The professionals take the stage

March 22, 1996

The Dearing inquiry will also be an inquiry into professional education, for two reasons. First, preparation for the professions constitutes a big chunk of what universities and colleges do. Second, the delivery of all higher education programmes, professional or otherwise, involves yet another professional activity: teaching.

At the heart of the matter is professional expertise. How do we educate good practitioners, and how do we know when we have done it? Increasingly, the problem is being formulated in terms of competence. In principle, there can be little objection to this. The problem comes with the application of the idea. The concept of competence is only as good as the analysis of the occupation on which it is based, and here there are big difficulties. The current method typically takes the form of a hierarchical classification or breakdown, resulting in a tree-like structure in which an occupation or job is broken down into a number of key aspects or purposes, which are then subdivided into units or tasks, which are in turn broken down into elements or components, which can then be described in terms of specific, assessable performance criteria. In addition, there may be some indication of the range of situations to which these competences should apply, and some reference to the knowledge and understanding that underpin them.

Ironically, this apparently practical analysis falls into the old theoretical trap of assuming that because something is logical, it is real. It is important to distinguish between what professionals do and how they do it. For example, one of the basic techniques or skills of the teacher is question and answer, but this can be used variously to audit a student's previous experience, to explain a current problem, or to test whether something has been learned.

Another characteristic of professional work is its variability. It is no accident that the response to many professional queries is: "Well, it depends." Any model of professional work has to build variability into the heart of the analysis, rather than simply adding it on in the form of range statements. The decisions of the teacher may be affected by the aims of the programme, the nature of the subject, the level of the course, the dynamics of the student group, the characteristics of the individual student, the departmental and institutional context and even the wider social or cultural setting.

This multi-dimensional view of professional work also implies that professional expertise comprises a complex mixture of different kinds of knowledge and know-how. Some of this involves basic theories, principles, concepts and knowledge, which have to be mastered in the conventional academic ways. Some of it relates to the interpretation of particular cases, problems and situations, and can be developed through the use of case studies, in-tray exercises, narratives, simulations and the like. Some of it involves concrete, identifiable skills which have to be systematically practised and refined. Bringing all this together in professional performance involves a subtle blend of judgement, action and reflection. The problem with the competence-based approach is that, because of its hierarchic, taxonomic mode of analysis, it impales the professions on the old dualising of theory versus practice, knowledge versus skill, reflection versus action. These issues help to define what higher education is about.

Geoffrey Squires Senior lecturer in the school of education at the University of Hull.

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