional Development in Higher Education: Debating the Academic Perspective”. The International Journal of Knowledge, Culture & Change Management, 7(8), pp. 51-57. Available at: [Accessed 18.2.2014].

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1988). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated from French by B. Massumi. London, England: Continuum.

Donnelly, J.F. (1999). “Schooling Heidegger: On being in teaching”. Teaching and Teacher Education, 15(8), pp. 933–949. Available at: [Accessed 19.2.2014].

Hatton, N. & Smith, D. (1995). “Reflection in teacher education: towards definition and implementation”. Teaching and Teacher Education, 11(1), p. 33-49. Available at: [Accessed 19.2.2014].

Knight, P. (2002). “A systemic approach to professional development: learning as practice”. Teaching and Teacher Education, 18(3), pp. 229–241. Available at: [Accessed 18.2.2014].

Orland-Barak, L. (2005). “Portfolios as evidence of reflective practice: what remains ‘untold’”. Educational Research, 47(1), pp. 25-44. Available at: [Accessed 18.2.2014].

Smith, K. & Tillema, H. (1998). “Evaluating Portfolio Use as a Learning Tool for Professionals”. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 42(2), pp. 193-205. Available at: [Accessed 18.2.2014].