Deconstructing Professionalism: An Actor-Network Critique of Professional Standards for Teachers in the UK Lifelong Learning Sector

Deconstructing Professionalism: An Actor-Network Critique of Professional Standards for Teachers in the UK Lifelong Learning Sector

Jonathan Tummons (Teesside University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/jantti.2011100103
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The problematisation of the professional standards for teachers in the UK lifelong learning sector tends to focus on the discourses that the standards embody: discourses that are posited as being based on a restricted or technicist model of professionalism, that fail sufficiently to recognise the lived experiences of teachers within the sector both in terms of professional knowledge and competences, and professional development. This paper takes a different approach, drawing on a branch of material semiotics – actor-network theory – in order to shift the locus of problematisation away from what the standards might mean, to how the standards are physically assembled or instantiated. The paper concludes by suggesting that a first point of problematisation rests not in the discourses that the standards embody, but in the inherent fragilities of any material artefact that has the intention of carrying meaning across spatial, institutional or temporal boundaries.
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In 2006, Lifelong Learning UK (LLUK), a quasi-autonomous government-funded body, published a set of professional standards that were intended to provide a framework for the ‘professionalisation’ of teachers in further, adult, and community education in the UK, a broad and disparate area of provision that is usually referred to as the lifelong learning sector. These LLUK standards themselves replaced an earlier set of standards which had been introduced seven years before by the Further Education National Training Organisation (FEnto). The earlier FEnto standards had been criticised for not adequately meeting the needs of trainee teachers and for failing to reflect the developmental nature of initial teacher education (ITE): they were seen as prescriptive, imposing too heavy a regulatory burden on the ITE curriculum and focusing on what might be termed the desirable attributes of qualified and experienced, rather than trainee, teachers (Elliot, 2000; Lucas, 2004). Similarly, the LLUK standards have been criticised for positing a restricted, technicist discourse of professional knowledge within the learning and skills sector, akin to a competency-based approach to learning (Finlay et al., 2007; Gleeson & James, 2007; Lucas, 2007).

This paper takes a different approach. Rather than problematising the LLUK standards through an exploration of the discourses relating to teaching, to teacher knowledge or to the pedagogy of initial teacher education that they might – or might not – promulgate, I wish to focus on what at first might seem more mundane or even prosaic matters, but which are, I shall argue, fundamental to an understanding of how a body of professional standards might do their ‘work’. I am interested in analysing the LLUK standards not from the point of view of embodying a particular set of discourses or of encouraging – or discouraging – the critical use of particular bodies of professional or technical knowledge, but rather as a reification of a series of conversations, ideas and concepts into a material form: a textual artefact that exists either on paper or on screen, that can in turn generate intertextual hierarchies through being quoted and cited (by students in their essays, in textbooks for trainee teachers or in ITE curriculum documentation, for example). What I mean to stress here is that before academics critique the standards, before university programme leaders embed them within their initial teacher education curricula, before the authors of teacher education textbooks list them at the beginning of a book chapter or before trainee teachers cite them in their assignments, all of these people actually have to get hold of a copy of the standards – in full or in part – and read them.

Thus, it is the processes of firstly reifying the standards into a material form and then distributing or transmitting that reified form across social, geographic or institutional boundaries that I wish to problematise here. I shall begin by providing some brief details regarding the empirical data on which some of my argument rests. After this, I shall provide a brief description of the main characteristics of an actor-network theory approach. I shall then briefly comment on the nature of professional or occupational standards more generally, before going on to provide an ANT-informed account of the LLUK standards.

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