Learning Is Happening All The Time…Now !

Linda Walker and Jayne Dunn from the Scottish Institute for Excellence in Social Work Education highlight the benefits of workplace learning…

Whether you have just started working in social services or you have been working for a long time, you will be thinking about your own learning. It is important ….It affects the work you do and the way you do it. Most of all it affects the service users and carers you work with.

So where do you start? And even if you know where to start, how do you find time? It is hard enough trying to fit everything in as it is, without adding in extra things to do. The answers to these questions are not easy. However, if we think about learning as something that happens all the time we can think more about how we make the most of the opportunities that we face every day.

Here is an example of how one staff member, working in a local authority mental health team, described how she has learned something new from something, seemingly, very ordinary.

When is a cup of coffee not a cup of coffee?

‘When I first started in this job, I would go out with the clients for a cuppa as a way of helping them to pass their day. I realised that I was helping them get out of the house and for some this was a big step.
However, it was only when I did my SVQ that I had to sit down and really think about why I was doing what I was doing. Before this, friends would say –and some still do –you have a ‘braw’ job going out for walks and drinking coffee all day. Before the SVQ experience, I wouldn’t have been able to answer them in any meaningful way because I did think I had a good job and I thought it was worthwhile but I wasn’t sure what it was all about in the wider scheme of things.Learning from the SVQ has made me consider this wider picture and I am now much more aware that:

  • I am working with individuals who all have a unique life and I am there to support their independence, their inclusion in society, their needs.
  • I have to go at their pace, which might be one step forward and three steps back but it is their pace.
  • I have to accept them as valued individuals.
  • Sometimes steps will be very small –it might take weeks and months for someone to venture out of their house.
  • It might take months and years for someone to feel well enough, able enough or strong enough to walk to a shop or a café.
  • Therefore a cup of coffee within these circumstances is such a huge achievement, it will be seen for some like winning the lottery.’

This is just one of the stories told by two groups of staff working in a Local Authority social work department to gain their SVQ3. Their very frank experience has been charted in a new publication, ‘Developing People – Case studies illustrating how vocational qualifications have made a positive difference to the individual the organisation and service delivery.’(SIESWE 2007) The staff featured within the booklet, explore their learning journeys, using a range of illustrative case-materials to demonstrate what they learned as individuals and staff members, what supported that learning both from within and out-with the organisation and how they ‘learn how to learn’.

Learning can be exciting and energising…but also scary and daunting!

Moving from a position of fear –about embarking on learning again after so many years absence, suspicion –about why the organisation want me to gain more qualifications (am I not doing the job well enough already?) and anxiety about my own ability as I don’t even know how to turn a computer on, yet alone use it! –to one of great enthusiasm and pride, is a joy to behold.

To embark on a learning programme can be a daunting task for anyone within the workplace. Not only are you required to grasp new ideas and develop new skills but also to cope with your own lack of confidence associated with new learning whilst achieving all this on top of your existing (already too big) workload.

Fat chance of success you might ask! However, as the Developing People-– Case studies illustrating how vocational qualifications have made a positive difference to the individual the organisation and service delivery.’(SIESWE 2007) booklet demonstrates, this is exactly what these members of staff, and many others like them across Scotland, did, and they came out the other side with a sense of great achievement, a deeper understanding of why they do what they do and most importantly improved practice for the ‘end user’ of the services they provide.

{mospagebreak}So let’s think about the thing we call learning…

The Scottish Social Services Council’s vision is ‘a competent, confident workforce, capable of delivering high quality services that has the confidence of the public, those who use services and their carers. (www.sssc.uk.com/About+Us/About+Us.htm) Having the capacity to learn as an individual and within organisations is a great step towards collectively achieving this vision.

When thinking about learning in the workplace there are so many different terms … continuous professional development, continuous employee development, workplace learning and development, post registration teaching and learning…. There are also lots of different courses, training programmes, qualifications and the list seems to go on…So what do we really mean?

Andrew Mayo got together with a group of colleagues with expertise in the area of learning and listed the things they thought were important.

  • We can learn from any experience…
  • Learning is not just about knowledge. It is about skills, insight, beliefs, values, attitudes, habits, feelings, wisdom, shared understandings and self awareness.
  • Learning processes can be conscious or unconscious…
  • Questioning, listening, challenging, enquiring and taking action are all crucial to effective learning
  • Learning as a process can be subject to obstacles but the desire and ability to learn is hard to suppress.
  • By its very nature, learning is essentially individual but can also be collectively generated in groups and organisations
  • Wanting to learn, and seeing the point of learning, is often crucial…

(Mayo et al, 2000).

According to this list, learning is so much more than attending training courses it can be formal and informal as well as involving individuals and groups of people.

Formal and informal learning

We are probably more familiar with formal approaches. Formal approaches might include training programmes or courses leading to a qualification or achievement award. The story about the cup of coffee is a very good example of formal learning using SVQ.

Informal approaches are those which often happen serendipitously, anywhere, anytime. There are so many different ways you can learn informally.  You might choose to try a new approach that you were talking about with colleagues while you were having lunch. You might decide to read about a new approach in a book or on the net. You might access the Learning Exchange, which is an on-line library of learning materials for use across the social services sector.
(Go to http://www.sieswe.org/files/LearningExchangeNHSeLib070323.pdf  to register. It is freely available to anyone working in social services).

You might be interested in working in a different area of social services or applying for a promotion. You could support your learning by asking someone to coach or mentor you. You might even decide to get involved in a research project!

Individual and organisational approaches to learning

You can also think about learning from the perspective of the individual and  the organisation. Many of us think about our own individual learning but it is also useful to think about learning with groups of people. For example, a group might decide to get together over a period of time to share thoughts and ideas about a similar area of interest or a difficult situation.

As a result you might decide to take a new idea you developed collaboratively, try it out in your workplace and then come back to talk about how it worked. You might even want to write about it and get it published. The great thing about this approach is that you can share ideas and resources and it stops a lot of wasted time with people ‘reinventing the same wheel’. It is amazing how much you can learn and how energising this type of learning can be. This approach is sometimes called a Community of Practice or a learning community. It can be done face to face, on computers or a combination of both.

Work environments are so important

As we have seen, learning happens all the time…..However, the way you feel at work is pretty important to the way you learn whether it is formal or informal.  Some workplace cultures can really encourage you to explore new ideas with others and find improved ways of working. Others don’t. We all have a role in shaping our workplace culture.  Workplaces which really support learning are often called Learning Organisations.

More information about learning organisations is available from SCIE in their Learning Organisations – a self assessment resource pack http://www.scie.org.uk/publications/learningorgs/index.asp

So, how do you think about learning?  Are there informal, formal individual or group learning approaches that might really suit the way you learn?  How could you build upon these? What about your workplace?  What impact do you think it has on people’s learning? What can you do to support a culture of learning ?


Mayo (2000) Declaration on Learning – A call to Action

SIESWE (2007) ‘Developing People – Case studies illustrating how vocational qualifications have made a positive difference to the individual the organisation and service delivery.’ SIESWE

Learning Exchange

SCIE (2004) Learning Organisations –a self assessment resource pack, London, Social Care Institute for Excellence. http://www.scie.org.uk/publications/learningorgs/index.asp