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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Embracing 'new professionalism'

Jim Cumming

'New professionalism' is a shorthand way of capturing the essence of complex changes occurring around the individual and collective work of educators in the context of a knowledge society and global economies. The term reflects a metamorphosis of identity, disposition and behaviour that has been evolving for more than a decade. It is as much about how we as educators perceive ourselves, as how others perceive us.

David Hargreaves, from the UK, was one of the first to apply the term to education in the early 1990s, focusing on improved student learning and achievement through greater use of collaborative and data-driven approaches. During the past decade, related concepts such as 'post-modern', 'interactive', 'extended' and 'transformative' professionalism have also appeared in the literature.

While new professionalism is now serving as a generic term under which these approaches are grouped, it should be acknowledged that there is a degree of discomfort or scepticism in some quarters around its use. For example, one objection is that the term implies that educators have not been acting professionally prior to this point in time. Another is that it places the burden of responsibility for improvement on the shoulders of educators and the profession.

While such concerns are understandable, they could impede further development by continuing to cast the profession as a victim of circumstance, incapable of defending itself, and too timid and fragmented to act authoritatively on professional issues. To pursue the analogy adopted by former ACE President Dr Ken Boston, we risk condemning our profession to a perpetual state of 'adolescence'. More importantly, unless we recognise the complexity of the issues, along with the need to become more proactive in their resolution, other stakeholders (eg governments, employing authorities) could well continue the practice of acting on our behalf at best, or issuing mandates to do with professional matters at worst.

New professionalism represents a bold, vibrant and comprehensive approach to the individual and collective development of professional educators. It signals a renewed commitment to improving outcomes for all students and their communities in response to current and emerging challenges. It reflects a changing culture that embodies creative thinking and distributed leadership as means of shaping the destiny of the profession and the future of education.

Professional teaching standards are the cornerstone of this new model of professionalism. They define the core elements of good teaching and provide a powerful mechanism for monitoring progress and achievement in relation to measures that are owned and driven by the profession. There is now agreement across the profession that standards are 'tools for action - tools with which the profession can exercise greater responsibility for the quality of teaching and learning in schools'.

Teaching standards act as the driver for more effective forms of professional learning that are self-directed, continuous and systematic. In contrast to the former 'shopping mall' approach to PD, teachers' learning is more closely aligned to our daily practice with a focus on how to improve student learning. Engagement in research and innovation, together with an increasing reliance on evidence and use of data, permeates the work of all teachers.

Teaching standards also provide the basis for celebrating and rewarding excellence in teaching. It is no coincidence that a host of new award schemes are requiring candidates to (a) demonstrate how they have met or exceeded specified criteria, and (b) provide evidence of continuous improvement. While professional recognition is important, the end point must be professional certification - an endorsement by an authorised professional body that an educator has attained standards for highly accomplished professional practice. Hence, planning to establish a national body to coordinate this process should be initiated without delay.

Two interdependent elements are at the heart of this model of professionalism: new knowledge and transformational practice. The former constitutes the collective intelligence or intellectual capital of the profession that establishes the legitimacy or authority for it to act in the interests of learners, the public and the profession. This knowledge is continually expanding and evolving - serving as a wellspring to sustain and guide the profession, especially in times of uncertainty.

Transformational practice gives concrete expression to contemporary concepts of 'sustained innovation', 'professional inquiry', 'critical reflection', 'futures thinking', 'evidence-based approaches' and so on. However, what distinguishes this work from what has gone before is increased capacity on the part of teachers, teacher educators, learning organisations and the profession as a whole to assume a more proactive role in generating fundamental reform. This represents nothing less than the reconceptualising of professional practice and the remodeling of the teaching profession.

However, the bottom line is that this new model of professionalism must result in outcomes of higher order. At the top of the list is improved learning and achievement for all students. However, other indicators will also need to be used such as improved accountability, enhanced status and successful recruitment - along with greater social cohesion and economic prosperity at the macro level.

Let's embrace the challenge of new professionalism - and simply get on with it.

This article originally appear in Education Review, Volume 5 Number 9 2003


Subject Headings

Teacher evaluation
Teacher training
Teaching profession