Adult Learning And Continuing Professional Development (CPD) By Patrick Smith


Pete is a mechanic.  He’s bored with his job.  It’s a slog to get himself into work each day and it shows in his body language.  But get him onto the topic of Bonsai and he’s a different person.  His face lights up, he voices rises by a few notes and he’s animated, eager to share his knowledge and enthusiasm for Bonsai and Japanese culture as a whole.  He radiates enthusiasm and absorbs information like a sponge – his mind is open, eager to learn.

Chris manages teams of stewards mainly at football grounds.  He’s bored most of the time and shows it.  He’s been around, done all the jobs around events and feels that his experience and knowledge are not recognised by his superiors.  In short, he’s not valued.  With Chris you either do the job his way, or not at all.  If you cross him, you don’t work for him again.  And he’s dead against any form of training – it’s all rubbish, nothing new – he’s seen it all, you can’t teach him anything.  His mind is closed.

Both are living examples of the ideas of Growth and Fixed Mindsets.  According to Caroline Dweck an American scholar, those with a Growth Mindset believe that through effort and commitment there is always something to be learned, whilst those with a Fixed Mindset repeatedly need to assert themselves, forever proving that they’re right, avoiding challenges and preserving their superiority.  In workshops and training events Growth Mindset individuals are a pleasure to work with; the challenges posed by those with Fixed Mindsets however, are huge.  These determine how individuals respond to CPD.

Of course, most of us fall somewhere between these extremes, in some circumstances we can hold one view in one situation and another view in another situation – take Pete’s attitude towards his job, for example.  But mindsets – defined roughly as views or beliefs that we hold about ourselves – determine how we approach things, how we react and behave, our outlooks and attitudes. 

Adult Learning

It’s difficult to say much new about adult learning, because the basics of it have been known for decades, – well, most of it – though recent findings in the field of neuroscience are changing understandings.  The puzzle of adult learning, its problems and possibilities, is that it’s both familiar and yet unrecognised; it’s something that we do unconsciously, so obvious that we tend not to recognise it as we learn, or see others learning – a case, perhaps, of not seeing the wood for the trees.

Research tells us that adults are practical and realistic, that they need to see the relevance of what they’re being presented with to what they do, what they already know.  That adult learners are self-motivated; that they want control over what they’re learning, and that experience and preferences play central roles in determining an individual’s willingness and capability to learn.  Mindsets then are critically important in determining whether or not an individual learns, is willing or able to learn.

Personal experience too, in the form of understandings and attitudes accumulated and developed throughout life, also determines just how receptive an individual might be to learn.  Learning, as the transformation of experience into useful knowledge, has gained increasing recognition in recent decades.  Personal experience and the understandings that it embodies then represent huge and often unrealised reservoirs of untapped resources which, once accessed, can surprise, creating new insights, understandings and knowledge. 

The job for the facilitator would seem therefore not so much to instruct as to create the conditions in which individuals in groups can access, realise and critically explore those untapped resources for the purposes of creating new knowledge.  Einstein got there first;

“I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

Facilitating Learning

It’s challenging.  Whilst there is a role for instruction, that need is reducing as individuals develop more effective internet search skills.  Catering for the learning of mature adults requires a sophisticated range of Facilitation skills from Instructor, Guide to Nurse.  An experienced facilitator with a genuine interest in learners, having developed an extensive repertoire of skills, will shift easily between these roles as required

Perhaps the most important thing that a facilitator can do is to help people to learn how to learn; that is, to become aware of their beliefs, understandings and attitudes, to manage them in order to get the most out of situations and opportunities.  And more than a touch of humility helps – the wise facilitator recognises that within any group there are those who are highly experienced and intelligent – engaging them, affording them opportunities to share, discuss, even argue, are essential to promoting learning.

Continuing Professional Development (CPD)

The Context

Historically, CPD was what individuals did from choice, out of interest in their work.  It was entirely voluntary and motivated by a passion to improve.  Recent decades have reversed this arrangement with CPD becoming a mandated requirement to provide evidence of development.  The reasons for this reversal are interesting and various, but principally, reflect the emergence of a culture of scepticism and doubt about professions and experts – however, that’s beyond the scope of this article, beyond noting that mandatory requirements and professional autonomy are uneasy bedfellows.

The fly in that ointment of this reversal and the current status quo is that the process of demonstrating what counts as development has proved both difficult and contentious, with the result that compromise has reduced the process to the level of absurdity.  The solution was to focus on the collection of quantitative data in the form of CPD points and hours –  yielding the least useful data and generating a host of negative outcomes, such as the cynical manipulation of responses.  You can lead a horse…

Intentions and Purposes

CPD aims to ensure that individuals are competent, qualified and continue to learn, demonstrating that their knowledge and skills are up-to-date and deployed in the best interests of clients or customers.  CPD is not only about knowledge and skills, but also about developing those personal qualities that help get things done, factors such as influence, empathy, the ability to persuade.  In so doing CPD not only develops individuals but contributes towards professionalising the occupation. 

Occupations eager to establish their professional credentials over the years have tied themselves in knots searching for a suitable combination of carrot and stick in their attempts to persuade members to comply with their CPD commitments.  Agreement over principles, it seems, is relatively easy, compared to the challenges of implementation. 

Recording CPD

However, help is at hand.  There are plenty of organisations and agencies eager to help you demonstrate your credentials.  Their websites are awash with references to raising standards, enhancing performance and securing competitive advantage, whilst assuring you that evidencing CPD is straight-forward and simple.  Provision is heralded as “industry-recognised,” “globally renowned,” “award winning” with “90% pass rates” amongst other inducements.  Interestingly, drop-out rates are not referred to.

Buying these services guarantees that you keep pace with current standards, deliver a professional service to your clients, make positive contributions to your team and company, and enhance your prospects of promotion.  So, don’t get left behind, to stand still is to go backward – roll up, sign up and become professional – and do it online in your own time.  After all, what have you got to lose?

In reality however, CPD is often a paper exercise in which the flimsiest of evidence is accepted in support of CPD claims.  Does informally mentoring a new member of staff count?  Does that section you helped write in the business plan count towards CPD, or is it just part and parcel of your job?  Is attendance at a seminar or conference sufficient evidence?   And if so, how much credit might you get for it, and who decides?  Jumping through hoops is likely to reinforce closed mindsets.

Concluding Comments

Quite apart from the challenges of working with adults to support their learning and the difficulties of recording that learning in any meaningful way, there is the issue of the diverse nature of the security industry.  The security industry is not of a piece, but a collection of different groups.  Any CPD provision has to take account of these groups – their backgrounds, motivations and cultures – from the blue light, the military to that substantial group who might be said to have ‘fallen into’ stewarding. 

What are the attitudes, predispositions and motivations of the respective groups, and how might these, best be addressed in order to engage them in the pursuit of professionalising the industry?  As a matter of urgency, this is the discussion that needs to be had around these questions. 

An additional and important discussion surrounds the term professional.  Repeatedly proclaiming an occupation to be a profession does not make it one, rather it serves the devalue the term.   The security industry needs to consider just what it means to be professional. 

Meantime, Chris will continue to view CPD with cynicism and disdain, and Pete will be going through the motions, whilst dreaming about bonsai and Japan.

Patrick Smith – Emeritus Professor

Patrick Smith – Emeritus Professor

Patrick is a Director at the highly regarded Silverback Security Academy, Heriz Associates Ltd and a Consultant at Mind Over Matter Consultancy Ltd. He has a passion for designing and running professional development events for adults in the private, public and third sectors. In the last 20 or so years his interests have focused on the workplace as a source of learning and development, most recently, among others, through my work at Silverback Security Academy and the SES Group’s Management Development Pathway