Theorising professional practice differently

Theorising professional practice differently: partnership and expertise in practices of parent education 

This was an ethnographic study of the Residential Unit at Karitane, investigating how professionals learn as part of their everyday practice, and how by adopting a partnership-based approach to supporting families with young children, their practices take on an intensified pedagogic nature. It addresses questions of how professionals make effective use of expertise without taking over the process, and how they present challenge in an appropriate way.  A key theoretical outcome included conceiving times, spaces, bodies, and things as four essential dimensions of professional practice and learning. This work was funded as part of a UTS Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellowship and a UTS Early Career Researcher Grant (ERCG). Further details about methods, publications, methods, and impact work are available on the project-specific page.

Project team and partners

I led this project as a UTS Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Dr Teena Clerke worked with me on methodological aspects of the project relating to the ECRG.

The main project partner was Karitane, a key parent education and parenting service provider in NSW. I also worked closely with the Centre for Parent and Child Support (CPCS). The CPCS is the global home of the Family Partnership Model (FPM) – the approach to supporting families that has been adopted in many services across Australia (as well as in Europe). I am also a member of the national FPM group in Australia. During this project the CPCS ran a similar ethnographic study of parenting services in the UK and Channel Islands. Through regular meetings in London and Sydney we have enabled these parallel projects to benefit each other.

Aims and concepts

The project had two different primary aims. A third methodological aim was developed when I received additional funding through the ERCG.

Aim 1: To theorise professional practice and learning differently, taking into account and developing contemporary practice-based and sociomaterial perspectives. In particular I was interested in bringing together the philosophical work of Theodore Schatzki with the work of Silvia Gherardi and others, more focused on workplace learning and knowledge.

Aim 2: To use concepts of learning and pedagogy to cast new light on effective partnership between professionals and families. Here the aim is to ‘bottle’ what works well, and to find ways to help address some of the known challenges in partnership work. This includes helping professionals feel confident in using their expertise without undermining the values of partnership.

Aim 3: The ECRG enabled me to add a methodological dimension to the study, and appoint Teena Clerke to work with me. Here we wanted to explore the idea of joint or team-based ethnography. We conducted fieldwork in the same location, but allowed ourselves to work independently, following our own instincts in terms of how to be in the field, what to notice and note down, and how to analyse the data. Later on we shared our initial analyses, and could examine how our different ethnographic sensibilities underpinned both similar and different outcomes in terms of findings. This led to a jointly authored book on asymmetries in ethnography (see below).

Conceptually, the project has been driven by sociomaterial theories (see Tara Fenwick and others’ work for good digests of these in the context of educational research) and in particular Schatzki’s practice theory. Key concepts include the ideas of prefiguration and emergence, stability and change co-occurring. Schatzki takes a view of practices as embodied, temporal-spatial, and materially mediated – providing cues to the four part framework I developed: times, spaces, bodies, and things. In order to get there I drew on other concepts too, including Gherardi’s idea of texture (connectedness in action) and knowing in practice, and other work from critical cultural geography (Lefebvre, Massey), feminist literature (Grosz) and so on.


This was a compact and intense single-site ethnography, involving year-long fieldwork at the Residential Unit of Karitane, in Carramar, Sydney. The main mode of data collection was unstructured observation, shaped by fluid degrees and forms of participation in what was going on. I also collected many documents, and took photographs to help capture patterns in bodily postures, arrangements, and their relationship to artefacts. Teena conducted fieldwork at the same site, with fewer visits.

Outcomes and outputs

My ARC DECRA project, #CreatingBetterFutures is a follow-up from this study, building on its successful impact and proof of concept. The project has produced a number of breakthroughs and significant knowledge advances, delivering on the Aims stated above. These include:

Conceptual developments and new knowledge

1. Conceiving times, spaces, bodies and things as four essential dimensions of professional practice and learning

2. Developing a refined, sharper view of the relationship between professional practice and the ongoing learning that is inherently part of it. My stance, as a result of this project, is that this relationship is asymmetrical and non-reversible. Learning in practice involves meaningful changes in the way professionals interpret and act on problems of practice, and constituted through the production, maintenance, restoration, repair and/or modification of connectedness in action. Learning plays both sensitising (epistemic) and connecting (textural) work in professional practices.

3. Identifying key forms and uses of professional expertise in partnership. These have been articulated in relation to Vygotksy’s idea of the zone of proximal development, Edwards’ idea of relational agency, and a new idea of ‘nanopedagogy’, which I will present in full detail in the forthcoming book (see below).

4. Methodologically, Teena and I have developed a distinctive view of what it means to do ethnography in teams. Our view moves away from using teams to hone in on a single view, or divide labour across time or space. Instead we focus on exploiting asymmetries as a means to enrich fieldwork, analysis, and the relational dimensions of ethnography.

Impact on practice, making a difference to stakeholders

The outcomes from this project have informed the most recent developments of the Family Partnership Model (FPM) and associated Reflective Practice Handbook, where I am acknowledged as a contributor. (see Day, C., Ellis, M., & Harris, L. (2015). Family Partnership Model reflective practice handbook. London: Centre for Parent and Child Support for South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London.)

Teena and I wrote a practitioner-focused book – the first published output from the project – offering a short and clear summary of the project and key findings:

Hopwood, N., & Clerke, T. (2012). Partnership and pedagogy in child and family health practice: a resource for professionals, educators and students. Hertsellung: Lambert Academic Publishing.

I developed three tools for practitioners to use, based on my findings. Karitane has continued to work with us, with additional funding provided by the Centre for Research in Learning & Change at UTS, to refine and pilot these in practice. We conducted focus groups with practitioners from all Karitane’s sites, seeking their feedback, and getting their input in terms of language and examples. These are now being piloted through four different practice pathways: in work with families, in clinical supervision, in case conference/review, and as part of continuing professional development. The plan is to further refine the tools in light of the pilot, collect testimonials as to their use and value in practice, and then to launch them formally. Karitane plan to tell the story of these tools and the pilot at the 2015 MCAFHNA conference.

Teena and I have engaged directly Karitane staff and other professionals on multiple occasions, and a poster has been presented at the MCAFHNA conference.

I have also been working with other stakeholders, including Tresilian, and the University of Western Sydney – using findings from this project as a platform to inform education of future professionals, and to engage with a broader practitioner audience.


Hopwood, N. (2013). Understanding partnership practice in primary health as pedagogic work: what can Vygotsky’s theory of learning offer? Australian Journal of Primary Health. doi: 10.1071/PY12141

Hopwood, N. (2013). Ethnographic fieldwork as embodied material practice: reflections from theory and the field. In N. K. Denzin (Ed.), 40th anniversary of studies in symbolic interaction (Studies in symbolic interaction, volume 40) (pp. 227-245). Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Clerke, T., & Hopwood, N. (2014). Doing ethnography in teams: a case study of asymmetries in collaborative research. London: Springer Press.

Hopwood, N. (2014). Four essential dimensions of workplace learning. Journal of Workplace Learning, 26(6/7), 349-363. doi: 10.1108/JWL-09-2013-0069

Hopwood, N. (2014). Using video to trace the embodied and material in a study of health practice. Qualitative Research Journal, 14(2), 197-211. doi: 10.1108/QRJ-01-2013-0003

Hopwood, N. (2014). The rhythms of pedagogy: An ethnographic study of parenting education practices. Studies in Continuing Education, 36(2), 115-131. doi: 10.1080/0158037X.2013.787983

Hopwood, N. (2014). The fabric of practices: times, spaces, bodies, things. In L. McLean, L. Stafford & M. Weeks (Eds.), Exploring bodies in time and space (pp. 137-146). Oxfordshire: Inter-Disciplinary Press.

Hopwood, N. (2014). A sociomaterial account of partnership, signatures and accountability in practice. Professions & Professionalism, 4(2). doi: 10.7577/pp.604 [OPEN ACCESS]

Hopwood, N. (2015). Relational geometries of the body: doing ethnographic fieldwork. In B. Green & N. Hopwood (Eds.), The body in professional practice, learning and education: body/practice (pp. 53-69). London: Springer Press.

Hopwood, N. (forthcoming). Professional practice and learning: times, spaces, bodies, things. London: Springer Press.

Hopwood, N. (forthcoming). Expertise, learning, and agency in partnership practices in services for families with young children [WORKING TITLE]. In A. Edwards (Ed.), Collaborating on complex problems: cultural historical accounts of relational work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hopwood, N. (in press 2015). Communicating in family health care settings. In R. Iedema, D. Piper & M. Manidis (Eds.), Communicating quality and safety in healthcare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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