March 1998

Moving Toward Professionalism
Moving Toward

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Moving Toward Professionalism

Every profession has its own special knowledge. Developing and recognizing that knowledge is key to any strategy for moving toward professionalism.

By Stéphane Martineau

The creation of the Ontario College of Teachers is a milestone in the development of teaching as a profession. It is part of a broader movement occurring in many western nations, among them the United States and France.

This move toward professionalism reflects the many changes in our society and the hard questions being asked about the changes needed in education systems to provide young people with instruction and education for the next century.

What is a Profession?

The term profession covers a whole range of activities. When we talk about professionals, we usually think of doctors, lawyers or engineers. These professions are a kind of common ideal.

The literature identifies six characteristics of professions. A profession is an intellectual activity that requires professional accountability. It is a learned activity, not a mechanical one, and requires judgement and reflection. It is not only learned, but practical, because its aim is not theoretical speculation and development. It is learned in part through lengthy study, usually at a university. There is an internal organization and cohesion among those who practise it. And, professional activity is a service to society.

Recognizing Experience

Based on this definition, teaching is a profession. It does involve practitioner accountability and in-depth reflection, it has a practical goal, and it is learned primarily at university. Teachers now form an organized group with a certain degree of cohesion and there is no doubt that teaching is a service essential to any society.

And yet, teaching is far from achieving recognition as a distinct profession; it is often termed a quasi-profession. For this reason, there has been talk for some years now about a move toward professionalism – an ongoing process that is still incomplete.

Why Make Teaching a Profession?

The trend toward professionalism has its contradictions, one of which is that professionalism sometimes seems to be a more popular objective with teacher educators than with teachers themselves. It may be a strategy on the part of educators in faculties of education to achieve the recognition traditionally denied them by the university community.

Faculties of education are said to be "the least disciplinarian of the disciplinarian faculties and the least professional of the professional faculties." Certainly, faculties of education have not always delivered the goods and studies have shown that most teachers are dissatisfied with their training. Hence, in the context of teacher educators’ quest for recognition, the move toward teacher professionalism makes sense.

This recognition, however, depends on the ability of faculties to deliver training deemed satisfactory and thus conducive to professionalism. And satisfactory training depends on increased knowledge of the practice of teaching in order to understand what teachers have to learn. This leads to the question of professional knowledge.

Knowledge Central to Every Profession

Every recognized profession possesses its own types of knowledge, so that the development and recognition of knowledge is integral to any strategy for professionalism. These types of knowledge are not arbitrary. Professional knowledge is advanced (university level) and includes both a strategic dimension (contributing to the social recognition of a professional group) and a pragmatic dimension (the ability to perform an activity proficiently).

Although teaching is based on university education, it has not achieved full recognition as a profession, in part because it has not been able to develop a body of professional knowledge that earns societal approval.

A number of factors contribute to this situation: the university structure, which distinguishes between and assigns a hierarchy to professional training and basic research; the way in which teachers have chosen to associate through unions rather than professional associations; the lack of control that practitioners as a group have over their training; the trend toward increased fragmentation of teaching tasks and the emergence of specialists, with the result that teachers have little say in how children are taught. This list is far from exhaustive.

Developing Pedagogical Knowledge

If the sole objective of professionalism were to increase the power of teacher educators or teachers themselves, the movement has no real value. The ultimate objective of professionalism should be to improve education. Improving education means improving educators. For this reason, professionalism affects both pre-service and in-service training.

Pre-service programs involve university education designed to prepare students more effectively for the shock of the classroom and to encourage them to become specialists in the creation of learning situations. In-service programs make teachers more aware of their practice.

For some time now, one preferred method for achieving these two objectives has been the promotion of research on and for teaching, especially in the area of experiential knowledge. This field of research is based on the dual hypothesis that teaching requires more than a knowledge of the subject matter and that teachers construct knowledge as they teach. The research analyzes the development and nature of experiential knowledge, which is only one of several types of knowledge used in teaching.

Its practitioners regard experiential knowledge as the hallmark of their professionalism, the quality that makes the difference between a good teacher and a bad one. Yet it is the type of knowledge we know least about.

Increasingly aware that teachers possess a wealth of experiential knowledge, researchers are trying to collect it for use in pre-service and in-service programs. Such research represents a departure from the usual university practice because it calls for collaboration between practitioners and researchers. They have worked together on many action research projects over the past few years (in response to demand from the field), established joint schools (better equipped to provide practicum placements), and conducted co-operative research (combining research and training).

Increasingly Specialized Knowledge

The creation of the Ontario College of Teachers is a milestone on the long journey to professional recognition. To achieve this recognition, teachers must increase their power – as a professional group – over their own practice and over the training of their current and future colleagues.

But this strategy alone is not enough. Professional recognition entails the development of increasingly specialized types of pedagogical knowledge. In this process of ongoing co-operation between researchers and teachers, practitioners’ experiential knowledge is an invaluable asset.

Stéphane Martineau is assistant professor at the department of sociology and studies on equity in education at OISE/UT. He also works for the Centre de recherche en éducation franco-ontarienne(CREFO). He is one of the authors of Pour une théorie de la pédagogie : Recherches contemporaines sur le savoir des enseignants.