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Critical theory and professionalism Essay

In what ways can critical theory shed light on professionalism? This presentation explores how critical theory can provide a perspective for critiquing professionalism in education. In so doing the nature of the relationship between the professionalisation and social movement trends in education is addressed. An attempt at a definition of professionalism is going to be the focus of the first part of the presentation. Several concepts articulated within critical theory are discussed for their relevance to the issue of professionalism. The work of the Frankfurt School is underlined, drawing parallels to the work of Gramsci and Freire. In the final analysis, specific issues and questions raised by the perspective of Critical Theory are reflected upon as they apply to the professionalisation of education.

The concept of professionalism

Literature on professionalism is in its abundance. There have been many attempts at providing a clear definition, including the government-led agendas calling for higher degrees on professionalism in education. It can be noted at the outset that attempts at coming up with a definition of professionalism in education have struggled to agree on a particular one. Freidson (1994) has concluded that the use of the term professionalism is inconsistent. He argues that professionalism is ‘The Third Logic’, claiming that professions are occupational groupings that exercise relatively high degrees of control over the conditions as well as how they carry out their work. This kind of arrangement provides a mechanism for organising some aspects of social life in a way that properly deploys specialist knowledge.

Professionalism is therefore viewed as a mode of social coordination and competes with, and provides some insulation from, both market and bureaucratic forms of organisation. It has also been viewed as “a state of mind” or ideology that reflects a way of thinking about the cognitive aspects of a profession and the characteristics that typify a professional (Van Ruler, 2005). In other words, in the case of teaching, professionalism is the cultural means by which we give meaning, purpose, definition, and direction to work as professionals and the place of practitioners in society. It can therefore be claimed that there is no universal agreement of the concept.

It has been implored by some authorities for teaching to become evidence-based profession like medicine and law. Hargreaves, for example describes teaching as the “paradoxical profession”. He asserts that of all the jobs that are, or aspires to be professions, only teaching is expected to create the human skills and capacities that will enable individuals and organizations to survive and succeed. (Hargreaves, 2003). Carr (1992) has suggested that in this ‘extended’ view of educational professionalism, education and teaching are to be understood by reference to the elaborative network of public duties, obligations and responsibilities in which teaching as a social role is implicated. It can be asserted that if teaching is a profession, there has been an assumption that teachers should be equipped with capacities for autonomous judgement and the freedom to exercise this judgement.

It could be considered inappropriate for politicians or employers to dictate to teachers what is or is not worthy of inclusion in the school curriculum, or what kinds of knowledge and skill are crucial for the professional conduct of teaching. It is with this view in mind that Flinders (1980) has argued that teaching is an open-ended activity. Helsby (1995) claims that professionalism is subject to geographical and cultural differences and it can be understood as relating to exceptional standards of behaviour, dedication as well as a strong service ethic.

This view is supported by Bryan (2003) who argues that professional work can be seen to be increasingly influenced by politics. This can be justified by the claim that the policies of governments are ideologically driven, hence professionalism may be understood as constructs which develop in response to ideological influences. Thomas (2012) uses professionalism as a descriptor of a combination of teachers’ specific capabilities and knowledge, the purpose and ethical underpinnings of their work, the extent to which they are able to exercise independent and critical judgement, their role in shaping and leading changes in their field, and their relationship to other stakeholders.

Despite the vicissitude of the notion of professionalism in education, standard analyses of how this concept can be applied in public services such as teaching and nursing have stressed the importance of specialist knowledge and expertise, ethical codes as well as procedures concerned with training, induction and continuing professional development (Flexner, 1915; Larson, 1977; Langford, 1978; Eraut, 1994). Attached to this view of professionalism is the assumption that in exchange for a greater say in matters related to school and teaching, teachers are expected to submit to greater levels of scrutiny and work roles that go beyond classroom teaching (Stone-Johnson, 2013). In this exchange there is a shift of power whereby as the work of the teachers becomes increasingly professionalised, teachers appear to have surrendered degrees of professionalism.

The critical project in education supervenes from the postulation that pedagogical practices are linked to social practices, and that it is the task of the critical intellectual to identify and address injustices in these practices. The Frankfurt School’s perception of Critical Theory was driven by an underlying commitment to the notion that theory as well as practice must inform the work of those who seek to transform the oppressive conditions that exist in the world. Their ideas influenced other great critical theorists such as Freire and Gramsci. If the notion of critical theory is to be linked to the debate on professionalism, it can be argued that the development of critical pedagogy out of critical theory has changed the way through which the role of the teacher is seen, particularly the professional position of the teacher in the society.

It has been argued that there has been a widespread erosion of professional autonomy in recent years (Barton et al, 1994, Whitty et al 1998). This has been a result of the centralisation of control over all aspects of teacher’s work such as curriculum (National Curriculum, literacy and numeracy hours), assessment, (SATs, QAA/ Ofsted Inspections) and conditions of service (imposed by the employers in a controlled quasi-market regulated by centralist funding formulae, league tables and inspection regimes.) (Freidson, 2001). This can be corroborated by a survey of teachers carried by Helsby and McCulloch (1997) as it showed that the government onslaught of edicts and initiatives demolished professionalism.

It has been argued the formulation of policy documents have positioned the teacher as fundamentally impotent in terms of curriculum design. The teacher has been reduced to a mere curriculum deliverer. This is mainly to system of communication that is viewed as one-sided by educational critiques. Murphy and Fleming (2010) have attempted to deal with this issue by using the Habermas’ notion of communicative action. They argue that, for Habermas, the essential feature of communicative action is that it aims at reaching agreement.

Furthermore in order for that agreement to be not only mutually acceptable but satisfactory, its participants must be willing to make and defend validity claims such as claims of truth, rightness and truthfulness. Habermas’ notion accedes to the fact that while validity claims are raised automatically in everyday communication, it is only when communication aims primarily at reaching consensus, and when participants provide reasons for their argument, that rationality actually manifests itself. It can be argued that in the case of professionalism, Critical Theory is meant to herald a liberatory education that empowers stakeholders, fosters curiosity and critical thinking, and provides a means for crucial successful bottom-up, top-down engagement in the political arena.

The introduction of a prescriptive and centralised National Curriculum has greatly weakened the professional confidence of teachers, (Helsby and McCulloch, 1997). It has also left them uncertain of their ability to cope and of their right to take major curriculum decisions. This has resulted in the government having more control over the teaching profession, (Meyer- Emerick, 2004). Critical theory prefers to call this process ‘one-dimensionality’ of life. Thus this extended the existing understanding of power and its impact on the construction of knowledge. Gramsci was deeply concerned with the manner in which domination was undergoing major shifts and changes within the industrial western societies.

He developed a theory of hegemony, whereby he sought to explain the manner by which these changes were exercised more and more through the moral leaders of the society (including teachers) who participated in and reinforced universal ‘common sense’ notions of what is considered to be truth in society. This is consonant with Foucault’s questioning of what he termed ‘regimes of truth’ that were upheld and perpetuated through the manner in which particular knowledge was legitimated within the context of a variety of power relationships within the society. Foucault’s perceptions of power is not solely at play in the context of domination, but also in the context of creative acts of resistance and these are produced as human beings are interact across the dynamic of relationship and shaped by moments of dominance and autonomy. Such a viewpoint challenges the dichotomised standpoint of either domination or powerlessness of power as enticed by radical education theorists. Thus it can be argued that Foucault’s writing on knowledge and power shed light on a critical understanding of the teaching profession in relation to authority. More so it does open the door to a better understanding of power relations within the context of teaching practice.

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