“Thinking like a professional”

A range of approaches to managing the acquisition of a
professional frame of reference.

This is the web page for this panel presentation at the 2007 conference of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSoTL) in Sydney, New South Wales, in July 2007.

The text below is an amended version of the proposal (edited to reflect more closely what happened, accompanied by links to resources used in the presentation)

The presentation slides



Enabling, encouraging—and occasionally discouraging—students and novice practitioners to “think like” experienced members of their respective communities of practice is an issue facing educators across a wide range of disciplines. This international and inter-disciplinary panel will outline some theoretical perspectives, share SoTL research results and evaluate practical responses in several different professional fields, suggesting significant common themes beneath superficial variations.


This panel was prompted by a remark made about one of his students by a colleague at a staff development session; “He’ll pass the course and qualify, but he’ll never think like an engineer!” Shared with other participants, it became clear that this issue is a live one for educators in many disciplines, not merely engineering. It is perhaps most obviously significant for staff engaged in post-graduate education for the professions, but also applies to colleagues attempting to inculcate scholarly values in students just beginning at university.

There are many perspectives which contribute to an understanding of the underlying phenomenon; sociologists refer to occupational socialisation and to “habitus”; social psychologists speak of acquiring “frames of reference”; cultural theorists call them “discourses”; and educationalists may refer to “communities of practice” and “legitimate peripheral participation”.

Historically, the established professions such as medicine and the law have been most successful in engendering their espoused frame of reference, although not always to the benefit of their clients.

The panel will explore the common features, and evaluate some strategies for the management (not necessarily merely the promotion) of such frames of reference in a variety of different settings and disciplines. They will consider the relationship between taught courses and external communities of practice in inculcating them.

We shall consider to what extent taught courses can and should teach (and assess) such frames of reference, and offer tools to assist participants to explore their own courses in these terms.

Audience Engagement

Participants will be encouraged to share their own experiences in this field, and contribute to the development of models which facilitate the linking of theory, descriptive empirical research, and evolving practice, using semi-structured feedback instruments.

Contribution 1; Peter Hadfield

Learning Teaching

The course handbook on-line (may be changed from Sept. 07)

Teaching about teaching must both exemplify and illustrate a skill and a discipline, as well as discussing it. Moreover, all aspirants to the role of teacher are very experienced in the complementary role of student.

The effects of these multiple levels can be highly variable, ranging from unthinking modelling of the performance of the professor and its often inappropriate application, to wholesale rejection of the value of courses and of theories. Such varying responses can often be found in the same class and indeed the same student, as she seeks to discover what teaching means for her.

It will be argued that modern reductionist approaches to curriculum design and pedagogy have not merely failed to engage with these emergent features, but have attempted to legislate them out of existence. (Examples will be drawn from competence-based curricula which have come to dominate professional and vocational studies in the UK). Furthermore, the frameworks developed for addressing the issue have often proved to be merely aspirational and of little use to the teacher.

As an example, see the Lifelong Learning UK standards

This paper draws on continuing research on an in-service teacher “training” programme for beginning teachers in post-16 education in the UK, examining how they develop their capacity to “think like a teacher” throughout the course, and how that in turn influences and is influenced by their experience as course members.

Contribution 2; Tony Ciccone

Acquiring identities and perspectives in disciplines

In this part of the presentation, two examples are described of U.S. SoTL research that explore how students come to “think like” disciplinary practitioners.  The first involves investigation of freshman students’ abilities to engage in the pursuit of complexity in a class on comedy.  Comedy and laughter are deceptively simple at first glance. Everyone has a personal understanding, yet no explanation is completely satisfying. Theorizing is tricky because anomalous examples are so easy to find. A description is offered of how students are guided in the study of comedy so as to value its complexity.  Then an analysis of student reflections on their confrontation with, and in some cases acceptance of, complexity (that often accompanies deeper understanding) is provided.   

Contribution 3; James Atherton

Teaching that which cannot be taught

Acrobat file of handouts used in exercise.

This contribution will pick up on several of the theoretical models noted in the overall abstract (including those associated with Bateson and Lave & Wenger) and explore their common features. They all recognise that the “whole” of professional practice (including by implication the practice of being a good student) is more than the sum of its parts, although they may disagree about the origins and nature of the emergent property of the whole—“thinking like a professional”.

Research in nursing, medicine, social work and education have all explored the development of emergent skills as practitioners develop expertise through the early parts of their careers. Consideration of this material will contribute to addressing the question whether “thinking like a professional” can be “taught” at all; and indeed, whether it is entirely a desirable feature. Reference will be made to studies which indicate that our concern may need to be as much with its management as simply with its encouragement.

(In keeping with the spirit of its argument, this part of the session became a discussion exercise)


Apart from the links in the grey boxes, see;


At the end of the session, one of the participants mentioned the relevance of Threshold Concepts, and liminality, to the ontological transition to thinking of oneself as a professional. That did not mean as much to me as it should have done at the time; one of those awkward moments in academic life when you find that despite your best efforts you have never come across a really useful and relevant idea. However, I (JSA) followed it up afterwards and realised that it adds immeasurably to the work we had done.

Links relating to Threshold Concepts etc.

The original works;

  • Cousin, G (2006) "An introduction to threshold concepts" Planet No 17 December 2006, [on-line, UK] available http://www.gees.ac.uk/planet/p17/gc.pdf (accessed 3 October 2007)
  • Entwistle N (2004) Learning Outcomes and Ways of Thinking across Contrasting Disciplines and Settings in Higher Education Edinburgh; Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses Project, [on-line, UK] available http://www.tla.ed.ac.uk/etl/docs/EntwistleLOs.pdf (accessed 3 October 2007)
  • Meyer J and Land R (2003) Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines Edinburgh; Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses Project, Occasional Paper 4 [on-line, UK] available http://www.tla.ed.ac.uk/etl/docs/ETLreport4.pdf (accessed 3 October 2007)
  • Perkins D (1999) "The constructivist classroom - the many faces of constructivism" Educational Leadership 57 6-11 [available on-line http://www3.sympatico.ca/jp17/david_perkins.htm [accessed 3 October 07]
  • Perkins D (2006) "Constructivism and troublesome knowledge" in Meyer J H F and Land R (eds.) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge London; Routledge.
  • Perkins D (2008) "Beyond Understanding" in Land R, Meyer J H F and Smith, J. (eds), Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines Rotterdam; Sense Publishers
  • http://www.tla.ed.ac.uk/etl/publications.html is an excellent source for these and other papers.

Our material

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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