CONTINUING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
This essay will attempt to demonstrate how I, as a practitioner, have applied a specific area of learning from a training event into current practice. However this is not simply a process that describes integration of theory into practice, but rather how the training event has met my personal training needs and professional values, and furthermore the organisational context within which this has occurred. For the purpose of this assignment I am going to focus upon the completion of the Enhanced Thinking Skills (ETS) training event, an experiential process of learning, and the subsequent delivery of six sessions within a real practice environment.
The crux of this essay is two-fold. Primarily it will demonstrate how the learning event has shaped my continued professional development (CPD), which I perceive to be a continuous process that will apply throughout my working life. This is epitomized by Thompson (2000) who sees CPD to be ‘an approach which seeks to counter the tendency to regard achieving a professional qualification as the end of the process of learning, rather than the entry point into a new phase of learning.’ When working in a Probation context, which continues to change, there is an ongoing need to gain new knowledge and apply it, whether through new legislation (CJA 2003), new assessments (e-OASys) or on a more personal level new interventions (SFT). This ongoing application of skills is vital; ‘our assets do not remain the same if we do not freshen them-they dwindle, and they dwindle fast’ (Meggison & Whitaker 2003). The second area of focus is put upon the concept of reflective practice, whereby Gould (1996) believes that professionals ‘do not learn from practice or experience alone, and need some sort of thinking framework to facilitate a thinking wisdom.’ This highlights the ideal that the essay will demonstrate a level of critical reflection with regards to the specified learning event and how it was applied to Probation practice.
For Thompson (2000) CPD comprises of three main elements; supervision, appraisal and in service training, of which this essay is wholly concerned with the latter. However it is important that one gives a contextual element to this piece of work by identifying my own professional purpose, and how this links to that of the National Probation Service (NPS) values, purpose and objectives.
I joined the NPS for a variety of reasons, but primarily to work with offenders and assist in their rehabilitation. Other reasons included my desire to work within a professional capacity, the restrictions I encountered when applying to other law enforcement agencies (criminal convictions), opportunities of progression (status) and of course financial imperatives. However from the commencement of employment I also embraced the professional agenda of the organisation, which on the surface seems to contradict my belief in the rehabilitative ideal. This is best underlined by the statement ‘We are a law enforcement agency. It’s what we are. It’s what we do’ (Boeteng 2000). In defining the organisations personal agenda one must look towards its values – and where better then in its strategic framework; A New Choreography 2001. This document leads one to acknowledge the importance of ‘victim centeredness,’ yet on the official logo of the NPS the terms ‘enforce, rehabilitate and protect the public’ add a little confusion as to what the organisational purpose actually is. According to Nellis and Gelsthorpe (2003) ‘there are no clear overarching moral principles, or integrated set of moral principles which succinctly capture what the service stands for.’ On this premise, and given the move of the NPS to a correctional service one could argue that the once distinct Probation values, and thus purpose (i.e. advise, assist and befriend) are fading fast, and so the link between professional and organisational purpose may not be as identifiable or clear cut at this point in time.
My own professional agenda for completing the ETS training was simply to accomplish the relevant NVQ unit, acquire some new skills and knowledge and to deliver the necessary sessions in a real practice environment. This training event is clearly implemented to meet the organisational agenda of delivering programmes based on the What Works philosophy and effective practice initiatives; afterall cognitive behaviourism underpins NPS practice. This is highlighted perhaps by the fact that this learning event was not optional, and therefore I saw it simply as a state of incongruence. The growth of these ‘accredited programmes’ emerged from the What Works movement, which worked on the belief that some things work for some people some of the time. As research grew on the impact of cognitive interventions (Ross & Fabiano 1985, Robinson etal 1991, Garrido & Redondo 1993) such programmes ‘gained a growing legitimacy in the UK’ (Kemshall 2002).
For McGuire (1996) there are three main advantages of using cognitive behavioural approaches; it is theory based, backed up by a vast amount of empirical research (Meta analysis) and significant credibility has been given to its outcomes. Having already delivered some one to one work with ETS material and possessing the value that one to one work is the only method which I felt to be effective I was highly uncomfortable with the expectations of completing the training and subsequent practice. Of particular relevance to this hostility was the content and context of the materials used – simplistic, patronising and repetitive. These feelings can be linked to Atkins and Murphy’s stages of development (1993). For them stage one represents the awareness of uncomfortable feelings, usually due to new, unfamiliar, or in this case, negative situations.
The stages of development identified by Atkins and Murphy (1993) are valuable when reflecting upon the usefulness of a training event, yet for the purpose of this essay I will move away from that framework and adopt the more familiar approach adopted by Kolb (1984). He states that learning arises from experience, and involves four key stages; concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experiment. This is therefore, clearly a model within which one can use to facilitate the integration of theory into practice, but let us first turn to the training event itself.
To briefly summarise the event; we put into pairs and asked to deliver four sessions of ETS to the rest of the group. This was of course a top down method of learning – we explored the concepts of pro-social modeling, programme integrity, delivery and challenging, which then progressed onto the actual delivery of the materials. On each occasion we were assessed by one of the programme deliverers, who highlighted strengths and weaknesses of each individual and the areas within which we needed to improve. The areas highlighted were then re-examined the next time the individual delivered – and therefore this was certainly a case of experiential learning, highlighted by Wutzdorff (1994) as going beyond ‘reading and listening as the primary roles to effective learning.’ Of course I entered the event with a negative attitude, which could be seen as a form of prejudice – and on reflection I did make an attempt to overcome this by adopting the desire to be fair, which is one of six transferable skills identified by Clements and Spinks. However despite my efforts I found the whole event to be a let down and, ultimately a negative experience.
Upon reflecting on such an event I am able to look past my negativity surrounding issues of group work and cognitive behaviouralism, and identify positives. Perhaps the most important of these is the inclusion of what Schon refers to as the ‘practicum,’ that is, ‘the virtual world of the practicum is related to the real world situation, but offers students the opportunity to practice their performance without having to cope with the full complexity and risk of the job.’ When taking a step back to view training events per se Buckenham and McGrath state that there is a ‘gap between the should of the lecture theatre and the reality of the workplace’ yet this event attempted to bridge that gap with the expectation of live delivery to a live audience (who were encouraged to act as offenders would – stereotypical? – maybe). Indeed the role of reflection also proved crucial – the evaluation after each presentation involved group reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of each individual, and therefore the identification of how situations could and should have been handled. Further positives included a development of knowledge surrounding cognitive behaviourism, group work dynamics, delivery skills and the concept of pro-social modeling – yet upon successful completion (each of us were assessed by training staff – pass/fail) the organisation saw each trainee to possess the ability to automatically transfer this learning and deliver six ETS sessions to a ‘real life’ group in a ‘real life’ situation.
The delivery of these sessions, with an experienced programmes tutor and whilst being video recorded, has proved to be the most nerve wracking and stressful experience of the traineeship – and when further reflection reveals a deeper negativity surrounding the integrity and purpose of ETS, the reality was that three weeks of delivery seemed like a lifetime. However, putting aside my feelings and values the key question here is how we, as students, learn further as competent job performers once we have emerged from the ‘protected world of the practicum,’ to undertake real work, and without further support. It is undoubtedly the latter three words that are key in the integration of theory and experiential learning into live practice. For myself, and indeed the trainees located within my building, there simply wasn’t any additional support – we were given the dates of delivery and told to ‘go away and prepare…you’ll be fine.’
The lack of support therefore presented a major obstacle in the integration of what had been learned into job performance. However there were further identifiable obstacles, both personal and organisational, that I needed to negotiate. Whilst my personal values affected my thoughts, and to some degree my ability to present the ETS sessions, I feel that I overcame them with relative ease – despite the uncomfortableness surrounding the whole event it was something I had to do – and failure to do so would inevitably result in the loss of my post.
Upon looking back on delivery I believe that the largest obstacle lay within an organisational context – of the six sessions presented I delivered with four different PO’s – adding to the difficulty of developing good working relationships and of course group dynamics. For Tuckman (1965) there are five typical stages that a group pass through; forming, norming, storming, performing and mourning. This loss of consistency between presenters resulted in the group not moving beyond the second stage. This stagnation was also affected by my own negativity – a lack of belief in what I was doing must have been picked up by group members. The next organisational barrier lay in the very fabric of What Works – staff must closely adhere to the manual – and given the out datedness, simplicity and farcical material of some parts of the manual I felt that creativity and relevance to the offenders current environment would have met the learning outcomes more comprehensively.
It would seem here that the issue is not so much the short comings of the training event, which attempts not only to build up ones knowledge and delivery skills, but even goes beyond the traditional teaching method (top down) by creating Schon's ‘practicum.’ Rather it is the lack of support from the point of the practicum to delivering in real life situations – which offers far more concerns, problems and potential barriers which the learning within our protected environment fails to equip us with the solutions. On reflecting upon this transition my only view of support was that of my Practice Development Assessor, who often encouraged me to ‘refer back’ to the principles articulated during the course – which in essence I would not even describe as minimal support. The training event has therefore provided me with a set of generic principles, yet I still need to learn how to put many of the principles into practice.
Having successfully negotiated the ‘swampy lowlands’ (Schon 1983) of ETS training and delivery my initial feelings were one of elation and relief. The NVQ unit related to this gave me the perfect opportunity to reflect on the whole process, and it was within this unit that I identified my learning needs.
(1) I will understand the dynamics of group work
(2) I will learn and apply newly introduced techniques of delivery
(3) My confidence in group situations will increase
As far as training events go this was one that achieved my personal learning needs, and I feel that through this essay I have highlighted this learning experience to be a positive one in terms of its structure and approach towards training. However for me the primary objective and learning point was a simple one; Despite my discomfort this was something I had to complete; and by doing so I could relate to what an offender experiences through group work programmes.
The reader will be aware that there have been many themes that run throughout this essay – not simply organisational and personal values conflicting, but how this training event has aided in my professional development (CPD) and how I have used the art of reflection when looking back on the event. What the reader may have missed however is the two different types of reflection covered. According to Schon (1992) these two types can be described as ‘reflection on action’ (after the event) and ‘reflection in action’ (whilst acting). I have sought to use not only the former, but recalling the latter and how this had influenced my decisions made and the actions taken. However it is the concept of reflection on action that leads me to summarise this piece of work.
In conclusion I would state that relating theory to practice is not a simple mechanistic process – it is a more complex and subtle fusion of thoughts, feelings, actions, values…and external support. I found that the two models of learning, that of Kolb (1984) and Atkins and Murphy (1993), have been extremely useful when reflecting upon this training event and identifying how my learning had progressed throughout. In terms of my CPD this training has been a useful way of developing my knowledge and practice skills – and were I to be placed within a programmes team upon qualification it would certainly provide me with a baseline knowledge of the purpose of a programmes deliverer. However it is interesting to note that in terms of Kolb’s cycle, he does not address the transferability of what has been learned from one experience to another.
Whilst my own personal values and that of the organisations do not fit comfortably, I feel that as a trainee I do not have any power or control over what I learn – the organisation’s needs far outweigh that of the individual’s learning agenda. For Thompson (1998) organizations are ‘dangerous places,’ yet Fox (1993) takes this further by stating that ‘all organizations are mythologies constituted discursively to serve particular interest of power, and contested by other interests of power.’ In short there is much consensus within organizations, and for me many of the training events have been met with enthusiasm, yet this is underpinned by a range of relations based on a conflict of interests, and in terms of the training event highlighted in this essay there is evidently a conflict of interest between the organization and myself – their belief in group work versus my own belief that it is ineffective and patronising (‘One size fits all’ – Gorman 2001). Yet given the balance of power I was in no position to challenge the enforced completion of programmes training.
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