Chapter 3: Defining the problem: four epistemic projects in professional work and education

Crafting expert practitioners

When we asked university teachers to describe what students learn in professional practice courses, we were struck by a commonality in their teaching agendas and by the diversity of their answers about how they do this. Many teachers started to describe their courses by explaining recent “paradigm shifts” in their respective professional areas. The examples that they gave included: a shift from dispensing medications to improving the quality of the use of medicines and improving overall community health (in pharmacy education); the introduction of a new conceptual framework that entirely restructures the arts teaching curriculum (in teacher education); and a shift to continuous improvement of patient-centred care (in nursing education).

“…There is a significant push, not only in Australia, but internationally, to reduce the amount of remuneration pharmacists receive for dispensing a medicine, and instead, remunerate them for improving quality use of medicines or health outcomes. So it’s a major paradigm shift within the profession.” [Interview: Pharmacy Practice Teacher]

How do university teachers prepare students for a changing world? Some of the aims and tasks associated with the professional practice courses looked fairly mundane (e.g., to dispense a medication; to design an assessment task; to administer a literacy test) but some of them were much more future-oriented and challenging (e.g., to design an ideal pharmacy layout; to create an evidence-informed nursing guide for manual handling, health assessment or infection control).

Broadly speaking, all of the examples uncovered in our empirical research differed in their details, but all were aimed at achieving something along one or more of the following four lines. That is, they were underpinned by one or more of the following rationales:

1 Giving form to the combination of professional “mind” and “action”; that is, mapping and mixing “theories” and “evidence” learnt at university with certain kinds of practical knowledge. Examples included such tasks as reflecting on professional experiences, or developing a plan or strategy).

2 Climbing into a professional “skin”: getting the body, mind and materials to act together (e.g., getting the pitch of one’s voice right when teaching); doing what professionals do, and feeling how they feel (e.g., thinking and feeling like a nurse).

3 Challenging students’ minds with future-oriented ideas and with changing conceptions of their professions (e.g., creating an ideal pharmacy layout; developing a disease state management service).

4 Going “outside the box” of professional skill and knowledge and engaging with practices at the intersections between different professional fields, with their different ways of knowing (e.g., for trainee pharmacists – talking with a doctor; for pre-service teachers – knowing who the school social worker is, and what they do).

All of the examples we observed involved grappling with some “wild” – untamed and complex – challenges characteristic of their professions: the diversity of students’, patients’ and other clients’ needs, multiple policy requirements, discrepancies between evidence and demands, contingency of professional decisions, etc. When “wrapped” into simple specifications for student assignments, the tasks we observed clearly reflected some key practical and epistemic challenges in professional learning. On the one hand, there is the need to “pack” the diversity of professional issues into a manageably small number of shapes and responses that students can learn. On the other hand, there is the challenge of adding to any form of professional knowledge the possibility for infinite variation that will be encountered in real world professional practice.

Source: These are extracts from Chapter 3 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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