The Journey to Expertise: Pathways to Expert Knowledge Traveled by Texas Juvenile Probation Officers
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The focus of this study was to examine how juvenile probation officers in Texas develop expertise by describing how they solve complex professional problems and the factors that impact their professional development. Two research questions guided this study. Qualitative methods were used to conduct this study in the phenomenological school of inquiry. Twenty-five juvenile probation officers who were judged to possess a level of competency or expertise as defined on the Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) Model of Skill Acquisition participated in the study. These officers were grouped according to their identified place on the novice-expert continuum and referred to respectively as either competents or experts . The data gleaned from this study were systematically analyzed using Strauss and Corbin's (1990) coding process. Seven dimensions of decision making emerged from the study. They are: (a) why and how decisions are made; (b) autonomy in decision making; (c) laws, rules, procedures and responsibilities; (d) ethical considerations; (e) intuitive feelings; (f) clouded by perceptions and stereotyping; and (g) emotional responses. Six dominant themes and 11 sub-themes emerged from the examination of the factors that impact professional development. The six dominant themes are: (a) the role of college education; (b) the role of professional development training; (c) the role of preferred learning methods; (d) the role of experience and previous training, (e) the role of learning opportunities and, (f) the contextual factors that impact development. The study's results validated Dreyfus and Dreyfus' Model of Skill Acquisition and validated Schön's theory that practitioners who use a constructivist's perspective of decision-making engage in reflection-in-action. Non-reflective practitioners rapidly define the problem and move on quickly to solution identification. This was evident in those individuals who possessed the level of competency rather than expertise. The results provide indications of a need for revision of higher education curriculums in the field of juvenile probation, a clear need to incorporate adult learning theories in professional development training, and a clear need for competency based assessment of knowledge.