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Four principles of good learning

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Head and shoulders of John Stafford
John Stafford, Civil Service Learning

Since joining Civil Service Learning (CSL) earlier this year as a social researcher, I have been working hard to help improve our insight into what makes good learning. Through observing courses, interviewing participants and keeping on top of the latest science around learning, I have identified four principles I think we need to get right as we design a new learning offer for the Civil Service.

1. Learning that actually changes what people do

There is no point learning anything if you don’t use what you learn. We’ve all been on great courses and learnt things that we hope will help us do our jobs better… and then done nothing with it. We need to crack this. Lots of factors come into play here, and learners and managers obviously have a major role, but so does CSL.

We need to make sure the learning we provide is geared towards helping you make practical changes at work (which it hasn’t always). And we need to share knowledge in a way that makes it more likely you will remember, and use, what you learn. We also need to help support you after you leave the classroom. The bottom line is that learning is not a single ‘event’, it is a process (like learning to drive), and we’ll reflect this more strongly as we redesign our learning.

2. Learning that people can easily take up

There is no point designing the perfect piece of learning if no one takes it up! We’re all busy, we all have a job to do, so CSL needs to help make it easier for you to learn. This means making it easy to find and book the learning you want (which is why we are rebuilding the CSL website), and supporting you to find time to learn. We’re looking at where we can provide shorter (‘bite-size’) learning, and vastly improving our digital offer so high-quality learning can be accessed, literally at the push of a button, flexibly, when and where you want it.

3. Learning that is a good use of your time and money

No one wants to waste their time (or public money), especially when they’re so busy. When you take up a piece of our learning, you need to know it will be time and money well spent. So, our learning has to maximise what you get from that time. This means no ‘dead time’, getting the length right (there are limits to how much the brain can take in), focusing on activities that will have the most value, and making sure people are taught at the right pace and depth.

4. Teaching the right things

Finally, and it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), the most important thing we need to get right is what people learn. All of the above is pointless if our learning doesn’t develop the right knowledge and skills to help us all provide the best public services. This is why we are working in partnership with departments to be really clear about the skills, knowledge and behaviours we need, now and in the future, so we can make sure what you learn makes a difference.

So, there you have it. These four principles will underpin CSL’s approach to designing a new programme of learning with our new suppliers. I’d love to hear what you think – what does good learning look like for you?

John has produced a report, What does ‘good’ learning look like?, which considers, in more detail, some of the issues he discusses above.

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  1. Comment by J posted on

    E-learning is a support tool but it is treated as a total learning package. That is a major problem. You do not learn by (at least I don't) by the "click here, then here" style of teaching.

  2. Comment by Sam Olejnik posted on

    Dear John,

    As a night AP worker I access a lot of e-learning courses (and some clasroom courses too, of course). When it comes to e-learning I have following suggestions in order of importance:
    1. IT systems during the night can be painfully slow. Advancing from one window to another looks like enormous task for our system. Internet Explorer appears to be the worst browser, Firefox is slightly better. The SPEED of our IT system HAS GOT TO CHANGE! It appears that internet bandwith in Approved Premises is miserable, especially at night.
    2. Some e-courses are simply too basic. It would be beneficial to have more "in-depth" presentation of the topic.
    3. There is no option to print out any proper summary of the course, something that would be handy when one wants to recall certain fraze or idea when necessary.
    4. It was not always possible to print out a confirmation of completion (as required by manager). This is one thing to consider - the other would be to have a printable summary of detailed list of courses already completed.
    My suggestions about classroom learning:
    1. Make them available closer to a workplace, travelling 2 hours in each direction to have 3 hours long course is rather... time consuming.
    2. It is important to get an inspiring tutor, who got clear leading characteristics and can drive participants intrest toward the subject.
    3. As usually - it's vital to get courses that cover as many specific aspects of a workplace as possible.
    4. These courses should also offer a little bit extra - beyond current demands of posts. Ideally they should provide some highlights for those who seek promotion to the next level.
    5. A proper printout of decisive aspects of the course (or email version of it) should always be available as a reference material for the future.

    I hope I was a bit helpful.

  3. Comment by MJK posted on

    Its mentioned that its very difficult to fit training in when we are so fully occupied/pressurised doing our main jobs. I expect therefore at various times we've all done training stuff in our own time, and making more material accesible from the internet has greatly aided this. However all I would say is to out in place a proper system for recompensing people who choose - or are effectively obliged - to do it this way. This would not only be fair all round but also act as a strong incentive to people to undertake training that they might otherwise simply put off. Of course it would need to have proper scrutiny and approval, but if you told people they'd actually get something back for doing training at home in their own time then I think it would have a very positive effect. This would possibly best take the form of being able to enter the time spent into the HR system and getting pay credited accordingly (a bit extra would be nice for "out-of-hours work" but probably unrealistic with this Govt!). Maybe this does already exist in some form in other Depts but not to my knmowledge in the MOD.

  4. Comment by Tina posted on

    At Civil Service Live 2015 I attended a fabulous talk on 70:20:10 making learning work. I brought leaflets away and read up on makie it happen and stick where it explains 70% of what we learn is through experience; 20% we learn through others and 10% is through formal classroom & online learning. To me, this is what good learning looks like. Personally I dont really benefit from e learning and certainly need to build upon what I have learnt. Many people though think by ticking the box to elearning that they have learnt it all. This also applies where we are set mandatory elearning to complete. We can all tick the box but has everyone learnt everything they need to know? Or have they just scratched the tip of the iceberg?

  5. Comment by Heather posted on

    Dear John, I was an educator, in Canada, of young adults and adolescents for 11 years and I see that you have included the fact that skills learning requires practical (hands-on or kinesthetic) application for retention - VERY TRUE. However, while knowledge-based learning can be delivered in many ways (and should be delivered to suit Auditory, Visual, and Kinesthetic learners), in order for it to be best retained, learners should 'teach' their learning to others. One way to do this is via 'Jigsaw' style teaching. Knowledge is given to various learners or an individual who then get together to discuss and further understand their learning (in the case of an individual learner, time is given to consolidate the learning). This group/individual then 'teaches' what has been learned to another group or individual (preferably under the supervision of an expert - usually the instructor/teacher). My many years of experience teaching all levels and types of learners has shown me that by 're-teaching' we re-enforce what we know/have learned, and will retain it.

  6. Comment by Andrew Dainty posted on

    I have undertaken a number of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) over the last few years and in comparison to the current Civil Service Learning website the websites and course materials are far more advanced. I hope the new Civil Service Learning webiste will incorporate some of these features including video lectures, discussion groups with peers and tutors and open access to materials regardless of current civil service grade. The best sights I have used are Futurelearn, Coursera, EDX, Iversity and Leuphana Digital School. In addition I use Openlearn, which is part of the Open University and all their materials are under the creative commons licence which means they can be re-used by others to create new learning materials. The Open University's openworks website also allows anyone to create their own learning website. The interactive MOOCs with discussion group interaction also allows learner to discuss problems with their peers and tutors and I personally find this as close to a classroom environment as possible within the virtual world of a computer.

    I am also a member of the Open Education Practice Scotland (OEPS) project with the Open University through my Union Learning Representative role. A similar Open University project is running in Wales. Maybe Civil Service Learning can join these initiatives to develop better open learning materials?

    Another issue with Civil Service Learning is that we do not have enough back office computers to allow learning to take place within a suitable environment. Currently in DWP we work in open plan offices and often whilst undertaking learning you are distrupted by customer and staff. Therefore I feel a considerable investment in technology and learning rooms is required as well as changing the internet filters on computers.

    Finally, because most courses on Civil Service Learning are grade restricted this prevents staff from developing skills for future roles. The cost of some of the courses is also high in comparison to other open learning websites available across the world. Will the new Civil Service website therefore offer real Open learning to all?

  7. Comment by LINDSAY DONLEY posted on

    Background Knowledge in the jobs we do - from Tax Credits to SA to Telephony we dont offer the customer a good service if we dont know why were doing it in the first place, and if we do do it. who and what does it affect or what effects if we dont get it right , we may may be coggs but we are turning the wheel of this customer service business. I would like a little more pride in the work I do and not be told it dosent really matter if you get it wrong !!

  8. Comment by Rolf posted on

    Given the title of this article on the site, maybe the fifth element should include something about how poor grammar affects credibility? The article itself is interesting, but I nearly didn't bother clicking on the link.

    • Replies to Rolf>

      Comment by Steve posted on

      I'm pleased you found the article interesting, Rolf, but I'm not sure what nearly put you off. Can you explain?

  9. Comment by Simon Patton posted on

    Hi John. Interesting 4 principles. Over in the DfE agency National College for teaching and leadership we have a wealth of experience around adult learning. One of the most transformational is the two/three week facilitated learning courses using online tools. What this did was take you beyond the online self-study into a short term community of practice with opportunities to learn from well-focused content and from colleagues. The quality of facilitation was really important in supporting the individual and group learning plus maintaining motivation. It will be interesting to see the range of options you provide and do wonder if facilitated online learning will play a part.

  10. Comment by John Fynaut posted on

    Fifth element should be accessible to all and relevant to current skills. I have an accounts qualification but cannot get support for CPD in this qualification- "No Business Case". This is a tax relevant qualification and I work for HMRC. My work area is Operational Delivery, but my qualification is not in that box. No amount of argument helps to change the box culture. Maybe for learning, the 5th element is "No box culture".

    HMRC Vision supports the theory, but the practice is lacking, or not enforced for all by ExComm.

  11. Comment by Andy Nixon posted on

    I agree with the four principles. It is a pity that so little of our training bears these in mind.
    I would also argue that these can NEVER be met by sheep-dip learning where everyone in a work area is required to go to the same training at the same time regardless of their job, their experience, their ambitions or their skills.
    This is a massively inefficient process that is used regularly presumably as it allows senior leaders to show they are doing something, without having to think too hard about what it is achieving.

    • Replies to Andy Nixon>

      Comment by Another John posted on

      I think an additional principle of good learning should be 'development'. . .
      The civil service focuses on 'today’s job' predominantly utilising e-learning.
      I would like to see the civil service adopt an attitude where it's a good thing to develop and move staff on in their careers, taking this approach would reduce stagnation while increasing internal skills and flexibility; it would also make the civil service a more attractive place to work.
      Yes, absolutely have bite sized targeted e-learning but there needs to be formal professional qualifications to facilitate movement between private and public business and to enable our people to develop into all they can be.
      Promotions should be celebrated; it should be a mark of the manager’s success that they developed someone to a position where they could move on . . .

      We should also separate what is mandatory 'learning' from actual learning. I agree that some mandatory e-learning is useful to get groups of people to a stage of compliance, it's quick and easy and does what it needs to, but we should not kid ourselves that this is learning.

  12. Comment by Kath Morgan posted on

    I do undertake courses on line via CSL which has benefits in as much as I can work these around my work schedule and there is obvious savings to the Department as no T&S is involved, I do think there is scope for both on line and classroom based courses. I have done on line courses and obtained the "tick in the box" but feel that my learning has been condensed and would benefit from additional resources being made available to enhance learning. Example of this I had to undertake an on line course for a new document management system. I carried out the learning but it was very basic and have had to subsequently source guides for both my own and colleagues to utilise the system.

  13. Comment by Rossana posted on

    For learning to truly be embedded it needs to be pertinent to the job. I have been to a number of learning sessions in the past and wondered why I was sent on them as they did not fit my job role. When questioning this I was told it may be useful in the future. It seems such a waste of my time, and department money when this happens,
    We are told flexibility is the key to the future and I agree with this. However, in order for this to be achieved we also need cross-department training and for this to work we need continued practise. That is such an important word....practice......without it we lose any value the training gives.

  14. Comment by Paul posted on

    Across all schools, universities and training schemes there's always been these kind of tenets and principles being proposed, and all of them usually sound great. The trouble comes when applying these kinds of ideas to different training areas, usually every kind of skill is assumed to fit into a cognitive skillset part of the cognitive learning domain, and hence everything is filtered through a cognition learning strategy which informs the structure of the training. Fine if thought is your aim, however, as far as the job roles which I have performed at HMRC are concerned, you are predominantly using psychomotor skills (anything that involes physically doing something, i.e. inputting data, using a computer program etc) or affective skills (interacting with someone). If one were to mismatch a learning strategy in trying to teach a psychomotor skill with a cognition strategy, you might create an antagonisitc situation where no meaningful learning occurs.

    As an analogy, if you were to tell someone who has never driven a car before that "It's straightforward, you use the wheel to steer, this controls the gears and these pedals make you go and stop" etc, you are technically right, but as anyone learning to drive will experience, their logic doesn't help you in the slightest. That's why the master/apprentice setup is used to teach someone any kind of psychomotor skill - you have to show and not tell.

    If for psychomotor skillset jobrole training people are told and not shown, you immediately raise the stress levels of the learners when they find they cannot apply the learning directly to their roles due to the nature of the differing skillsets and the peculiarities of how they need to be taught. If the assumption is then made that these people have received training and that cognitive/psychomotor mismatch is in place, the learners may suddenly have to discovery learn everything from first principles on an individual basis on the job and control of the direction of the training/learning is lost. This makes reaching full compentency in the job role a long and stressful process. In my experience, this unfortunately too common an occurence.

    I would be pleased to know that the understanding of this process is factored into future training programmes if it isn't already.

  15. Comment by Jack Rose posted on

    Personally I find that we need hands-on learning. Simple reading on a screen doesn't help as much because it's theoretical. The issue is (for example, the training I had in Tax Credits) is that we only learnt about 20% of what we actually need to be able to do, where as the rest of the learning came from experience. During the 8 months it's taken me to become a decent advisor, I've made countless mistakes which I'm sure have caused financial hard ship, and annoyed many a customer. Many of us in my office feel that the tools in place to assist us aren't sufficient enough at times, nor were in training, to deliver a great service.

    I feel this started by learning with simple power point presentations, which didn't delve in to the intricacies needed to fully fill our job roles. I would therefore suggest that learning takes place in a practical environment. In terms of learning timescales, bitsize chunks are needed, and non-rushed. I believe a practical test should be required within your own job role, and any wrong answers are marked accordingly and advice with possible extra learning is given?

  16. Comment by Tina Meaden posted on

    I like the idea of this. Particularly redesigning the CSL website and learning in bitesize chunks. Good learning for me is quick sessions. I like, one hour, or one day courses. I don't fair well undertaking e-learning and had done all the excel e-learning, which took about a week and i recently undertook a 1 day facilitated advanced excel course and learnt more on that day than I did during the whole week of e-learning.

    • Replies to Tina Meaden>

      Comment by C Sumpter posted on

      I so agree with this point about e-learning. It works well for some people, but there is no substitue for learning alongside others with a knowledgeable 'tutor' up front able to answer queries, work through problems etc. I hope that the new CSL will take this on board along.

  17. Comment by Doug Harcourt posted on

    I believe that what people are learning should be continuously evaluated to ensure that it is at the right level and is still pertinent. As someone who has a long history of training others, I know how easy it is to think that what once worked should work now. It does not always do so!

  18. Comment by RS posted on

    all I will say is when looking at e-learning please look at it in regards to those of us who have problems looking at a screen and have the text bigger sometime half the page disapears and you can't move onto the next page or when you have a lovely photo and the text is the same colour as the picture making it difficult to read.

  19. Comment by I WATERHOUSE posted on

    Agree the principles.....but they HAVE to happen....

    Good Learning Looks like my Manger having the time to discuss with me the reasons, benefits and desired outcomes of the Course. And believing in it - not an attendance tick box exercise.

    That discussion has to happen as a Pre-course obligation to me, the business, and for my Mnager to understand my requirements and me theirs.

    Consolidated learning, from the "known" to the unknown and a clear understanding of how my "behaviour" will change consequent to the learning intervention - (Kirkpatrick's) - for my benefit, enhancement, and the benefit of my colleagues, and the business.

    Post Course discussion to evaluate /validate that the course was "right for me" and the business needs - and / or feedback to the Team to discuss the experience.

    These are a "minimum" - but sadly not enshrined in day to day practice.

  20. Comment by Sue Phillips posted on

    Different people have different learning styles, we need to identify a person's learning style to enable them to achieve their full potential.

  21. Comment by Beverley Harris posted on

    What about resources? i.e. in a previous company we had access to Books24x7 which I found very useful.