Learning your way, for life


We’re all learning, all the time – consciously and unconsciously, individually and with others. Whether it’s watching what a colleague does, checking some guidance, thinking back over what you’ve done at work that day and what you could have done better, getting a helpful tip from your line manager or reading Care Talk, you’re getting ideas, taking on board something new or being reminded of information or a way of working that might have slipped your mind.


Learning doesn’t have to be about passing exams, gaining qualifications and moving up the career ladder. You may just want to feel more confident about the skills you need to do your job, or to understand more fully the reasons behind why you’re asked to work in a certain way.


The Campaign for Learning wants learning to be properly valued, describing it as “a process of active engagement with experience. It is what people do when they want to make sense of the world. It may involve the development or deepening of skills, knowledge, understanding, awareness, values, ideas and feelings, or an increase in the capacity to reflect”.


Why learn?

The Campaign for Learning says that even when people don’t think of it as education, learning benefits individuals, families, communities, employers, the economy and society as whole. It believes effective learning leads to change, development and the desire to learn more.


The campaign’s guide Becoming a better learner says: “We know that learning through our lives makes us healthier, happier, longer-living and generally wealthier. And the more confident we are in our ability to learn, the more likely we are to try new things and develop our understanding and skills.”


A 2009 government White Paper, The Learning Revolution, says the rise in activities such as book clubs, online research and blogging indicates a widespread “passion for learning”.


There are particular benefits in informal learning for “for the low-skilled and under-confident” as an important stepping stone to further learning and a more skilled future, says The Learning Revolution. “At its simplest, informal learning can help build people’s confidence and add to their personal fulfilment.”


And it can be extremely satisfying to master a new skill, not to mention those wonderful ‘lightbulb’ moments when something suddenly makes sense to you, especially when you can see how what you’ve learned will make a difference to how you do your job and, consequently, have benefits for the people you care for.


Doing it for yourself

Your motivation for learning is likely to be stronger, and the learning itself more successful, if it is your choice and you find it satisfying or can clearly see the benefits.


Skills for Care says that for most workers learning comes informally on-the-job using existing expertise within the organisation. This might include sharing expertise through collaboration within another team or service and cascading learning, when one employee goes on a course and then passes what they’ve learned on to colleagues.


Informal learning in not necessarily a linear process; people dip in and out of learning. And many different experiences can start a learning journey – something you read, an observation or a comment could all spark an interest that makes you want to find out more or develop a different skill.


What’s stopping you?

It’s very common to feel nervous about taking up a new learning opportunity. Common fears include not being ‘bright’ enough, feeling stupid, ‘failing’ or not knowing what to expect. Sometimes these fears may be related to previous experiences of learning, including school years.


It may not be formal classroom training, but even so, bad memories of school or college may still make you anxious about learning something new.


According to researchers, when new learning opportunities arise we are unconsciously influenced by what has happened in the past. If our past learning experiences have not been good, then we may be ‘negatively’ primed, and feel less willing to repeat them.


People who feel their maths, English and IT skills are not up to scratch may be especially lacking in confidence about taking up learning opportunities.


Creating a learning culture

The Learning Revolution points out that the best employers already support informal adult learning for their staff, because they recognise the benefits it offers their employees and the organisation, including opportunities for teambuilding and peer support.


It is important that throughout the organisation people are willing to give the time to share their existing knowledge and skills, including new learning.


Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell is quoted as saying, ‘There is no such thing as a stupid question, only stupid answers’.  In the context of a lifelong and supportive learning culture, this means encouraging people to seek knowledge and opportunities to develop skills and never making anyone feel stupid because they ask for information or clarification.


It is actually a mark of a thoughtful person to recognise what they don’t understand or know, and to make an effort to address any gaps in their knowledge or skills.


The right workplace culture will provide opportunities for informal learning, including time and resources. Things like e-learning, watching videos, buddy systems and job shadowing may be fairly informal but they do require organisation, management support and discussion for everyone to get the full benefit of the experience.

Informal learning opportunities

Your manager can help you understand what’s involved in various learning opportunities, perhaps find something that particularly suits your capabilities and interests, and clarify with you what outcomes and benefits you might expect.


e-learning is a popular form of informal learning. It means using any sort of IT to learn, including the internet, DVDs or CDs, email, mobile phones and social media. It might be just a single snippet of learning about a specific topic, or larger units of learning grouped together to form online courses.


Generally online modules can be undertaken at your own pace and in private, which can be attractive to the less confident learner. 

A case study featured in Skills for Care’s 2013 guides on learning technologies shows how one care home gets the best from e-learning by adding a level of human interaction.  The personnel and training director tests individual online courses to check the content, and makes sure that staff new to e-learning begin with an easier one.


She said: “I look to see if it’s the sort of language the carers will understand, it’s pitched at the right level and it’s got a combination of pictures and text and videos.”


She also backs up e-learning with tailored personal support. “I ask them to come and talk to me if there is something they don’t understand, or to note down anything interesting so we can discuss it at the next staff meeting.


“Not all staff are comfortable with the level of literacy that some e-learning courses require. I can’t alter anything on the course itself, but I go through it with them and rewrite some of the questions to make sure that they can be understood.”


Joining an online community offers you access to experts, discussion groups and learning networks. Many health and care organisations have forums you can become part of through their websites. And there are plenty of Facebook and LinkedIn groups where people with similar roles or a common interest come together.  


Just reading others’ views online can be a valuable learning experience, or you may want to offer your own opinions or create your own content.  You may find blog sites that match your interests; writing a blog yourself can hone your communication skills as well as prompting comments and discussion from likeminded people.  Following relevant organisations or people on Twitter can be a way to keep up-to-date with news and opinions.


And webinars can be a good combination of interaction and individual, self-contained learning. They allow trainers to reach learners in various locations in real time and share voice and text messages, slideshows and videos simultaneously. They are usually quite short and focused.


As the Skills for Care guides point out, employers are increasingly using a range of social media as tools for learning – they generally have the advantage of being user-friendly and familiar to staff. Managers can deliver short refreshers or updates through smartphones and other mobile devices. Twitter or texts can engage people with regular tips or news.  Staff could be directed to shared images or slide presentations on sites like Flickr and Slideshare, or to YouTube videos of potential interest.


Of course the personal touch is always important – video or teleconferencing enable remote staff to join in short, informal team briefings and health and safety ‘toolbox talks’.


Some people find e-learning solitary and impersonal, and miss real human interaction. The literacy and IT skill requirements can be demanding – you need to find information in a form that you feel comfortable with; you want to be challenged and engaged by relevant content, but not put off.


The training director featured in the Skills for Care learning technologies is a big fan of SCIE’s Social Care TV short videos.


“They’re in the setting that staff will be very familiar with. They have demonstrations of things within a home, so they’re not lecturing you. It’s more, ‘This is the way we do it and it works for us’. And they have examples, real people, role modelling, so you can empathise with them.”


Buddy systems are a popular way of helping new employees settle in quickly and get up to speed with key skills and knowledge through informal learning. A buddy is their first point of contact, someone who will explain how the organisation works and systems and processes that may be unfamiliar.


Perhaps most importantly, a buddy offers moral support and will answer any questions a new employee may have. In turn, the buddy will gain valuable coaching and mentoring skills, and may gain useful knowledge from the new recruit if they have come from a different role or sector, or have experience of other working practices.


Job shadowing is another way two workers can learn from each other. It is a chance to see how other staff and teams work, to gain insight into different roles and responsibilities and understand more about how the whole organisation functions.


Shadowing – whether mainly observational, such as attending meetings or watching someone doing the job, or more hands-on and undertaking tasks under supervision – provides opportunities for colleagues to share experiences, and review and reflect on their own practices.


Vicky Burman


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Getting started

SCIE Social Care TV http://www.scie.org.uk/socialcaretv/

Alzheimer’s Society YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/AlzheimersSociety

SCIE e-learning resources http://www.scie.org.uk/publications/elearning/

Open University (health and social care) on iTunes University http://www.open.edu/itunes/subjects/health-and-social-care

e-Learning for Healthcare http://www.e-lfh.org.uk/home/  - includes topics like dementia, preventing falls and end of life care 

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