Professional identity

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  • Identity “represents the process by which the person seeks to integrate his (sic) various statuses and roles, as well as his diverse experiences, into a coherent image of self”. (Epstein, 1978, p. 101)

See also: Entries related to knowledge community building, e.g. community of practice, situated learning, shared experience, community of learning, participatory learning environment,socio-culturalism, ...

See also: Online identity

Theoretical frameworks


Wenger defines identity as what we know, what is foreign and what we choose to know, as well as how we know it. Our identies determine with whom we will interact in a knowledge sharing activity, and our willingness and capacity to engage in boundary interactions (Wenger 2000, p.239)

Participation constitutes identity construction, it will include dimensions of mutual engagement, a joint enterprise and a shared repertoire. (James).

  • Connectedness is built upon shared histories, experiences, reciprocity, affections and mutual commitment.
  • Expansiveness allows an individual to belong to multiple communities of practice and easily engage in boundary interactions.
  • Effectiveness enables inclusive social participation.

Wenger identifies identity as engagement in the world, but people have multiple sources of identity and ways of connecting. Affiliation to an organization (e.g. being a teacher or a dental care assistant trainee) is not enough to constitute identity. It's the experience as professionals engaged in learning and knowledge creation, i.e. to be able to interact with all kinds of situations and people. Membership of a learning community ought to be transformative.


Billet points out that "becoming" a professional relies on a duality of two processes:

  • kinds and qualitities of interactions and activities at the workplace
  • the individuals ontogenic development which includes personal goals that determine how and why individuals choose to engage. E.g. one may choose to become a firefighther for the social prestige or a nurse for the salary, i.e. not always idealized goals.

Regarding workplace learning, Billet suggests that the workplace offers both factors that constrain and inhibit learning and others that facilitate or enhance learning (Chappel:11). The latter set are the "affordances" of the workplace.

According to Chappel, Billet (2001) compiled ten factors of workplace learning affordances:

(1)routineness — the degree by which work practice activities are routine or non-routine, thereby requiring robust knowledge;

(2)discretion — the degree by which the scope of activities demands a broader or narrower range of decision making and more or less autonomous practice;

(3)intensity — the degree by which work task decision making is complicated by compounding variables and the requirement for negotiation among those variables;

(4)multiplicity — the range of activities expected to be undertaken as part of work practice;

(5)complexity — the degree by which decision making is complicated by compounding variables and resolution of tasks requiring negotiation among those variables

(6)accessibility (opaqueness of knowledge) — the degree by which knowledge required for the work practice is either accessible or hidden

(7)working with others (teams, clients) — the ways work activity is premised on interactions with others;

(8)engagement — basis of employment: a.status of employment — the standing of the work, its perceived value and whether it attracts support; b.access to participation — attributes that influence participation; c.reciprocity of values — the prospects for shared values;

(9)homogeneity of tasks — degree by which tasks in the work practice are homogeneous. Similarities may provide for greater support (modelling etc.) in development of the ability to perform;

(10)artefacts/external tools — physical artefacts used in work practice upon which performance is predicated.

Billet (2006:66) adopts the stance that “the individual can be seen as being socially shaped ontogenetically, albeit in ways rendered unique by their personal histories of self-construction [..] relations between the individual and the social world might best be understood as those between ontogeny and history are understood, as operating in parallel and through negotiation, where the immediate and premediate coalesce and shape the postmediate experience. It is these relations that are continually engaged in remaking and reproducing cultural and social practice, as in vocational practice and learning.”

Interestingly, Billet in the same article (2006) points out that even “Vygotsky [...] held that in the development of psychological functions, individual agency predominates over social guidance. In referring to child's play, he proposed:

"In play the child is always higher than his average age, higher than his usual everyday behaviour; he is in play as if a head above himself. The play contains, in a condensed way, as if in the focus of a magnifying glass, all tendencies of development; it is as if the child in play tries to accomplish a jump above the level of his ordinary behaviour. Play is the resource of development and it creates the zone of nearest development. Action in the imaginary field, in the imagined situation, construction of voluntary intention, the formulation of life plan, will motivate this all emerges in play. (as cited in Valsiner, 2000, p. 43)".”

In a conference talk at ESREA 2013 talk, Billet identified:

  • Learning as ongoing microgenesis (according to Lave when there is practice, there is learning)
  • Development defined as ontogensis
  • Phylogenetic development / transformation of society

In other words, development is a concept that is distinct from learning.

Professional identity in education

Teacher's identity

Teachers' professional identity implies both a cognitive psychological and a sociological perspective: people develop their identity in interaction with other people (sociological perspective), but express their professional identity in their perceptions of 'who they are' and 'who they want to become' as a result of this interaction (cognitive psychological perspective). (Bejaard, 2006).

Sachs (1999) identifies 2 kinds of distinct identities: (1) the entrepreneurial identity and (2) the activist identity. “The managerialist discourse gives rise to an entrepreneurial identity in which the market and issues of accountability, economy, efficiency and effectiveness shape how teachers individually and collectively construct their professional identities. Democratic discourses, which are in distinct contrast to the managerialist ones give rise to an activist professional identity in which collaborative cultures are an integral part of teachers' work practices”

Student's identity

See e-learning literacy

Identity in initial vocational training

Wenger's identity concept may be a key element to think about integration of workplace and school learning. Learners should be able to merge identity as a learner in school, as a learner in the workplace and as a practitionner in the workplace. Furthermore, most jobs have different facets that can be described as different roles. E.g. a teacher must learn to integrate his role as information provider, orchestrator, monitor, tutor and member of a bureaucratic organization. E.g. a dental care assistant must provide assistance to dental surgery, manage patients, do some office work, clean surgery tools, etc. Both must learn to develop his/her identity with respect to all expected roles.


  • Beijaard, Douwe (2006), Dilemmas and conflicting constraints in teachers' professional identity development, EARLI SIG Professional Learning and Development Conference.
  • Billet, S. (2000). Co-participation at work: Knowing and working knowledge, UTS Research Centre Vocational Education & Training Working Knowledge: Productive learning at work Conference proceedings 10-13 December 2000, University of Technology Sydney, PDF
  • Billett, S. 2001, Learning throughout working life: Interdependencies at work. Studies in Continuing Education, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 19-35.
  • Billett, S. 2002a, Toward a workplace pedagogy: guidance, participation, and engagement. Adult education quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1, pp. 27-43.
  • Billett, S. 2002b, Critiquing workplace learning discourses: participation and continuity at work. Studies in the education of adults, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 56-67.
  • Billett, S. and Pavlova, M. 2003, "Learning through working life: Individuals' agentic action, subjectivity and participation in work", in Enriching learning cultures: 11th annual international conference on post-compulsory education and training. Proceedings Volume 1, eds. Australian Academic Press, Brisbane.
  • Billett, S. (2006) Relational Interdependence Between Social and Individual Agency in Work and Working Life, Mind, Culture, And Activity, 13(1), 53-69. PDF
  • Chappell, Clive (2005) Investigating learning and work, Building the capability of VET Providers for the future Symposium, RWL4 Conference, UTS, Sydney, December 2005,Word
  • Epstein, A. (1978) Ethos and Identity, Tavistock, London
  • Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self Identity, Stanford University Press, Stanford.
  • Goodson, I. & Cole, A. (1994) Exploring the teacher's professional knowledge: Constructing identity and community, Teacher Education Quarterly, 21 (1), 85-105.
  • Henson, A., Koivu-Rybicki, V., Madigan, D. & Muchmore, J.A. (2000) Researching teaching through collaborative inquiry with outside researchers, in A. Cole and J.G. Knowles (Eds.) Researching teaching: Exploring teacher development through reflexive inquiry, Boston, MA: Allwyn and Bacon.
  • Kahan, Seth (2004), Engagement, Identity, and Innovation: Etienne Wenger on Communities of Practice. Journal of association leadership HTML.
  • Kogan, M. (2000) Higher education communities and academic identity, Higher Education Quarterly, 54 (3): 207-216
  • James, Nalita, The Importance of the Professional Identity in higher education, PDF. (Could not find the reference for this paper .... the initial bibliography is taken from it).
  • Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.
  • Maclure, M. (1993) Arguing for your self: Identity as an organising principle in teachers' jobs and lives, British Educational Research Journal, 19 (4), 311-322.
  • Malcolm, J. and Zukas, M. (2000) Becoming an educator: Communities of practice in higher education, in I. McNay (ed.) Higher Education and its Communities, Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.
  • Nixon, J. (1996) Professional identity and the restructuring of higher education, Studies in Higher Education, 21 (1): 5-16.
  • Russell, T. & Bullock, S. (1999) Discovering our professional knowledge as teachers: Critical dialogues about learning from experience, in J. Loughran (Ed.) Researching teaching methodologies and practices for understanding pedagogy, New York: The Falmer Press
  • Sachs, J. (1999) Teacher professional identity: Competing discourses, competing outcomes. Paper presented at the Australian Association of Research in Education Conference, Melbourne, November. HTML
  • Valsiner, J. (2000). Culture and human development. London: Sage.
  • Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
  • Wenger, Etienne. (2000), Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems, Organization, Volume 7(2): 225-246