Professional Learning: A Definition in Progress

“Work in Progress” by Kevan. Creative Commons licence CC BY

My EdD thesis has the tentative title of The Professional Learning of Academics in Higher Education: A Sociomaterial Perspective. The title tips its hat towards an earlier study by Knight, Tait and Yorke (2006).

It is not a simple case of just replacing ‘teachers’ with ‘academics’. There is an important point to be made here, that is the focus on ‘academics’ rather than ‘teachers’ acknowledges that academic work and practice is expansive and goes beyond the teaching dimension of an academic’s role and responsibilities. I am enormously indebted by the work of Tara Fenwick and colleagues (Fenwick et al., 2011; Fenwick & Nerland, 2014) on professional learning and sociomateriality. I will be talking about sociomateriality in the next blog post.

Professional Learning: Interchangeable or Distinctive?

Whilst undertaking a review of the literature, it soon became clear to me that there was some reluctance, resistance or reticence (call it what you will) to define the term ‘professional learning’. Defining ‘professional development’ (with or without the prefix of ‘continuing’), on the other hand, has an overabundance of definitions that come in many shapes, sizes and flavours. In other words, definitions that are contested and problematic. The issue does not finish there as ‘professional learning’ and ‘professional development’ is often used interchangeably. This is a bit of a problem as there is a view taken by some scholars that there should be more demonstrable ‘distinctiveness’ between the two terms (Fraser et al., 2007). My take on this perceived ‘distinctiveness’ can be summarised in Table 1 below. However, some will argue that some elements used to characterise professional learning, such as ‘informal’ and ‘continuous engagement’, have also featured in those descriptions of professional development.


Table 1: Perceived Differences between Professional Development and Professional Learning
Professional Development Professional Learning
Organisation-driven Learner-driven
Compliance Agency
Transmission-led Conversation-led
Episodic Engagement Continuous Engagement
Learning as Acquisition Learning as Becoming
Formal Informal / Formal
Non-reflective Reflective
Individual Approach Collaborative Approach


The Trouble with Professional Development

In short, the debate between the terms ‘professional development’ and ‘professional learning’ concerns the former being perceived as a transmission process whereby learners passively engage with ideas and information delivered by ‘experts’, ‘gurus’, or a knowledgeable other. The latter adopts a more active and reflexive approach whereby learners collaborate with each other and determine their own learning goals and knowledge production (Boud & Hager, 2012; Groundwater-Smith & Mockler, 2009; Loughran, 2010; Webster-Wright, 2009). The concept of development has received much negative coverage with broad associations around notions of ‘deficiency’, ‘coercion’ and ‘power imbalance’ (Jones & Jones, 2007; McWilliam, 2002) implying learning is of a remedial nature (McAlpine, 2006; Webster-Wright, 2009). For some, professional development is seen as an instrument of management in order to execute its’ own organisational agendas (Friedman & Phillips, 2004; Mackay, 2017; Yorke, 1977). Adding the prefix ‘continuing’ to professional development (as in CPD) implied that it was more than an one-off singular event, recasting professional development as an on-going, organic process. Oddly, ‘continuing professional learning’ (CPL) has been suggested as a replacement for CPD (Webster-Wright, 2009). In my mind, professional learning is already perceived as a continuous activity, so why burden the term with the prefix?

Making sense of Professional Learning

Tynjälä and Gijbels (2012) argue that what makes professional learning distinctive is the learner’s ability to assimilate four different forms of knowledge and expertise through an ‘integrative pedagogy’. These forms of knowledge and expertise are described as:

  1. factual and theoretical knowledge (codified in books, reports and other media sources);
  2. experiential knowledge (acquired through on-going experimentation and practice);
  3. self-regulated knowledge (focusing on metacognition and ‘knowing oneself’); and
  4. sociocultural knowledge (located in communities of practice and interactions).

For Eraut (1994, p. 13), on the other hand, any framework that promotes and fosters professional learning needs to consider the following characteristics:

  • an appropriate combination of learning settings;
  • time for study, consultation and reflection;
  • the availability of suitable learning resources;
  • people who are prepared (willing and able) to give appropriate support; and
  • learner’s own capacity to learn, taking advantage of the opportunities available.

A Shift in Language

Whilst some may think that they can rebrand essentially professional development approaches as practices as professional learning, because the latter’s term sounds more “elegant” (Groundwater-Smith & Mockler, 2009) are sorely missing the point. It would seem that during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the focus on ‘learning’ rather than ‘development’ began to emerge (Webster-Wright, 2009). In Higher Education, a demonstrably shift in language from teaching to learning can be found (Ramsden, 2003). In the world of business and commerce, the concept of the “learning organisation” was gaining traction (Senge, 1990). Politicians had also jumped upon this particular linguistic and semantic bandwagon. In the UK, under the Blair Government, the wholesale adoption of the ‘Learning Society’ as a slogan was repeatedly used (e.g. DfEE, 1997; 1998). Indeed, an influential report on the UK HE sector entitled Higher Education in the Learning Society (NCIHE, 1997), chaired by Lord (then Sir) Ronald Dearing, emphasised learning as a key attribute.

Earlier in the post, I alluded to the fact that there was much reluctance, resistance or reticence around defining the term ‘professional learning’. In part, this may well have something to with another knotty term: ‘learning’. Learning (surprise, surprise) is a concept that is difficult to define (De Houwer et al., 2013), often challenged, contested and usually expressed in basic functional terms: a “change in behaviour” resulting from some form of practice and/or experience (Lachman, 1997, p. 477). A ‘learning topography’ framework (Alexander et al., 2009) or “atlas of learning” (Reynolds et al., 2009, p. 214) has recently been developed to try and expand our understanding of learning. An expansive ‘catch-all’ definition of learning has been constructed based upon a framework consisting of nine principles and four dimensions (what, where, who and when) of learning:

Learning is a multidimensional process that results in a relatively enduring change in a person or persons, and consequently how that person or persons will perceive the world and reciprocally respond to its affordances physically, psychologically, and socially. The process of learning has as its foundation the systemic, dynamic, and interactive relation between the nature of the learner and the object of the learning as ecologically situated in a given time and place as well as over time. (Alexander et al., 2009, p. 186)

Defining Professional Learning?

Professional learning is rather impoverished of definitions, where these do exist, they are usually vague and ambiguous (Gravani, 2007; Mockler, 2013). For example, these definitions have included: “the need for professionals to continue learning as they practice and advance in their careers” (Johnston, 1998); or, “learning becomes professional when it is goal oriented and work related, that is, engaging in activities for gain or improvement and towards transformation” (Zuber-Skerritt et al., 2015, p. 7). For the purposes of my study, I have taken professional learning (within the context of HE academics) to mean:

Those relevant individual or collaborative opportunities, encounters or experiences that promote enhanced skills, knowledge, capabilities and practices that are situated within an HE academic’s own career development and may also meet present and future organisational objectives.

However, my definition is not without problems being dependent upon cultural and contextual interpretations to frame its meaning. I may well find that I will be making more adjustments to it in order to attune it appropriately within its’ HE context.


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