Chapter 5: Professional knowledge and knowing in shared epistemic spaces: the person-plus perspective

Accounts of personal professional knowledge can appear to assume that professional knowledge for independent work and for collective work are not so different, at least that they don’t differ at the level of the human cognitive structures and mechanisms that implement thinking and professional knowing. However, there are some serious practical and scientific challenges to this view.

From the practical perspective, one has to acknowledge that much professional work is intrinsically collective. Sharing knowledge and coordinating action make it possible to distribute labour across people with specialised professional skills. It is well recognised that engaging in various kinds of social interaction, group work and communication are important professional attributes and prerequisites for employability. These “soft skills” are often seen as generic attributes, whereas it may be more accurate to see them as specialised kinds of expertise, related to particular professional fields, which manifest themselves differently, and should be taught differently, in different disciplines (Jones, 2009).

From the scientific perspective, there is now sufficient evidence to suggest that the impact of collective life has had a far more profound effect on human cognition than just promoting the development of language and other means of communication (Donald, 1990, 2001; Tomassello, 2010, 2014). For example, Merlin Donald (1990) claims that the human mind, down at the level of its internal organisation, has been affected not only by its genetic inheritance, and not only by the cognitive demands of tool making or spatial mapping – although these have been very important – but primarily by the demands of collective life and the evolution of human culture. Specifically, human cultural evolution has equipped the human species with three unique systems of memory representation:

  • mimetic skill, which draws on humans’ ability to use their bodies as memory devices and as a means for sharing knowledge,
  • language, which evolved with the acquisition of speech and makes it possible to use verbal symbols for representation, and
  • external symbols and memory devices, which draw on human abilities to read and write and which introduce radically new properties into the collective storage and retrieval of human knowledge, such as possibilities for formal theoretical thought.

These systems are based on an inventive capacity, the products of which – gestures, social rituals, speech, images, symbols, etc. – continue to be invented, put to the test, and regenerated in social arenas.


All three of these evolutionary adaptations of the human mind to cooperative social interaction coexist, and thinking and learning draw on a mix of all three. What comes through most strikingly from this perspective is that the implications of collective life and work for the overall organisation of the human cognitive system and knowledge are likely to be much more profound than merely adding “soft skills” on top of an existing system of professional knowledge. As Merlin Donald (2001) argues, modern scientific and professional work, to a large extent, is a collective endeavour in which individual minds are hugely-interconnected nodes in much larger, distributed cognitive systems, supported by external memory devices:

“Workers in such systems are, in their collective and professional identities, nodes in a distributed network. They may be active, intelligent people in their own right, absolutely convinced by their individuality, but they are nodes when they play their professional and corporate roles. <…> The creative spark of cognition still depends on the individual conscious mind, but even this statement has to be qualified because creativity cannot be exploited, or even defined, without a cultural context.” (Donald, 2001, 299)

To provide a general sense of capacities for joint, skilful work, this chapter extends the discussion of professional knowledge and learning from individual to collective practices by addressing the following questions:

What kinds of knowledge do people need to work jointly? In particular, what kinds of knowledge and skills enable professionals to work on the boundaries of their expertise: across different domains, on the frontiers of existing practice, inventing new ways of working?

Source: These are extracts from Chapter 5 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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2 responses to “Chapter 5: Professional knowledge and knowing in shared epistemic spaces: the person-plus perspective

  1. Pingback: Understanding the learning brain in the world | epistemic fluency

  2. Pingback: Developing Innovation Capability in Higher Education | epistemic fluency

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