This paper draws on empirical fieldwork data of naturally occurring UK physiotherapy placement education to make visible how education is actually carried out and suggest what students may be learning through their placement interactions. The data challenge everyone involved in placement education design and practice to consider the values and practices students are learning to perpetuate through placement education experiences. The researcher undertook an ethnomethodologically informed ethnographic observation of naturally occurring physiotherapy placement education in two UK NHS placement sites. This study adopted a social perspective of learning to focus on the minutiae of placement educator, student and patient interaction practices during student-present therapeutic activities. Two days of placement for each of six senior students were densely recorded in real-time focussing specifically on the verbal, kinesics and proxemics-based elements of the participants’ interaction practices. Repeated cycles of data analysis suggested consistent practices irrespective of the placement, educators, students or patients. The data suggest that placement education is a powerful situated learning environment in which students see, experience and learn to reproduce the physiotherapy practices valued by the local placement. Consistently, placement educators and students co-produced patient-facing activities as spectacles of physiotherapy-as-science. In each setting, patients were used as person-absent audiovisual teaching aids from which students learnt to make a case for physiotherapy intervention.
The paper challenges physiotherapists and other professions using work-placement education to look behind the rhetoric of their placement documentation and explore the reality of students’ learning in the field. The UK-based physiotherapy profession may wish to consider further the possible implications of its self-definition as a ‘science-based healthcare profession’ on its in-the-presence-of-students interactions with patients.