Context: One of the most pressing requirements for contemporary medical education is to develop a framework for theory and practice of professional development which results in the attainment of professional competencies suitably robust for a lifetime’s practice.The proposed content of a professional development curriculum may be reasonably straightforward to establish from policy documents and public expectations, but the process of achieving the desired outcomes is more complex, because professional development is largely based on attitudinal learning. Attitudes are at the interface between the personal and public psyche, relying more on individual experience and the accumulated impact of social and cultural interpretations than on propositional knowledge, and are therefore less amenable to factual or didactic teaching.

Aims: The purpose of this discussion paper is to develop thinking on the conceptual frameworks which need to underpin curriculum decision-making for professional development, especially in undergraduate medical training where models of good practice are less well established. It brings together work from educational, sociological and psychological perspectives to elucidate the key principles which are most likely to result in acquisition of desirable professional attributes.

Implications: The literature suggests that successful professional development needs to be based on explicit values, which are repeatedly demonstrated in the learning environment, and modelled by senior colleagues and tutors; that the curriculum should incorporate a clear model of emotional as well as cognitive development; should be a major component of summative assessment; and needs to include formative mentorship at all stages of training.