Understanding Continuing Professional Learning

Webster-Wright, Ann (2006). Understanding Continuing Professional Learning PhD Thesis, School of Education , University of Queensland.

       
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Author Webster-Wright, Ann
Thesis Title Understanding Continuing Professional Learning
School, Centre or Institute School of Education
Institution University of Queensland
Publication date 2006
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Abstract/Summary Continuing to learn is universally accepted and expected by professionals and other stakeholders in professional practice. However, despite changes in undergraduate professional education in response to research findings, most continuing professional development (CPD) practices focus on delivery of content rather than on learning. Professional development still largely consists of brief, didactic episodes, often separated from practice or ongoing support. In exploring reasons for the lack of significant change in support for continuing learning, scant research was found about how professionals experience learning through their working lives. This study explores how allied health professionals learn in the current changing work context. The aim of the study is to enhance understanding about continuing learning so that support for professionals can improve. The findings have implications for learning in health and other professions. Using a phenomenological framework, continuing professional learning (CPL) is conceptualised in this study as part of the professionals’ lived experience of everyday practice. This conceptualisation challenges the problematic way in which much previous research views professional knowledge as a commodity that can be transferred and accumulated, separate from the professionals’ working context. Rich and diverse descriptions of learning were gained from interviews with sixteen therapists, contextualised through worksite visits, network meetings and relevant policy documents. These data were analysed using Giorgi’s empirical phenomenological methodology. A key finding of this study is the identification of significant dissonance between the reality of the professionals’ experiences of learning and the rhetoric of stakeholders’ expectations about professional development. The main focus of previous research, on the implementation and outcomes of CPD activities, fails to acknowledge the complex, diverse, multifaceted and idiosyncratic nature of professional learning experiences. Professional responsibilities with respect to CPD are linked to supervision of standards, monitoring of accountability and promotion of evidencebased practice. As this study clearly reveals, the participants are enthusiastic learners who take these professional responsibilities seriously, but consider that their continuing learning is richer than this narrow CPD interpretation. The findings are reported in two phases. The first describes commonalities across diverse experiences of CPL, in terms of four inter-related constituents: understanding, engagement, interconnection and openness. Within the complexity of descriptions of CPL, tensions are revealed, particularly between the openness and uncertainty of learning, and the constraints and regulation of context. How tensions are resolved depends on each person’s way of being a professional, so that each professional’s learning has a unique quality permeating what is essentially a shared experience. The second phase of the findings draws on phenomenological philosophy to interpret the shared experience of CPL. The key argument of this phase is that the dissonance between rhetoric and reality in CPL is largely hidden from public discourse, being mainly voiced between professionals in supportive environments. It is argued that the hidden nature of this dissonance is one reason for the lack of significant change in CPD practices, in that few professionals publicly question CPD practices or the current context for learning. Within the usual CPD discourse, learning is viewed in epistemological terms as change in professional practice knowledge, with the professional viewed as deficient and in need of developing. In this study, the ontological dimension of CPL is highlighted, in that who the professional is shapes and directs what and how the professional learns. The ontological dimension of learning and the impact of context on learning are overlooked in most CPD practices. It is important that learning providers are cognisant of the complex, diverse nature of CPL so that innovative ways of supporting professionals to learn can be encouraged. Although CPL can’t be controlled, it can be supported, so that professionals can continue to learn in their own authentic way, whilst taking into account the expectations of their working contexts. In seeking a balance between responsibility and agency in CPL, a framework of “Authentic Professional Learning” is proposed as congruent with, and supportive of, professionals’ experiences of learning, yet cognisant of the realities of the workplace with respect to accountability. Constructive strategies are developed from this framework to enable change from the current practice of CPD to that of authenticity in CPL. This study integrates, empirically confirms and extends research in higher education, workplace learning and adult education. The contribution made to understanding and supporting CPL is both theoretical and practical. Furthermore, demonstration of the value of a phenomenological framework as an alternative approach to researching continuing learning makes a methodological contribution to research in this area.

 
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