On Professional Development: the smallness of repeated actions

professional development_2Educational practice is, arguably, a specific form of human experience.

Schutz describes “meaning” as a human reflection upon experience (or practice) making a distinction between experience and the meaning of that experience to the individual. In other words, what we do as teachers is not the same as the way we think about what we do.

In practice, as opposed to a discussion about practice, knowledge of what we do has to be embodied in order to be enacted. Experience is not “in itself” meaningful until we impose spatio-temporal constructs onto it.

Schutz, therefore, describes two types of being:  1) the meaningful stream of experience; and 2) the world of time and space. More recently cognitive scientists have described human cognition in terms of a dual processing system. One cognitive system is fast and intuitive, the other slower and more deliberate.

Bergson (2001) describes the former as the “dureé”, the duration spent within the “fast and intuitive” stream of experience:

Here there is no “side by sideness” and “no mutual externality of parts” only a “continual flux”, a stream of conscious state.

Consequently, Schon (1987) sees practice as “unique, uncertain and conflicted”, a kind of “professional artistry”. The most striking aspect of this “professional artistry” is that often the “professional performer” is unable to describe what they do or even to consciously comprehend the consequence of the actions undertaken.

Schon (1987) gives an example of the skilled physician being able to recognise a particular disease, on occasion, the moment an afflicted person walks into their office. This recognition seems to come immediately and holistically. Even after subsequent diagnosis, the skilled practitioner cannot explain how he came to make his judgment.

Similarly, Schon recounts examples of riding a bicycle, juggling, or other tasks achieved without the person accomplishing the act being able to describe how they did “it”. Michael Polanyi (1967) described this type of knowing as tacit knowledge.

Centre Forum, the liberal think tank, quoting the OECD suggests that there is a scarcity of data related to professional development. The OECD‘s own study (Table 1) suggests that:

After “Informal dialogue to improve teaching”, the most frequently reported activities were attending “Courses and workshops” (81%) and “Reading professional literature” (78%). The least common types of professional development were “Qualification programmes” (25%) and “Observation visits to other schools” (28%) (Table 1). However, patterns vary widely, particularly for the more structured types of activities. For instance:

prof development

Table 1

There seems no reason to pre-suppose that the English education system is different to any other.The problem, it seems, with much professional development is that it  becomes a discourse about the meaning of action as opposed to action itself.

Teachers can talk about “it” (whatever “it” is) but the question is whether they can actually do “it”. Much professional development in education takes the form of presentations of the latest pedagogic knowledge to passive recipients (see Table 1). The end of the year, one-fingered prod through a power-point is supposed to be transformational but completely ignores the fact that the knowledge transmitted has to be enacted in a classroom in the meaningful stream of practice.

In more mundane terms if educational leaders ran football they would have players in the classroom learning the theory of a free kick. Players would take to the field barely having kicked a ball.

The art of taking a free kick requires embodied knowledge developed by the smallness of repeated actions. The context has to be the circumstance that a free kick is enacted in practice, on the pitch with a ball.


As with most of my blogs, this has been written quickly in response to a twitter exchange. In this case tip of the hat to Sporticus.

As usual, I explain all grammatical, incoherence and sloppy writing on the immediacy of the response.


2 thoughts on “On Professional Development: the smallness of repeated actions

  1. I think that there is something significant in your argument. Some might read it as a case against research or theory-informed teaching – what have they do to with the small actions of a teacher? Others might use it in their case for teaching as a craft to which we should apprentice the novice. I don’t read it as either, but I do believe that we overlook the importance of practice to our detriment. In my PhD I outlined how I understand ‘practices’ (the plural matters I believe) as follows….

    ‘Practices are actions which sustain human activities. I take a socio-cultural historical view of practice; that practice is conducted by individuals and groups as a response to evolving contexts and situations. Practices (noun) are influenced by an individual’s beliefs, decisions, experience and expertise. They are actions embodying language, relationships and physicality. They can stagnate, but they can also be altered through practising (verb), allowing them to be understood and refined with intent.’

    In terms of educational activity I find it useful to distinguish practices from procedures. Again I quote from my PhD.

    ‘Procedures are mechanisms that help individuals or organisations to undertake their work or function; procedures are relatively readily managed, can be monitored and are definable components of a larger system. Procedures can be accomplished by people, and some by conventional and digital technology. Procedures can be replaced, over-hauled or fine-tuned when their part in the system is deemed to be inefficient, or leading to divergence.’

    I would agree that there is artistry in practice, and that for each teacher practitioner we should acknowledge, encourage and learn through the uniqueness of their practices. Small actions can be an appropriate scale of focus, and we should not be overwhelmed by the number of small actions in every pedagogic episode. A worthy ambition would be to develop an improved understanding of how tools e.g. video, coaching dimensions, can be used to trigger and refine the development of sophisticated professional practices. Recognising how complex effective educational practices are and focusing on developing these practices can thus be regarded as the rightful hub in the dynamics of professional and institutional development. Such work would help us to gain evidence of the significance of intelligent practice.

    1. Thank you for your comment Rachel it is much appreciated. Firstly I don’t see this as being anti theory, or research, quite the opposite. After years in practice I think the observation / appraisal/ professional development lifecycle model is failing. Linked too heavily with professional monitoring rather than improving practice.

      The reason? Professional development and the observation/ appraisal/ professional development lifecycle has become a “thing in itself”, distinct from practice. A “means to evidence” practice (that as often as not does not occur). Consequently, professional development and research is seen as something “other”, nothing to do with us. Often this view is held quite unconsciously.

      I couldn’t agree more with your view that professional development should be focused on classroom practice. I absolutely believe that research into classroom practice can bring substantive benefits.

      Practice is relational, embodied and socio cultural. Research evidence has to both theoretical and grounded in data. I agree with you that coaching can be used to improve practice. I fear that video (other than peer usage) will be resisted whilst we have the current climate of professional monitoring.

      Ironically most other participation activities (I mention football in the blog), use theory, data and practice quite happily. Of course, the difference being that the results are judged quantitatively over 90 minutes each week. Assessing impact is the biggest challenge but not insurmountable.

      Your work looks very interesting. I’ll have a read.

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