Continuing Professional Development – promoting bad learning habits

In a previous post I wrote about weaknesses in formal Continuous Professional Development (CPD) programmes required of some professionally qualified sectors. I bemoaned the tick-box exercise that most had become as people attended events in order to achieve a target number of study hours.

The so-called learning delivered through this CPD also came under my critical eye. I shared how most CPD interventions were focused on the transfer of knowledge at the expense of much needed skills development, particularly in the areas of personal development, leadership and culture.

In this post I want to continue this critique of CPD with an observation that traditional CPD programmes can positively discourage personal reflection and, as a result, prevent learning.

Consider the typical question that appears on nearly every CPD form needed to provide evidence of learning: “How will you use this knowledge/new skill in your role?”, with its implied subtext: “And when?”

This line of thinking assumes that every ‘learning’ opportunity has to somehow relate to the learner’s current role and be applicable in the near future; otherwise, what’s the point of spending time (and money) on the learning? We need a return on our investment as quickly as possible, don’t we?

Also, it assumes the nugget of imparted learning is a stand-alone piece of information or behaviour change that can produce a return on investment without the need to use it in association with previously learned, or yet to be learned, knowledge or behaviours.

In my experience, these assumptions are only applicable when the CPD content is focused on legal, regulatory or market updates. Only in these cases can one answer the question “When will you use this knowledge/skill in your role?” without feeling like you have wasted your time.

However, for most learning these assumptions simply don’t reflect how much of what we ‘know’ actually emerges from a mix of knowledge and skills acquired over time and applied through the filters of memory, beliefs, emotions, physical health and mental states.  Also, much of what we know or can do, is or becomes habit and is co-ordinated through our subconscious processes.

This is where reflection is such an important practice. It helps us unravel these learning journeys and better understand our learning needs for the future.

Without reflection, and with our desire to see an immediate return on investment, we restrict content for CPD programmes. We then pose a question at the end of each isolated CPD event focused on immediate uses. This is where formal CPD interventions can actively discourage reflection and prevent learning.

A desire to only provide learning that might be immediately beneficial prevents opportunistic exploration of subject matters that might develop general awareness of a profession or associated fields. Reflective sessions, where the combined experience in the room is used for innovation or creative experimentation, are seen as too nebulous and lacking in ‘learning outcomes’. Simply allowing individuals to reflect on their practice and better understand their strengths and development needs in order to build a more appropriate CPD programme, are not considered.

A simple way to start to change the focus for formal CPD events or activities is to change the question typically asked on the CPD log. Rather than “How will you use this knowledge/skill in your role?”, we might suggest learners “Make a note of how this knowledge or skill might be of use to you in your role?”. There is an option here to say “At this time, I don’t know.” And that is a perfectly acceptable answer. It is not an indication that the time has been wasted.

To further build the effectiveness of CPD events, we might then ask questions such as

  • What do I know and what can I do?
  • How do I know what I know?
  • How is it I am able to do what I can do?
  • What experiences and learning contributed to my current capability?

It is from the answers to these questions that we can then better look forward with questions such as

  • What does my current role require of me?
  • What do I need to be able to do better?
  • Where might I focus my learning and development going forward?

These questions allow for a more complete, reflective learning experience. In this reflective space, learners might better see where they can use the knowledge/skill just acquired, thereby improving the chances of an immediate return on investment.

My suggestion is that CPD logs should be both retrospective and prospective. The questions “What do I know?” and “How do I know it?”, should be combined with “What do I need to know?”, “How might I learn to do it?” and “How might I apply this particular nugget of learning (if at all)?”

Surely, this approach would reduce the number of times the answer to the last question here is “I don’t know!”

Critics to this might argue that this is too idealistic a stand point. They might argue it is for organisations and individuals to create this more reflective CPD journey through performance conversations and the creation of personal development plans. The suppliers of most CPD events can’t be expected to run events utilising this more nebulous, work-with-the-unknown, design-on-the-fly strategy, can they?

My argument is that these suppliers and their client organisations would both benefit if they did. Many organisation simply do not help create these more reflective CPD journeys for their employees and nor do most employees for themselves. If professionals are to be required to undertake formal CPD programmes, then why not make them so much more useful by approaching them as ongoing journeys of reflection and discovery, with more impactful, relevant content, tailored to the outcomes of this reflection?

I’m sure the service providers currently creating isolated, low-value-add workshops would have their hands snapped off by organisations if they offered a more constructive, strategic approach to CPD outlined in this post. Surely these organisations would then think more highly of their service suppliers. That way, everyone wins.

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