Professional Doctorate: ‘practice development and change’

A few notes while half way through reading:

Lee‐Ann Fenge (2010) Sense and sensibility: making sense of a Professional Doctorate, Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 11:5, 645-656, DOI: 10.1080/14623943.2010.516976

In 2014 the University of Hull will be offering a professional doctorate.  They have re-written programme and in its current shape, it seems to align itself closely  – to the  University of Hull PhD. It is cohort based. My colleague (and buddy) wrote the programme. He is a mixed methodologist.  In writing the programme he has included very little substantive content about ‘education’ or ‘professionalism’. It’s all about the methodology.

The frequent way of framing the professional doctorate – in contrast to a doctorate that does not carry a qualifier – is that it is more concerned with ‘practice development and change’ than with ‘pure’ research.  The indication being that research concerned with ‘practice and change’ introduces an impurity. There is surely more than a faint echo here of the academic vs vocational divide.

What troubles me most about this is that when this is used in reference to education, it is hard to see how the distinction holds. Unlike sociology, psychology or mathematics – education is an applied field of study. It draws on various disciplines but in itself is non-disciplnary. What then in a field like education might be considered as pure research and what night be considered as practice development?

In addition, it treats ‘practice development and change’ as something that is unproblematic. The EdD assumes those who participate in it are practitioners, professionals who are working as teachers, managers or college governors; this is its defining feature. But the insistence that their intellectual output has to be restricted to ‘practice development and change’ is to so severely narrow its purpose that the qualification becomes meaningless at doctoral level. ‘Practice development and change’ places the doctoral researcher in an untenable position. It treats the practice as something that needs to be developed; it treats change as something that is in the gift of the professional. It divorces the EdD researcher from educational research. Both stances implied by ‘practice development and change’ are derivative of policy assumptions.  The perpetual insistence that practitioners are better, bigger, improved, assured and inspected. That headline figures must inexorably rise until everybody participates in ubiquitously perfect practice. To place yourself ‘against perpetual practice development and change’ is to place yourself beyond a normative framework that confers a valued professional status. Who celebrates the mediocre. Who wants to be ‘ok’. Who gets the power of definition?

The other problem I have with the professional doctorate as ‘practice development and change’ is that it assumes the researcher will know where to took in order to accomplish change. Or even that they might have an idea of what change they want,  should and can accomplish. A professional may well want to improve the quality of teaching in their department. I’d suggest a professional doctorate is most likely to undermine their earnest attempt. The professional doctorate will insist that you critically question – why does teaching need to improve? can the outcomes you ascribe to improved teaching be accomplished in other ways? is there a clear unambiguous linear connection between improved teaching and your purposes for wanting to improve it? who gets to define what ‘improvement’ means in teaching?

These are necessary questions for the doctoral researcher; they are nuisance questions for the professional seeking ‘practice development and change’.

There may be a valuable tension between possibilities of the EdD and the impossibility of ‘practice development and change’. That is, the impossibility of a task does not mean it is not also an entirely necessary one to undertake. It’s too soon to say whether the Hull programme will be successful. I completed an EdD a few years ago and have not looked back since. I have to say that I loved every single minute it. I’m just not entirely sure I would have been so inspired by ‘practice development and change’.


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