Chapter 10: Inscribing professional knowledge and knowing

As Merlin Donald (2001) argues, almost any advance in human intellectual enterprise – such as the development of navigational techniques that allowed great ocean voyages to be made, and accounting techniques that made international banking possible – can be traced back to certain, sometimes very small, even trivial, symbolic innovations which, after many refinements, now allow people to think and work in ways that were previously unthinkable. However, the invention of symbolic technology is not enough to achieve change in human practices. In order to explore the full potential of symbolic inventions, both individually and collectively, human minds have to learn “countless invisible habits” to use symbols effectively (Donald, 2001, 307).

Symbolic competence is a well-recognised part of “workplace literacy” and practitioners, in every professional field, are expected to master a certain set of inscriptional skills needed to carry out their activities and engage with collective work effectively (Belfiore, Defoe, Folinsbee, Hunter, & Jackson, 2004). Furthermore, as knowledge workers, professional practitioners are expected to be adept at managing their knowledge by creating a range of inscriptions that allow retrieval and application of this knowledge quickly and effectively when needed (Eraut, 2009; Schwartz, Varma, & Martin, 2008). However, as Eraut (2009) notes, how this is done in practice can be uncertain.[1] This is not to say that professionals do not create written records or students do not engage in symbolic learning tasks. (One could even claim the opposite – students spend too much of their learning time producing inscriptions, such as essays, reports and other literary artefacts.) What we would argue is that the symbolic nature of professional work in workplace settings and learning in higher education is largely taken for granted and the nature of inscriptional work is therefore quite a mysterious part of professional teaching and learning. How do students learn the inscriptional competences needed for their daily professional work and for workplace innovation?

This chapter and the next focus on the role of inscriptional competences in professional practice and look more deeply into the “representational” qualities of epistemic artefacts used and produced in professional learning in higher education. We ask the following questions.

  • What kinds of knowledge, experiences and “slices” of the real world get inscribed in the artefacts created on the boundaries between higher education and the workplace?
  • What kinds of signs are used to encode knowledge?
  • What kinds of decoding do these inscriptions afford and restrict?
  • What enables epistemic artefacts produced by students to function as professional inscriptions and also as learning artefacts?

We address these questions from two perspectives: functional and semiotic. In this chapter we take the functional perspective, and discuss what inscriptions do and how they obtain their particular roles in practice. In Chapter 11, we take the semiotic perspective and explore what inscriptions mean and how they mean what they mean. That is, by combining two perspectives, we explore how inscriptions, through their pragmatic and semiotic features, become part of a larger epistemic-conceptual fabric that provides the foundations for actionable knowledge and knowledgeable action.

[1] As Eraut says: “All vocational and professional practitioners are knowledge workers, who are expected to recognise or find out what knowledge is most relevant for their current learning goals, track down that relevant knowledge and make appropriate notes for speedy retrieval at a later date. Information from several sources may be required and, if concept maps of the topic and/or notes on its evidence base are constructed as these investigations proceed, they will greatly enhance the usefulness of their inquiry. Managing one’s knowledge adds value to the time spent acquiring and refining it, but this approach is rarely found in practice. Hence it is important to develop a repertoire of these approaches to knowledge representation.” (Eraut, 2009, 6)

Source: These are extracts from Chapter 10 of Markauskaite, L., & Goodyear, P. (forthcoming, 2015). Epistemic fluency and professional education: innovation, knowledgeable action and actionable knowledge. Dordrecht: Springer. This is a close-to-final draft. Please check the final published version if you are going to quote it. The book  is available from Springer’s e-shop.

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