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Science teaching, nursing and cat-burgling

3 May 2013

I’ve blogged about professionalism before, and it continues to be a hot topic, so here are some further thoughts.

It is sometimes helpful to think of how words are used in casual speech in order to unpack their meaning. Perhaps it would be useful to think about terms such as “professional hit-man” or “professional cat-burglar”. Sadly, these give the professions something of a bad name. However, if you try these with opposites there is some fun to be had.  An amateur cat-burglar presumably persistently fails to make a living out of their criminal activity. 

We are more comfortable about the idea of professionals when we talk about doctors, lawyers and the like. We pay these people, either individually or through vast public organisations, to do things at which they are skilled and we are amateurs, or incompetents.  We expect them to be proficient in their practice and to be up to date with developments in it. They should make judgments on changes to their practice based on their professional groupings’ collective conclusions and their own expertise.  They should act with integrity at all times and they should inspire trust and confidence in their clients or patients.

The description of professionalism gets a bit muddier when it comes to teachers and nurses as the qualifications required for those callings become more advanced. I can remember a contemporary at university getting excited about teaching becoming a graduate profession (this was a long time ago) and just recently we nearly had all newly trained teachers being put through a Masters’ level course. So, teaching is on the move as far as professionalism is concerned and likewise nursing. Nursing in all but the most distant past always required specific training and had a structured hierarchy, but now it is moving towards being a graduate profession.

So the difference between teaching and nursing and the older, more recognised professions is at least in part to do with the way in which they perceive themselves and the qualifications needed to be in that profession. Where the qualification requirements remain static, the idea of what constitutes a professional is clearer, but where the qualifications are changing and becoming more challenging, the concept of professionalism is less clear for those on the outside. It is extraordinary to think that one can increase professionalism in a discipline by relaxing the requirement for qualifications. Surely the intellectual development necessary to become reflective and appropriately self-critical of practice requires increasing, not decreasing learning.

In my view, the essence of professionalism is that it is self-directed. Because the individual is committed to their calling, they reflect on their practice and use whatever means they can to improve it.  No endless stream of courses and conferences, books and journals or observation of others will turn an individual into a professional practitioner, but all of these will help along the way. When we talk informally about “becoming a teacher” we recognise that an individual has changed.

I am writing this as we have just taken the total tally of Chartered Science teachers over the 200 mark. Alongside these people, who have attained the gold standard for science teaching, a further 150 or so have achieved Registered status, either as teacher scientists or laboratory technicians in schools.  ASE is therefore pretty secure in identifying and defining professionalism.  A conversation is simultaneously under way about a Royal College of Teachers – the success of this will be guaranteed, not by a handsome grant, but by individual teacher involvement and a true purpose within the profession. There are parallels with doctors and lawyers, of course. But not with burglars.

Quick Update from ASE HQ

Also ASE was very much involved with the Resourcing Practical Science reports from SCORE, which were launched this month. We hope to use these reports in taking forward our work with practical science, and in working with our technician members and exhibitors at our conferences.  At headquarters, the third Assembly meeting of the year took place, and Safeguards and Publications Committees met for the last time.  Under the new committee structure these committees will become Specialist Groups.

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