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Social models of workplace learning

Health professions education utilises ‘socio-cultural’ educational theories to help understand and explain what occurs in workplace learning. These models 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 meet with colleagues, talk to patients and discuss their progress or management, we are engaged in both a working activity and a learning activity. Our understanding of one another, our patients and their illnesses is influenced by the conversations we hold (e.g. around the bed, in the clinic) and by the notes made, and this becomes part of the learning in the workplace. When we encounter a complex patient or situation, we draw on the ‘learning resources’ around us (our peers, our seniors, other members of the healthcare team, the patient/carers) to consider how to move forward. We might consult other types of resource (for example NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidelines, clinical protocols, the BNF (British National Formulary) or internet search engines), but seldom do we immediately rush off to be ‘taught’. As learners develop their clinical practice, they are learning at the same time. One of the challenges for clinical teachers therefore, is to make this learning more explicit to learners, to help them recognise that they are learning ‘how to do the job’ by ‘doing the job’.


Thinking point

Think about your last couple of weeks at work.

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


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.

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