Reflections on action

11th November 1994 at 00:00
Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence By Michael Eraut The Falmer Press Pounds 38. 0 7507 1330 X Pounds 13.95. 0 7507 131 8.

Tony Edwards considers an account of teachers' professional practice This book is not made for easy reading. Michael Eraut writes lucidly and argues carefully, but he deals with the complexities of professional knowledge and practice at a fairly high level of abstraction and refuses to over simplify them. Although there are working examples, drawn from a range of professions, these are described too briefly to provide even occasional light relief from the rigorous exposition. Professionals will nevertheless,as the publishers claim, readily identify with the analysis and recognise their own practice within it.

In the first and largest section of the book, Eraut presents notably coherent and incisive explorations of the "character development and use of professional knowledge" at a time when that knowledge has been under heavy attack as serving producer interests by exaggerating and mystifying the professionals' expertise. Although he begins from his own work in the early 1980s on initial and in-service teacher education, and includes challenging accounts both of new teachers' acquisition and use of theory and of headteachers "learning about management", the developing argument gains greatly from the writer's knowledge of, and substantial reference to,other professions.

Like Donald McIntyre in his preface, I know no account of the complex inter-relationships of practice with different forms of professional knowledge which so combines breadth of view with penetrating analysis.

Eraut is especially critical of the application of technical knowledge approach but he also criticises the fashionable concept of reflective practitioners as too easy a solution of the problem of relating theory and practice. Perhaps his main theme is that professional knowledge cannot be characterised apart from the ways in which it is learned and used. That perspective leads him into particularly thoughtful accounts of how the science-base is created and gets into practice, the impossibility of representing many aspects of professional expertise in propositional form, and the increasing reliance of experienced professionals on tacit knowledge.

Central to his portrayal of teaching is the description of it as "hot action" in which "the pressure for action is immediate, and to hesitate is to lose". The consequent reliance on intuition explains why educational reform is unlikely to change classroom practice if it requires teachers to return to the status of novice in coping with new demands.

Part 2 of the book, on professional competence and qualifications, seems less cohesive or is perhaps more in the nature of work in progress. It is given a general focus by its examination of the National Vocational Qualifications framework, in particular the difficulty of recognising and accrediting the knowledge underpinning competent performance.

Eraut rejects the competent or not competent approach in favour of stages of professional development. In the context of his previous argument, it is of course the knowledge informing expert practice which is most inaccessible to being formulated.

In the final section of the book, Eraut returns to his starting point in traditional concepts of professional expertise, and its consequences in professional autonomy and the ideal of "service", and explores the nature of accountability largely in relation to outcomes for clients. The peculiar difficulty for teachers in deciding which clients deserve priority - pupils, parents the local or the wider community - is left implicit.

A great strength in the book, most obvious in the opening sequence of chapters, is that it both draws on and reconsiders the author's many years of original, far-reaching, inquiry into professional development.

It is also exemplary in what it does not do. Unlike many collections of previously published work, Eraut has revised rather than merely reprinted earlier work. The argument therefore grows systematically, repetitions are very few, and if nothing is retained "which I would not want to defend" it is certainly not because the writer's thinking has stood still. Given the quality of the argument it would have been interesting to be told in what ways his thinking about professional knowledge and competence had changed through all the work which the book reports. Certainly the outcome of his own professionalism is an invaluable guide to the nature and difficulties of professional practice.

Tony Edwards is professor of education at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

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