Sociocultural view of continuing professional development

This paper looks at how often-used “mind: local” metaphors have limited our understanding of learning. Mandatory continuing professional development (CPD) programs often only keep track of attendance rather than actual development. This paper looks at problems with, and alternatives to, CPD as it is often structured today.

Note: I reference this article in my essay, The duality of participation and reification, and a little Bolero.

Boud, D., and Hager, P. (2012) ‘Re-thinking continuing professional development through changing metaphors and location in professional practices’, Studies in Continuing Education, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 17-30 [Online]. DOI: 10.1080/0158037X.2011.608656.


  1. Introduction
  2. Metaphors, learning, and commonsense
    1. Limitations of the commonsense ‘acquisition’ and ‘transfer’ metaphors
    2. Critique of the existing professional development theorizing and its metaphors
    3. Other influential metaphors
  3. How do professionals learn?
    1. A practice approach to understanding professional learning
    2. Influences of work and the context of work on professional learning
  4. What does this imply for continuing development?
  5. Towards a fuller notion of CPD



The common use of some metaphors are limiting our understanding of learning — metaphors like “acquiring” and “transferring” learning. These metaphors have also negatively influenced CPD programs:

Proposed new metaphors: Participation, construction, and becoming.

Practice, work, and learning

Most learning occurs as part of work and social activities, especially when solving problems with others. Some professions recognize this and have extensive internship periods (for example, residency programs for new doctors).

‘Practice’ combines what, where, when, and why people do an activity. It links activity with context. It is not just applying knowledge. It is ‘becoming’ and it involves change. Practices evolve and can emerge in unpredictable ways.

Think of professionals not as just their attributes but how they use those attributes in practice.

Fostering learning at work

Work can provide opportunities for learning, and/or it can inhibit learning. Important factors:

Expansive participation provides more learning opportunities than restrictive participation:

Expansive participation (more learning opportunities)Restrictive participation (fewer learning opportunities)
Widely distributed skillsPolarized distribution of skills
Technical skills valuedTechnical skills taken for granted
Knowledge and skills of whole workforce developed and valuedKnowledge and skills of key workers or groups developed and valued
Cross-disciplinary groups or communication encouragedBounded communication and work
Manager or supervisor as enablerManager as controller
Chances to learn new jobs or skillsLack of workplace mobility
Expanded job designRestricted job design
Bottom-up approach to innovationTop-down approach to innovation
Formative approach to evaluationSummative approach to evaluation
Individual progression encouraged; strong internal labor marketWeak internal labor market; recruitment mainly from outside to meet skill needs

CPD and training

CPD should include experiences or opportunities to expand the professionals’ practice by participating with others. For example:

  • Temporarily doing the job of a more senior person
  • Collaborating with others across functions or disciplines

Training courses are still important, but attendance in those courses should not take away from the main point — the situated learning of professionals.

Analysis of CPD programs needs to move from analyzing individual skills and knowledge toward analysis of environments and practices in them — and how to extend practice scope.

See also

I think this article is very similar to Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One’.

Bennett, M., and P.M.S. Hacker. 2003. Philosophical foundations of neuroscience. Oxford:Blackwell.

Colley, H., D. James, M. Tedder, and K. Diment. 2003. Learning as becoming in vocational education and training: Class, gender and the role of habitus. Journal of Vocational Education and Training 55, no. 4: 47197.

Ellstrom, P.E. 2001. Integrating learning and work: Problems and prospects. Human Resource Development Quarterly 12, no. 4: 42135.

Johnsson, M., and D. Boud. 2010. Towards an emergent view of learning work. International Journal of Lifelong Education 29, no. 3: 35568.

Johnsson, M., D. Boud, and N. Solomon. [Forthcoming.] Learning in-between, across and beyond workplace boundaries: possibilities for human resource development practice. International Journal of Human Resources Development and Management.

Scanlon, L. 2011. Becoming a professional: An interdisciplinary analysis of professional learning. Dordrecht: Springer.

Skule, S. 2004. Learning conditions at work: A framework to understand and assess informal learning in the workplace. International Journal of Training and Development 8, no. 1: 820.

Unwin, L., and A. Fuller. 2003. Expanding learning in the workplace: Making more of individual and organisational potential. Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

Leave a reply