Professional development and quality in higher education institutions of the 21st century.
The quality of education in Australian universities remains problematic. Higher education institutions must move beyond quality monitoring and assessment and adopt new procedures that focus on continuous quality and process improvement. Universities must ensure that their vision and future goals are similar to those of their staff and organizational units.

Education (Social aspects)
Universities and colleges (Social policy)
Education, Higher (Quality management)
Marshall, Stephen J.
Pub Date:
Name: Australian Journal of Education Publisher: Australian Council for Educational Research Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1998 Australian Council for Educational Research ISSN: 0004-9441
Date: Nov, 1998 Source Volume: 42 Source Issue: 3
Geographic Scope: Australia Geographic Name: Australia
Accession Number:
Full Text:
The issue of quality in higher education in Australia, as elsewhere, remains problematic. This is not surprising given that past and current approaches at both the institutional and sectoral levels have tended to focus on the assurance, assessment, monitoring, and reporting of quality rather than on the improvement of quality itself. Quality is not something that needs simply to be monitored and measured. Rather, it must be actively managed with a view to continuous improvement and development. This paper describes a model for continuous improvement of quality in higher education and the central role that professional development plays in such a process.


The issue of quality in higher education institutions in Australia, as elsewhere, remains problematic. Fundamental questions like:

* What is it?

* How can it be assured, maintained and developed?

* How should it be reported? remain largely unresolved.

Despite nearly a decade of research and development on the part of academics, policy makers, and others, a clear definition of what is meant by quality in higher education has eluded us. As Harvey and Green (1993) have suggested, `quality' can mean a number of things: `excellence', `perfection' (or consistency), `fitness for purpose', `value for money', and `transformation'. Exactly which is relevant at any particular time is, in large part, contextually defined. Depending on who is using the term and for what purpose, quality might assume any one or more of these meanings. For example, at times of program review when financiers need to make decisions about which programs should continue to be funded and which should be dropped, quality often means `fitness for purpose'. Questions like: `Does an innovation/process adequately meet the purpose(s) for which it was designed?' become of prime importance.

However, in reporting the impact of a program or innovation on student learning, reviewers might use the term `quality' in what Harvey and Green (1993) have called its `transformative' sense, to indicate that a qualitative or fundamental change has occurred in students' understanding of particular concepts.

Lack of clarity over meaning has resulted in much confusion and protracted debate. Any survey of the literature on quality in higher education over the last five years reveals the extent to which this lack of conceptual clarity has contributed to the relatively slow development of the area as a field of research and investigation. Despite the enormous amount of thinking and work that has been undertaken in the area by a large number of individuals in a variety of different national and institutional settings, the highly political nature of `quality' has kept the focus of the debate on the theoretical issues of defining the concept and ways and means of measuring it, rather than on the practical issues of assuring, maintaining and developing quality within our institutions and their programs.

The almost universal adoption of institutional level, external quality monitoring and assessment procedures for accountability purposes (Harvey, 1998; Yorke, 1996) has, to a large extent, guaranteed a lack of any significant impact on improving the `quality' of the day-to-day work of teachers or researchers (Vroeijenstijn, 1995). Quality, it seems, has and is treated by policy makers in many countries (see, for example, the quality processes that have developed in Australia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and France) as something that can be considered independently of the day-to-day management cycles of institutions and the activities of their staff. Annual/biennial/triennial cycles of external audit designed to monitor and report upon institutional policies, procedures, and performance are assumed to be sufficient to guarantee quality in teaching, research, and community outreach/service.

However, as numerous studies over the last 20 years have shown (see Berman & McLaughlin, 1975; Datta, 1981; Elmore, 1978; Fullen, 1991; Marshall, 1993; McDonnell & Elmore, 1987), policy intentions, such as the maintenance and development of quality in educational institutions, are rarely realised through the use of policy instruments designed to measure or monitor compliance with externally mandated standards or procedures. On the contrary, studies of policy processes in educational contexts (see Edwards & Sharkansky, 1978; LaRocque, 1987; Marshall, 1993) have revealed that such approaches frequently lead to a focus on the part of policy makers and policy implementers on the clarity and specificity (or definition) of the policy itself, in an effort to ensure that policy implementers appropriately understand the policy and can appropriately measure and account for their practice. Further, such approaches, according to Owens (1987), `rest heavily on management initiative' (p. 213). The processes of designing and developing quality assurance procedures, defining standards for measuring outcomes, and developing and implementing monitoring and review mechanisms are usually undertaken by senior management. Frontline staff (academic or general whose principal responsibilities are teaching and research or supporting these activities) are rarely directly involved in designing and developing these processes and procedures. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that such approaches to policy development and implementation rarely result in change at the level of individual or organisational practice beyond bureaucratic compliance with the administrative procedures required (La Rocque, 1987; Marshall, 1993).

What is needed is a new, more flexible understanding of what quality might be in higher education, and an approach to policy development and implementation that:

* engages higher education institutions at all levels: institutional, unit, and individual,

* is integrated and coherent with the day-to-day work undertaken in such institutions by their staff, and

* is focused on maintaining and developing quality in addition to defining and assuring it.

Definitions of quality

Research by Berman and McLaughlin (1975), Fullan (1991), LaRocque (1987), and Marshall (1993) has suggested that the processes of policy development and policy implementation are mutually adaptive. Approaches to the implementation of policy are largely determined by the nature of the policy itself and the context in which it is being implemented. However, as implementation occurs and the policy is interpreted in the light of the context in which it is being implemented, new understandings of the nature and definition of the policy are developed by both policy makers and policy implementers. It is argued here that this is in fact what happens when one sets out deliberately to improve quality. Definitions of quality are contingent upon the processes by which, and the contexts in which, it is being implemented. The act of maintaining and developing quality is an on-going process of definition: definition of what quality really means in a particular context and how one should go about maintaining and developing it in such a context. Quality in teaching and quality in research clearly need to be defined differently. The purposes, processes, and outcomes of teaching and research are different and, consequently, different definitions and approaches to maintaining and developing it are needed.

But how can one establish an organisational environment in which the issue of quality is treated as an ongoing process of definition and where the processes of maintaining and developing quality are integrated and coherent with the day-to-day work of staff, and engage higher education institutions at all levels--institutional, unit, and individual? It is a matter of both organisational and individual development.

Traditional approaches to organisational development

Traditionally, organisations (including institutions of higher education) have treated matters of organisational and individual development as separate, somewhat parallel activities. Processes of organisational, unit, and/or program review and revision occur quite distinctly from cycles/processes of individual staff appraisal and professional development. Frequently, they are undertaken by expert, external reviewers who `parachute in and out' of the organisation for a short period of time to be briefed as to their role, collect data, validate the data, and prepare and present their report.

Members of the organisation, unit, or program being reviewed assume the role of `subjects of the research/evaluation'--their contribution being limited to the provision of information and, if they are lucky, to the confirmation of any interpretations made by the reviewers. Reports of such reviews are generally addressed to management, and responsibility for decisions regarding any action that might need to be taken in light of the review findings are assumed by management.

Individuals working `at the coal-face' (the academic and general staff of the unit/program being evaluated) often have little chance to influence the evaluation agenda, determine the method(s) of evaluation, contribute to the interpretation of findings, or participate in the development of strategies for overcoming any difficulties or weaknesses identified. Furthermore, where recommendations for professional development are made in such reviews, professional development is often treated as a prescription for overcoming individual weaknesses--something to be provided for and done to staff to overcome deficiencies in their current level of knowledge and/or skill. Rarely is its relationship and/or contribution to the development of the organisation made clear or explicitly explained.

Traditional approaches to professional development

Traditional approaches to professional development have also tended to treat the development of individuals as separate from the development of the organisation/units/programs in which they work (Darling-Hammond, 1990). They have been based on a view that:

* professional development is about improving individuals' knowledge and skills through the transmission of information;

* knowledge created by one set of individuals in one context (the professional developers in their offices) will be meaningful and readily transferred to another (the academic and general staff in their offices/classrooms/laboratories);

* responsibility for planning, developing, implementing, and evaluating professional development is best located with the experts--the professional developers.

Thus, we have a long history in higher education institutions of establishing professional development centres, staffed by expert trainers, who provide a wide range of one-off workshops and seminars, on a variety of different topics deemed by themselves and other experts (institutional leaders and managers) to be relevant to the needs of staff.

Frequently, separate centres or organisational units are established to cater for the professional development of academic and general staff, on the belief that, fundamentally, the professional development needs of these two groups of staff are somehow different. Despite these perceptions, however, methodologies vary little between the two, with one-off workshops and seminars focusing on the dissemination of information, the primary mode of delivery used in both. Little opportunity is accorded participants to define the agendas of these sessions or to ensure that these agendas emerge from, or contribute to, the development of the particular knowledge and skills that individual participants need in their everyday activities as teachers, researchers, administrators and specialist support staff. `One-size-fits-all' seems to be the underlying assumption.

Furthermore, higher education institutions have tended to develop and implement professional development policies and processes quite separately from policy and program development and implementation in core activities like teaching, research, and community outreach/service. In many higher education institutions, professional development staff have little or no involvement in key policy-making or decision-making groups and, thus, little or no opportunity to contribute to, or benefit from (in terms of learning how to target their programs and activities) the discussion, debate, and decisions made in these groups. Decisions with regard to teaching-, research-, and community outreach-development are often made without the benefit of input from the relevant experts--those who have made a career out of the study and practice of developing these core areas of higher education activity.

More recently, albeit somewhat slowly, approaches to professional development in higher education institutions have begun to embrace a new philosophy--one which recognises the centrality of Schon's (1983) notion of `reflective practice' in the development of professional knowledge and skills. These approaches engage staff in the `analysis of their own practice so that emerging problems can be resolved through the generation and testing of hypotheses' in situ (Smyth, 1991, p. 9). The role of professional development, in such an approach, is to assist staff to identify and diagnose practical problems of importance to them and over which they have discretionary control, with the view to helping them to formulate their own solutions to these problems, and thus assisting them to improve the quality of their work.

In many professional development programs, efforts to get staff to reflect upon their practice as teachers, researchers, or community outreach workers arise in the context of asking participants in workshops, seminars or formal courses of study (e.g. graduate certificates in higher education):

* to reflect upon a particular aspect of their work (e.g. a change process);

* to describe it (what the change was, how it was effected, etc.);

* to analyse it (in terms of a given framework);

* to share their descriptions and analyses with their fellow participants;

* to summarise their collective understanding of this aspect of their work (i.e. the nature and experience of change).

The purpose of such activities is often cited as being to develop a better understanding of individual and collective approaches to the chosen aspect of participants' work (e.g. change) so that future efforts in relation to this aspect of their work might be handled more effectively.

However, although such approaches to professional development have proven to be effective in facilitating individual and group learning (Warren-Little, 1990), and have been warmly embraced by participants for facilitating the collegial exchange of ideas that so many seek, there is mounting evidence to suggest that they are insufficient in improving the quality of teaching, research, community outreach/service, and administrative and specialist support (Smith, 1993). The fundamental weakness of such approaches has been well recognised in the professional development literature for many years (Fullan, 1992; Pink, 1989; Roark & Davis, 1981; Smyth, 1991; Wood, Thompson, & Russell, 1981). Although participants are often inspired and motivated during and shortly after participating in such programs to implement or act upon the new understandings that they develop through such activities, their motivation and resolve to change soon dwindles when they return to their schools, departments, and offices and face the constraining and sometimes openly hostile realities of their workplaces. Departmental policies and processes, cultures, ideologies, and values at odds with the principles of better practice identified during such professional development activities often lead to staff `choosing the easier road' and continuing to practise as before. Under such circumstances, while the individual may have grown and developed, the organisation has remained stuck and, consequently, limited if any improvement in the quality of process or outcome (be it in teaching, research, community outreach/service, administration or specialist support) can result.

Clearly, what is and will be needed in higher education institutions of the 21st century is a model of professional development which not only focuses on and facilitates individual learning and the improvement of quality of individual teaching, research, and so on, but one which supports and facilitates organisational learning and development at the same time. Such a model of professional development will need to go beyond both the individually focused `transmission of expert knowledge' and `reflection on practice' models described, to a model of on-going, critical, reflective practice that is integrated into all aspects of the core business of higher education institutions. Only in this way will we be able to overcome the barriers associated with individuals developing their knowledge and skills while organisational knowledge, and the policies and processes that it informs, remain stuck in the past.

But how do organisations learn and how can such learning be facilitated?

Learning organizations

First and foremost, it is important to recognise that organisations do not learn. To speak of universities or organisations as `learning' or `creating their future' reifies them. It is the individuals within them who learn. An organisation's capacity to respond, adapt, and create is only as great as the capacity of its staff to do so individually and collectively.

Thus, to facilitate `organisational learning' one must focus on developing and implementing policies and procedures to support individual development which:

* are guided, informed, facilitated, and supported by the developing strategies, structures, and environment of the institutions of which they are a part, and

* readily enable the organisation to `tap into' the developing knowledge and skills of its staff

In Senge's (1990) terms, effective professional development policies and practices must encourage and develop the disciplines of:

* systems thinking

* personal mastery

* working with mental models

* building shared vision

* team learning.

Systems thinking

`Systems thinking' is the discipline of thinking in terms of the whole, rather than in terms of parts of the whole. For example, in contemplating how a particular discipline might increase its research capacity and output, consideration would be given to the full range of factors, internal and external to the discipline and the institution, that might facilitate or constrain the research activity of the discipline. Such factors might include limitations on the discipline and research knowledge of the staff, the number of graduate research students in the discipline, and the level of resources available to support research in the discipline. By focusing on the whole, individuals and organisations are able to develop a better understanding of the interconnectedness of issues and thus are able to develop more effective strategies to deal with them.

Personal mastery

The discipline of `personal mastery' is the discipline of learning how to generate and sustain `creative tension,' or the tension that arises due to the juxtaposition of personal vision (what we want or where we want to be) with a clear picture of current reality (where we are relative to what we want). Higher education institutions need staff at all levels who are capable of articulating a personal vision, identifying the structural, human, political, and cultural forces that facilitate or constrain the realisation of this vision, and learning how to overcome or exploit these forces.

Within the context of their institution's vision, goals and priorities, individuals must be able to articulate their own personal vision, identify the range of forces that facilitate or constrain the realisation of this vision, and plan and put into effect strategies for developing the knowledge and skills required to overcome them.

Working with mental models

The discipline of `working with mental models' is the discipline of turning the mirror inward, learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny (Senge, 1990, p. 9). It also includes the ability to carry on `learningful' conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people effectively expose their own thinking and make that thinking open to the influence of others. In doing so, they are able to uncover the nature of the forces that inhibit and constrain them and their organisation from realising their individual and shared goals and objectives.

Smyth (1991) offers a useful four-stage process by which staff of higher education institutions might examine and work with their mental models. First, individuals or groups need to be encouraged to create a text for analysis. This, he has argued, can be achieved by assisting them to describe what they do (p. 113) (e.g. getting staff to describe their quality assurance procedures). Second, they must uncover the broad principles that are informing (consciously or otherwise) their policies, decisions, or actions (p. 114). Third, they must confront these theories or general principles with a form of `interrogation and questioning that establishes something about their legitimacy and their legacy' (p. 115). Staff might be encouraged to ask:

* What do my(our) practices say about my(our) assumptions, values, and beliefs about ...?

* Where did these ideas come from?

* What social practices are expressed in these ideas?

* What is it that causes me to maintain my theories?

* What views of power do they embody?

* Whose interests seem to be served by my practices?

* What is it that acts to constrain my(our) views of what is possible in ...?

Finally, having developed an understanding through critical reflection of this kind that workplace realities are not immutable givens but are the creations of others and therefore essentially contestable (p. 116), individuals and the organisational units of which they are a part are able to reconstruct their understandings and practices and tackle freely the question of how they might change in order to improve their existing practices.

However, such open critical analysis of one's assumptions, beliefs and values, whether undertaken at an individual or group level, requires great courage and is very risky in the highly competitive environments characteristic of higher education institutions. Consequently, one of the biggest challenges in effecting effective professional and organisational development lies in the capacity of higher education institutions to encourage and reward staff to take the attendant risks associated with learning through open, critical inquiry of their work and workplace.

Building shared vision

The discipline of building shared vision is the discipline of unearthing shared `pictures of the future' that foster genuine commitment and enrolment of staff rather than compliance (Senge, 1990). Effective professional development policies and practices focus on, and are integral to, the realisation of collaboratively and collegially developed shared visions. As such, professional development policies and practices should engage all staff in the process of defining their own and their organisational unit's vision, within the context of their institution's overall vision, goals, and mission.

Team learning

Team learning is the process of aligning and developing the capacity of a team to create the results its members truly desire. It involves learning how to tap the potential of many minds, how to develop `operational trust' where each team member remains conscious of other team members and can be counted on to act in ways that complement each others' actions, how to master the processes of dialogue and discussion, and how to deal creatively with the forces opposing productive dialogue and discussion.

Effective professional development policies and practices encourage and support the development of effective team learning--that is, professional development policies and practice throughout higher education institutions should encourage and assist schools, departments, and offices to develop team-based approaches to their organisation and work to ensure that the learning of individual staff can readily and effectively be shared among the other members of the unit or institution.

Professional development for higher education institutions of the 21st century

If quality processes and outcomes are to be realised in higher education institutions of the 21st century, then there must be institutional-wide commitment to continuous quality improvement and continuous process improvement in all aspects of the organisation's core business: teaching, research, community outreach/service, leadership and management, administrative support, and specialist support. Professional development must be integrated into the processes and activities of higher education institutions at all levels.

* At the institutional or macro level, professional development activities should focus on assisting the institution, its schools, departments, and offices to develop a strong and coherent policy framework and organisational infrastructure (with the necessary links between professional development policy and process and those of strategic planning, quality assurance, and personnel management) to encourage and support organisational learning and the realisation of its vision, goals and priorities.

* At the work group or meso level, professional development activities should focus on assisting work groups and teams to function more effectively as learning groups, by drawing upon the individual and collective knowledge and skills of team members, to identify and deal with areas of group learning and behaviour that need to be improved for the group and institution to function more effectively and realise their vision, goals and priorities.

* At the individual or micro level, professional development activities should focus on assisting individuals to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to excel in their chosen field of work and to realise their personal vision, goals, and priorities within the context of their institution's vision, goals, and priorities.

At the macro level, institutional policy and infrastructure should encourage and support the realisation of the institution's vision and the development of the five essential disciplines of a learning organisation. Strategic planning processes should build upon the personal visions of institutional staff; program, course and organisational unit review processes should encourage, reward, and act upon genuine critical assessment of existing work practices; remuneration packages and research grant programs should genuinely encourage and reward team-based approaches to work.

At the meso level, professional development should focus on assisting groups of individuals to understand how they and their institution might tap the knowledge and expertise of the group so that they can be more effective in realising the vision, goals, and strategic priorities of the institution and the organisational unit(s) to which they belong. For example, professional development activities should assist groups to understand more about how teams work, where leadership might reside in teams, how to communicate effectively in teams, and how to get things done effectively in teams.

At the micro level, individuals should be assisted to develop:

* knowledge and skills of professional practice (i.e. the functional knowledge and skills required to practise effectively in teaching, research, community outreach, leadership and management, or administrative or specialist support, and the knowledge and skills of scholarship and professional inquiry required to keep abreast of developments in their area of work) (see Figure 1);

Figure 1 A conceptual framework for professional development

Note: The author is indebted to his colleagues Moya Adams, Bronwyn Clarke, and Andrew Litchfield for their contributions in the development of this framework.

* the leadership and management knowledge and skills required to lead and manage the planning, development, implementation and evaluation of change in each of their institution's core areas of activity (e.g. the introduction of a new program of studies within an academic discipline; the introduction of major new technology, or a work redesign process in an area to improve customer service);

* the generic knowledge and skills necessary to facilitate the systems thinking, personal mastery, critical inquiry, shared vision building, and team work essential to the development of a learning organisation (e.g. effective communication, negotiation, conflict resolution, team working skills).

Thus, professional development activities for higher education institutions of the 21st century share three essential characteristics:

* They focus on facilitating or supporting the strategic priorities and organisational development initiatives of the institution and organisational units to which the targeted staff members belong.

* They meet the learning needs of individuals in each of the three key areas of learning required (i.e. professional practice, leadership and management, and generic).

* They facilitate and support the development of the five essential disciplines of a learning organisation (systems thinking, personal mastery, critical inquiry, building shared vision, and team learning).

Professional development activities

A range of different activities might be employed or engaged in by individuals or organisational units to facilitate such an approach to professional development. These include:

* formal/structured activities like outside study program (OSP) leave, conferences, workshops, and site visits; and

* informal/unstructured activities like meetings and discussion groups.

However, for the purposes of audit, activities should not be considered to be legitimate professional development activities unless they can be shown significantly to include elements of each of three of the criteria outlined above.

An appropriate array of professional development activities for academic staff of a discipline in which a strategic priority is `to develop the research capacity and output of the discipline' might include:

1 OSP leave for staff to update their current knowledge of the state of the discipline (provided that there is a requirement that the knowledge gained is shared with other staff in the discipline and that it is used to benefit directly the discipline through the development of a research grant application or the like);

2 enrolment in formal award courses in research methodology;

3 attendance at workshops or seminars on applying for and developing successful research grants;

4 participation in workshops on `disseminating your research findings';

5 mentoring programs to develop the skills of postgraduate supervision;

6 attendance at conferences to explore the issues associated with leading and managing a research unit/team;

7 participation in workshops on how to audit the discipline's research function;

8 team-building activities for staff within the discipline or within a research team.

Activities 1 to 5 are designed to provide participants with the opportunity to develop knowledge of and skills in the professional practice required to meet their discipline's strategic priority.

Activities 6 and 7 are designed to provide participants with the opportunity to develop the leadership and management knowledge and skills that they require to meet their discipline's strategic priority.

Activity 8 assists participants to develop some of the generic knowledge and skills that they require to meet their discipline's strategic priority.

While in each case these activities assist participants to develop the personal mastery required to meet the discipline's strategic priority, they also assist participants to develop:

* a holistic (or systems) view of the state of their discipline, of research, and of research management in their discipline;

* a personal vision for research in the discipline within the context of the university's own strategic priorities;

* skills in critical inquiry; and

* team work.

In doing so, they provide the individual participants, and thus their discipline and institution, with further opportunities to develop the five essential disciplines of a learning organisation.


If higher education institutions now and in the future are to realise their quality agendas, then they must move beyond current models of institutional level, external quality monitoring and assessment. They must adopt new process models which reflect institutional and individual commitment to continuous quality improvement and continuous process improvement. Integrated and coherent organisational and individual learning must therefore be a central feature of higher education institutions of the future. Models and approaches to professional development must move beyond the separate and individually focused `transmission of expert knowledge' and `reflection on practice' approaches that have been characteristic of higher education institutions' efforts in this area to date, and embrace an ongoing, coherent, critically reflective approach that is integrated into all aspects of the core business of higher education institutions.

Institutions must work hard to develop cultures of critical inquiry, focused on continuous quality and process improvement. They must ensure that quality processes and outcomes are central to the vision, goals and priorities of all staff and organisational units. They must provide policy frameworks and infrastructures that support and encourage individuals and groups to take the attendant risks associated with exposing their existing thinking and practices to public scrutiny. They must also provide the resources and facilities needed to support staff in their efforts to develop their knowledge and skills of professional practice, leadership and management, teamwork, communication, negotiation and conflict resolution--all of which are necessary to support and maintain quality in learning organisations of the future.



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Warren-Little, J. (1990). Teachers as colleagues. In A. Lieberman (Ed.), Schools as collaborative cultures: Creating the future now (pp. 25-50). London: Falmer Press.

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Dr Stephen Marshall is Acting Director of the Centre for Professional Development at Macquarie University, North Ryde, New South Wales 2109.
Key areas of Individual learning
                                    Professional practice

Area: of organisational   Functio-   Scholar-    Leader-   Generic
  activity                nal        ship &      ship &
                                    Inquiry      manage-


Community outreach

Leadership and
  e.g. Executive,
    senior, middle,
  program, project

Administrative support
  e,g, Administrators
    in schools
    offices, and

Specialist support
  e.g. Librarians,
  designers, computer
  technicians, museum
  curators, grounds

higher education
improvement programs
organisational development
professional development
quality assurance
university outcome assessment
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