Learning in the workplace

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Learning ‘how to’ do a job is far from straightforward. How can you help people make sense of information and learn from experiences? People learn partly by making sense of information and experiences, and partly by repeating skilled manoeuvres. This involves actively thinking about things as well as actually doing the work.

If you want to develop physical skills, you need to practise repeatedly. These are skills that involve dexterity, strength, and coordination. Anyone who has ever learnt to swim, play badminton (or other sport), drive, or play a musical instrument will know the importance of practice. Computing skills can be included here, if you are learning to use a keyboard or generally find your way around. 

Learning badminton skills

Thinking and reasoning skills can be less obvious. Professional thinking and reasoning is complex. You may need to think logically, but you are also influenced by feelings and intuitions. You can’t usually ‘see’ professional thinking. However, when you discuss things with colleagues and reflect on conversations, you can notice it.

There are many theories of learning. Even if you are familiar with some of them, helping others to learn is hardly ever a smooth experience. I’m going to introduce you to three big ideas:  knowledge brokering’, ‘letting learn’, and ‘visible or invisible learning’. I have found these helpful for understanding why learning is sometimes difficult.

Knowledge brokering

Do you make your knowledge accessible to learners by:

  • taking the perspective of a learner who may be feeling overwhelmed?
  • simplifying your language for novices?
  • translating a complex picture into something easier to understand?
  • anticipating time management and work prioritisation issues?
  • encouraging learners to consider the relationship between their practice and the wider context?

If so, you are acting as a knowledge broker!

Being a knowledge broker 1: paying attention

In an unfamiliar situation, a person becomes unusually aware of their surroundings. Perhaps you can remember your first day in your current place of work. You noticed everything all at once: the equipment, people and practices. When you are accustomed to a workplace, you know what to pay attention to. Everything else stays in the background. A newcomer is still making sense of everything. They might need to ‘unlearn’ aspects of the equipment or building layout they were familiar with in a previous location. Furthermore, they may not readily understand the jargon or the euphemisms used by your team. Your mentee may not be able to take seemingly routine things for granted.

As a mentor, you can build on this transitional state. Draw attention to the connections and meanings in your everyday work.

Being a knowledge broker 2: re-assembling knowledge

Knowledge brokering involves ‘de-assembling’ and ‘re-assembling’ knowledge. For example, a nurse taking a student on a doctors’ round ‘de-assembles’ the scenario to support learning. She may do this by drawing attention to small piece of the whole situation: the nurse’s responsibilities. The nurse can then re-assemble her knowledge for the benefit of the student.  Therefore, she might link knowledge of the nurse’s role in a doctor’s round to aspects of a patient’s condition that she and the student had noticed earlier. Now, the student should be able to grasp the essential communicative role a nurse must play. Taking part in a doctor’s round involves a performance between the various actors. Nurses must take an active role in passing on relevant information about patients. 

It can be hard to relate theory to work situations. Because of this, you may find learners saying they haven’t been taught particular theoretical knowledge in the classroom even if they have already covered it. Engaging with information in ‘the classroom’ (or e-learning module) is not the same as knowing something in practice.

So… be patient with learners who claim ‘no prior knowledge’ of basic theory.

Being a knowledge broker 3: tacit knowledge

Expert practice can often rely on an intuitive grasp of situations. People don’t always take time out to consider all the evidence logically. In fact, there isn’t time for this in a fast-moving situation. How do you, therefore, describe the process so that a mentee can learn what you do? Practice also involves tacit, embodied knowledge, which you may also find difficult to describe or explain. These tensions between explicit and tacit knowledge are not easily resolved. But allowing a learner to watch and observe you at work, or work alongside you, can help.

So… don’t underestimate the use of role models, or ‘working together’ as a way to make tacit knowledge more accessible to students.

You can create further opportunities for learning by noticing the ‘patterns’ in your work environment. Notice how you make sense of things and share this with the learner. This reflects processes of ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ that make professional thinking visible.

Tips for managers

Mentor preparation programmes should enable mentors to explore their attitudes to, and experience of, workplace learning. Consider whether you can help to create learning situations where people can make mistakes safely.

Letting learn

  • Have you observed clear differences between learners who immerse themselves in the practice and those who appear not to?
  • Has a relationship with a learner ever felt dysfunctional?

Some learners apply themselves enthusiastically to the work, whereas others find it hard to adjust to learning situations outside the classroom. Encountering an inappropriate learner attitude, or feeling at a loss about how to help someone learn, can be problematic and distressing. So, what should you do about it?

Letting learn 1: engage and adjust

First, accept that the differences between productive and less productive workplace relationships can be subtle.  A small adjustment on both sides could make a big difference.

Learners need to engage with their mentors to understand how they can best work together. You may need to take the lead on managing and supporting the relationship.

Letting learn 2: learners taking responsibility

Also, remember that learners must take responsibility for their own learning. This can involve:

  • Finding out about the practice area in advance
  • Discussing with their mentor how they can work as partners in learning
  • Adopting an appropriate professional attitude along with a suitable enquiring and inquisitive approach
  • Being receptive to the pace and rhythms of the work
  • Being equipped to notice everyday and expert practice
  • Being receptive to the intuitions and feedback of others

Discuss one or two of these approaches to learning with your mentee – it could offer you an opening for improving their involvement with the work. If you are feeling stressed because a learner you are working with appears disinterested, find someone to talk to in confidence.

Tips for managers

Stay alert to signs of strain in workplace relationships where learners are involved. Offer support to mentors/buddies.

It is helpful to foster productive relationships with your education and training provider. Agree on mechanisms for learners to obtain information in advance and arrange informal visits if possible, before they start work.

Ensure your employees have thought about and documented the learning opportunities in your organisation. Make sure these opportunities are compatible with the programmes of learning you are supporting.

Visible or invisible learning

  • A learner might look as though they know what they are doing, but how deep does it go?
  • Have you ever made an unprecedented effort to help someone learn something they find difficult, and did it work?
  • How can you tell how much knowledge is ‘sticking’ with a learner?

Learning is not always immediately visible in someone’s performance, but that doesn’t mean no learning is happening. It can take time for ideas and experiences to come together and begin to make sense to a learner. How can you reassure yourself that your efforts are paying off?i

Making learning visible 1: the internal and external

Learning involves internal processes. Learners motivate themselves, remember, sense things, feel, reason, and imagine. As a mentor, you may not see any of this ‘internal’ activity. You are more likely to see the tangible products of learning such as skill performance, reflective writing, or someone offering a rationale for their practice.

These internal processes and visible products of learning combine, resulting in personal transformations. This deeper learning journey can take place over weeks, months or years. There could be a ‘eureka moment’ at any time. Witnessing a ‘eureka moment’ can be exciting and rewarding!

To find out about their learning, ask your mentees to explain the efforts they are making. Ask them to reveal the outcomes of their learning. Try questioning students about their theoretical and practical knowledge. Sometimes, asking them to formally present and demonstrate their knowledge can reveal different aspects of their learning. You can also learn by observing their practice and asking them about it.

Making learning visible 2: effort versus output

Your mentee’s achievements may not correlate with your mentoring effort. Your formal brief may be to help your mentee achieve certain learning outcomes, but your mentee may be on a different path. Perhaps, for some reason, they are stuck in a certain place. Perhaps they have a personal mountain to climb at this point. If you recognise this situation, make sure you contact the education provider about it so that goals can be modified.

Tips for managers

If your employees are supporting learners, and especially if they need to assess their progress, ask them periodically what the challenges are. Make sure there are good links with the education provider.

Author: Anthea

I enjoy writing about the intersection between people and the natural world. I also feel compelled to delve into human behaviour - philosophically and practically. With a background in further and higher education, plant science and healthcare, I like to apply my expertise in workplace learning, distance learning and e-learning. Mix it all up, and see what comes out!

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