Necessity is the mother of professional development

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The extensive research and literature on expertise demonstrates that those who reach expert levels of performance, in any field, exhibit a purposeful and self-determined approach to their continuing professional development throughout their career (e.g. Ericsson et al, 1993).

Experts, we propose, tackle problems that increase their expertise, whereas [experienced] non experts tend to tackle problems for which they do not have to extend themselves.” (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993).

My research with nine UK National Teaching Fellows, using their award for excellence in teaching as a proxy for expertise, revealed that they were also committed to the continual improvement and evolution of their teaching (King, 2019). This ongoing professional development was motivated by their desire to improve student learning, and to not stagnate themselves. And, in my personal experience working with a range of teachers in higher education, it’s not just those who win national awards who are committed to this – there are many colleagues who are regularly seeking ways to improve.

However, other colleagues are not so motivated, they are satisfied to be good enough and not to change. If you teach the same thing in the same way over and over again, you will become very good at doing exactly that. This may work for a short period of time but other things will change around you and if you don’t adapt your approach may stop being so effective. Not being used to adaptation means that it’s really difficult to be agile and flexible when change has to happen.

As an educational developer, I can’t just put on workshops and expect people to turn up. Of course, some will, those who take an expertise approach, are forward looking and can see how the topic would be relevant for them. Most people, perhaps for pragmatic reasons, will only be interested if it is relevant to them at that time – so how to support them? As Peter Knight wrote “HEIs are having to respond to institutional obsolescence by creating new programmes and refurbishing older ones to twenty-first century standards…. Those changes depend upon and evoke faculty professional learning of the highest order, and because programmes should be continuously reviewed, they imply continuing professional development.” (Knight, 1998).  At UWE Bristol we work with programme teams as they develop new programmes or review existing ones, and we provide support, guidance and learning opportunities as part of the process. So, instead of expecting everyone to come to us, we can also go out to them to support them when they really have to make changes.

The need for timely professional development came starkly to the fore this year, 2020, in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the rapid transition to remote teaching. Those who were already exploring alternatives to standard face-to-face lecturing had a head start. Other colleagues embraced the new ways of working and came to training sessions in their droves. Necessity is the mother of professional development indeed.



Bereiter, C. & M. Scardamalia (1993) Surpassing ourselves: an enquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Open Court, Illinois

Ericsson, K.A., R. Th. Krampe & C.Tesch-Romer (1993) The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review,

King, H. (2019) Continuing Professional Development – what do award-winning academics do? Educational Developments, Vol 20.2, pp1-5

Knight, P. (1998) Professional obsolescence and continuing professional development in higher education. Innovations in Education and Training International; Vol. 35.3, pp248-256

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