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Social models of workplace learning

In more recent years, attention has turned to a relatively under-explored school of educational theories (in medical education) which can loosely be described as ‘socio-cultural’ theories.

What makes these models different from those described so far is that they essentially see the distinction between learning and working (or practice) as being artificial. They start from the premise that learning is part and parcel of our everyday experience and practice. When we gather round the bedside with our colleagues, to talk to our patients and to discuss their progress or management, we are engaged in both a working activity and a learning activity. Our understanding of one other, our patients and their illnesses is influenced by the conversations around the bed and by the notes made, and this becomes part of the learning in the workplace. When we encounter a complex patient or a complex situation, we draw on the ‘learning resources’ around us (our peers, our seniors, other members of the healthcare team) to consider how to move forward. We might consult other types of resource (for example NICE guidelines, the BNF or internet search engines), but seldom do we immediately rush off to be ‘taught’. As we develop our clinical practice, we are learning at the same time. One of the challenges for clinical teachers therefore, is to make this learning more explicit to trainees, to help them recognise that they are learning ‘how to do the job’ by ‘doing the job’.

The extent to which we learn through our work activity is influenced by our ability to recognise the learning to be had, by the ways in which we invite our learners to be part of the work activity and by the decisions they make about whether or not to accept (and value) such invitations.

Thinking point

Think about your last couple of weeks at work.

  • What have you learnt ‘on the job’, how did you learn it and who else was involved in this working–learning process?


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