Do no harm – the duty of the learning professional

One of the key differences between professions and other forms of occupation is the fact that professionals are bound by ethical codes. If they contravene these codes they are liable to be disbarred from the profession. Doctors sign a Hippocratic oath, which binds them to do no harm to their patients. Their patients’ interests take priority over those of government or their own opportunities to make financial gains. Now we all know that, in practice, some doctors, lawyers, bankers, accountants and other professionals do break this trust and put themselves first, but generally we are shocked when this happens and expect it to be dealt with harshly.

Those responsible for managing the learning of adults in the workplace also like to be regarded as professionals. But you don’t become a professional just by calling yourself one. You have to behave like one – a trusted consultant not an order taker, an architect not a builder.

In my mind, learning professionals also have a duty of care – to do no harm to learners. This might seem like a no-brainer – after all, which learning professional does not care about the welfare of learners? Teaching and training are, after all, people professions. But in practice there are strong competing interests:

•those of senior managers, to keep costs and time commitments to a minimum;
•those of subject experts, to cover in any courses or materials every possible aspect of their particular subjects;
•those of compliance departments to tick boxes;
•those of colleagues who want to strut their stuff, avoid change, keep life simple, promote their own causes, and so on.

If the learning professional pays disproportionate attention to these interests, then what harm can they do to learners?

•They can overwhelm them with content, leaving them frazzled.
•They can fail to engage them emotionally, so they never really pay attention.
•They can fail to establish the relevance of a learning activity, causing anger and resentment.
•They can patronise them with activities that are insufficiently challenging.
•They can embarrass them with activities that have the potential to humiliate them in front of their peers.
•They can provide them with inadequate opportunities to practise new skills, so they never have the confidence to put the skills into practice.
•They can fail to provide sufficient follow-up resources in the workplace, so the learning quickly fades into oblivion.
•They can fail to act on what we know about the science of learning, thus plying learners with dangerous quack medicines (which is like doctors advising homeopathy or astronomers applying the principles of astrology – please let’s be rationalists not romantics).

Learning professionals may calculate that, by putting the interests of management, clients, SMEs and others above those of the learner that they will benefit personally in terms of how they will be seen in the organisation and that this could ‘make or break’ them. But this is short-term thinking, because if you do them harm then learners can break you all too easily:

•They will only engage in learning activities under duress.
•They will not learn what you want them to learn (you cannot force anyone to learn something, at least not in any deep or meaningful way).
•They will make no effort to put your ideas or instructions into practice.
•They will bad mouth you and your courses (and not necessarily openly, on the happy sheet).

It takes courage to stick to your principles even when under pressure from people in power. But courage is surely what you expect of a professional. If you haven’t got it in you to be courageous, then are you in the right job?

About the author – Clive Shepherd:

For the past 30 years Clive’s primary area of expertise has been technology-assisted learning and communications, but from three very different perspectives: (1) as a manager within a large corporation and as such principally a buyer of e-learning services; (2) as co-founder of an e-learning development company and an active practitioner in all aspects of design and development; and (3) as a consultant with organisations interested in using learning technologies and with managers and learning practitioners looking to develop their own knowledge and skills in this area.

Connect with Clive via twitter @cliveshepherd

Check out Clive’s blog by clicking here


1 Comment
  1. Lisa Minogue-White 3 years ago

    ‘Let’s be rationalists not romantics’ – its an interesting reflection point Clive and perfectly captures the transition learning is undergoing as a profession. By no means am I implying that learning has been under the spell of wholesale romanticism but I do think the pressure to be relevant and popular has led down cul de sacs of chasing the next sexy thing rather than what the business and professional people really need to succeed. In fact, what may be need is not much obvious intervention from learning but someone subtly creating the conditions for optimal research, application, reflection and refinement). When I interviewed Tom Spiglanin at DevLearn last year, he described his role as ‘not getting in the way!’ but rather being the catalyst between people, teams and systems to learn, innovate and create. The job becomes one of understanding the business imperatives and drivers so that things could be optimally aligned for performance and then observe and measure the effects.

    Great post Clive and a good reflective checklist to benchmark your own performance.

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