Rethinking Learning. By Dr Neil Thompson.

Working with children is important work, but we have to recognise that it can be quite difficult and demanding. As the manager of the assessment centre I used to work at put it, child care work is not for the faint hearted. Given how challenging the work can be, it is vitally important that staff are well-equipped with the necessary knowledge, skills and values. This makes learning an essential topic to focus on. But, is how we tend to go about learning the best way to address the issues involved?

The idea that learning should happen in a classroom with a knowledgeable person standing at the front and people in need of knowledge sitting facing him or her has been the dominant way of thinking literally for centuries. It tends to be the default setting, in the sense that this model is likely to be the first port of call for people whose responsibility it is to promote learning.

This way of trying to facilitate learning is not without value, especially when done appropriately and skilfully, and so I would certainly not propose doing away with it. However, where it does become a problem is when it is rather unimaginatively assumed that this is the best or even the only way to bring about learning (and thereby to improve practice – as that is, of course, a primary reason for promoting learning).

If we look at the whole issue of learning more holistically and more creatively, what we should be able to see is that there is much more to learning and practice development than classroom-based training. Learning can and should be much more broadly based, taking advantage of developments in educational theory and in the learning technologies available to us.

Let’s consider just some of the other learning approaches that are available to us at similar costs to conventional training or even, in many cases, substantially lower cost.

Practice learning. Of course, practice placements have long been part of the bread and butter of professional education in social work and related disciplines, and where they work well, they can be invaluable as sources of growth and development – boosting knowledge, skills, values and confidence (all essential parts of good practice). But, does practice learning have to end when our student days are over? One local authority I used to work for had an excellent scheme whereby staff could be seconded to another post for a limited time (say, six months) purely as a developmental opportunity and a way of getting a greater degree of diversity of approach, perspective and understanding (it was often facilitated by maternity leave – instead of just bringing in a temp, allow somebody to switch to that post for six months and then bring a temp in to the secondee’s post, or even allow a second secondment of someone into the post that becomes temporarily vacant due to the first secondment switch). It worked extremely well and generated a great deal of learning.

Supervision Sadly, the tradition of supervision being a major source of learning has taken a battering in recent years, with an increasing emphasis on meeting targets and managing very high workloads and less emphasis on personal and professional development (hence the oft-heard plea for supervision to go back to being more reflective). But, it remains the case that supervision has excellent potential for promoting learning and improving performance through reflective practice. Indeed, as I have so often said, training should be the icing on the cake when it comes to learning, with the cake itself coming largely from supervision and the reflective practice it facilitates and supports.

Mentoring Mentoring can and should be part of supervision, of course, but it is not limited to supervision sessions. Formal or informal mentoring relationships can be extremely useful and not only generate great learning opportunities, but also boost morale, as both parties can be empowered by the relationship. When I was a team manager I set up a set of peer-to-peer mentoring relationships among team members and it worked a treat. It was very clear that everyone was benefiting. It did not cost a penny and the time commitment was more than made up for by the very positive benefits that came out of the initiative.

E-learning The e-learning revolution that was promised some years ago has yet to happen, but online learning is nonetheless steadily increasing in popularity. One of the things that prevented the so-called revolution was that so much of the e-learning that became available was of poor quality. Sadly, many trainers just put their face-to-face training materials online and thought that would do, without recognising that online learning works in a very different way from conventional training. As standards improve, e-learning becomes more and more of a cost-effective (and a learning gain-effective) way of promoting learning.

Blended learning Although e-learning has lots of benefits, not least its flexibility, one drawback is the usual absence of opportunities for discussion. Blended learning seeks to rectify that. It is called blended learning because it blends elements of e-learning (disseminating the relevant information, for example) with elements of conventional training, such as discussion groups facilitated by a member of the workforce development team or other colleague. This approach is becoming increasingly popular. One variation on this theme that is a quite a new development is the idea of ‘collaborative learning programmes’. These involve e-learning input from a subject expert spread out over, say, a three-month period, with online discussion forums (involving the participants and the trainer/tutor, and possibly the participants’ managers and/or one or more members of the workforce development team) operating in-between the provision of the online inputs of learning materials). This has the potential to consolidate and embed the learning over a period of time, thus making it far more likely that participants will use the experience to improve their practice (rather than experience the common conventional training ‘transfer of learning’ problem where the learning gained on the day somehow gets lost before it is put into practice).

Learning communities The traditional version of a learning community is a ‘learning set’ where a group of people with shared interests meet on a regular basis for a set period of time to explore issues around a particular topic and help each other learn about it. Increasingly, though, these learning communities are taking place online, as this offers great flexibility at lower cost. My own experience of running an online learning community over the past four years has shown me how effective this approach to learning can be.

Self-directed learning One of the things that makes learning communities effective is that they are based on principles of self-directed learning. Self-directed learning is now increasingly being recognised as the most effective approach to learning, because you decide (with support as required) what you need to learn and how you are going to learn it. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book about risk (Antifragile, Penguin, 2012), explains that, when he was at university, he read the bare minimum of the set reading needed to get through, but read far and wide on subjects that he found fascinating, topics that resonated with his own interests, needs and circumstances. He makes the very telling point that, many years later, he remembers very little of what he had to read, but a great deal of what he chose to read. We remember and learn what means something to us and what matters to us. Of course, learning communities are not the only ways of promoting self-directed learning, although they can be very effective. Self-directed learning can also involve simply thinking carefully about what you need to learn and then determining how you can bring about that learning (what is known technically as establishing your own ‘learning pathway’), rather than rely on a trainer’s or tutor’s best guess about what will be the optimal way for meeting your learning needs.

This is not a comprehensive list, but it should be enough to show that those who tend to equate promoting learning with conventional training and nothing but conventional training are missing out on huge and varied opportunities to bring about learning and practice development more creatively, more holistically and therefore more effectively.

There are signs that we are steadily moving in the right direction, but the old, limited ideas remain strong and well established. One thing that will certainly hold back progress in this regard is practitioners and managers adopting a passive approach to learning, assuming that it is someone else’s responsibility to make sure that the learning takes place. Unless we take ownership of our own learning and appreciate the significance of self-directed learning, we run the risk of disempowering ourselves and standing in our own way.

Dr Neil Thompson is an independent writer, educator and consultant. He offers training and consultancy services. e-learning courses and the innovative Avenue Professional Development Programme, an online learning community based on principles of self-directed learning ( His blog and website are at

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