Embedding Learning in Practice

For many years I have been making the point that it is a mistake to equate learning with training, but, despite that, the message still needs to be emphasised as I regularly come across instances where this misunderstanding occurs.

Part of the problem is that, over the years, various regulatory bodies in various disciplines have attempted to measure learning in terms of training input – for instance, by counting ‘CPD hours’, with CPD largely being a shorthand for training. There are two main problems with this. One is that training is not the only way to spend hours involved in ‘continuous professional development’. Personal research, being mentored, shadowing a more experienced colleague, engaging in e-learning and so on are all potentially ways of achieving continuous professional development. Interestingly, this sort of self-directed learning is generally more effective than training. So, if you want to measure CPD hours, training is not the only avenue to go down.

The other problem is that we should not be measuring CPD input anyway, as that involves keeping track of the wrong thing. What we should be focusing on is not the input, but the actual results. ‘Learning gain’ is the technical term. The key question is: What difference will all this make to the quality of practice? Over the years I have run very many supervision courses (with supervisors and supervisees) and, at the point when we are discussing the staff development aspect of supervision, I would ask: Does supervision include discussion of how learning efforts (whether that be training or otherwise) is making a difference to quality of practice? It was very rare indeed that the answer was in the affirmative. It seemed that, where learning and development issues were discussed at all, it was largely, if not exclusively, around what training was on offer and who was going on what course. I would then explain to the group that this represented a bureaucratic approach to learning and development, basically a process of ticking boxes. A professional approach, by contrast, would focus on how learning could be maximised and therefore how the quality of practice can be optimised.

Similarly, I would often ask participants on courses (regardless of the course topic) what the most recent course they had attended was and what concrete positive difference it had made to their practice. The replies could be divided into three roughly equal groups. There were those who could give me clear and specific answers (‘I’m now better able to …’). The second group could give me only vague answers (‘It made me more aware of …’) without any specific difference made in terms of an improvement in practice. But the third group could not give me a clear answer at all. There were lots of shoulders being shrugged, literally or metaphorically. This didn’t seems to be a reflection of the quality of the training, as even some people who praised the training still couldn’t articulate how they had benefited from it.

This would appear to suggest that a significant proportion of the funds being invested in workforce development is not providing a worthwhile return on that investment. If we are to make sure that the limited funds available are well spent, there needs to be a strong emphasis on embedding the learning in practice. This could involve:

  • The use of a reflective diary and/or an e-portfolio to record and consolidate learning;
  • Genuinely reflective supervision that is much more than a process of case management;
  • Learning sets – semi-formal discussion groups to extend and embed learning;
  • Evaluation of training and other learning events after three months as well as (or instead of) on the day. Conventional ‘happy sheets’ evaluate only the day itself (and often in ways that give limited meaningful information) and not the actual learning. The traditional approach places the emphasis for the learning on the trainer and the quality of his or her delivery, and so the learner’s (much more important) role in taking the learning forward and making a positive difference tends to be sidelined.

In my experience organisations vary significantly in how well these issues are handled, but even in the best examples, there is generally much room for improvement.

Dr Neil Thompson has been helping people learn over thirty years through training, supervision and mentoring, consultancy, his extensive writings, DVDs, e-learning courses and his innovative online learning community, the Avenue Professional Development Programme (www.apdp.org.uk). His website and blog are at: www.NeilThompson.info.