Developing Educational Leaders in Your Healthcare Team


Published: 02 July 2019

Work-based learning is at the heart of continuing professional development (CPD). Yet, to be truly successful, a learning culture needs to include all members of staff and enable them to become educational leaders. The question is, how can this be achieved in practice?

In answering this, Purcell and Lloyd-Jones (2003) suggest that we first need to ask, ‘what is good clinical teaching?' As they say, without clear guidelines and standards, it becomes difficult to create a culture of continuous learning that includes and enables all staff.

It’s a view supported by Mohanna (2007), who makes the point that the role of the healthcare professional as a teacher should be recognised as a core professional activity - one that simply cannot be left to chance, aptitude or inclination.

Most healthcare providers now recognise the importance of continuous learning as a way of improving patient care services. In short, top-to-bottom and end-to-end learning are essential as a way of sharing good practice and increasing the ability to learn from errors.

So, what qualities are needed to create a culture of continuous learning and educational leaders in healthcare?

It’s an important question that a 2016 international study explored. They found that in compassionate and inclusive leadership cultures, all staff focused on continuous learning and through this, on the improvement of patient care (The Kings Fund 2016).

Creating a Culture of Continuous Learning

Important leadership behaviours that are known to encourage learning and innovation include:

  • Focusing on both the emotional as well as the cognitive elements of practice
  • Ensuring that team members regularly take time out to review objectives, strategies and processes.

The aim is to collectively learn and improve as well as support personal wellbeing. Practically, this can be done in numerous ways. For example:

  • Sharing learning about errors, near misses and improved practices
  • Improving the quality of work practices, including regular reviews of working methods
  • Developing and implementing ideas to improve quality
  • Supporting others in implementing ideas for new and improved ways of working
  • Avoiding blaming unnecessarily by creating a psychologically safe environment.

(The Kings Fund 2016)

Listen, Learn and Act

Continuous learning is just that - it never stops. Even practitioners who have a well-developed knowledge base with years of experience still need opportunities to refine or challenge their current practice before integrating new learning.

Sign Up To Safety (2015) offers some excellent practical suggestions for facilitating, creating and capturing these learning moments within the healthcare team. They include:

  • Regularly reviewing incident reporting and investigation processes to make sure that all staff members are truly learning from them
  • Listening, learning and acting on feedback from patients and colleagues
  • Continually measuring how safe your services are.

Capturing Teachable Moments

Key to optimising continual learning is making use of teachable moments - occasions that spontaneously arise out of an ongoing clinical situation in which a practice question, concern, doubt or uncertainty suddenly surfaces (Thomas 2004).

Teachable moments usually occur as short conversations, often in response to uncertainty about how best to proceed, or how to make the right or best decision for a patient. The term naturalistic decision making has also been used to describe this type of real-life decision-making, where there is both significant uncertainty alongside opportunities for learning.

Structured learning will never lose its value, but could more be made of teachable moments at the bedside?

Thomas (2004) suggests that much more could be made of these learning opportunities. For example, when a practitioner’s clinical expertise or judgement is challenged. Or when new practical skills need to be learnt or consolidated.

Teachable moments are not just for junior members of staff, however. They can also offer precious learning opportunities for more experienced practitioners on their journey from novice to expert. Everyone can benefit, and everyone has the opportunity to be both a learner and a teacher.

Thinking Out Loud

As Thomas (2004) suggests, teachable moments present precious opportunities to make critical thinking conscious and visible by reflectively thinking out loud. Done well, this has the potential to move theoretical knowing into a conscious, reflected upon and articulated knowing-in-action. Thinking out loud is also a strategy that has been identified to promote evidence-based practice.

Useful questions to encourage learning could include:

  • What surprised you about this patient, or this situation?
  • What did you do differently in this situation?
  • What do you expect from your patient over this shift and in the coming days?
  • Would you do anything differently next time?

It’s open ended questions like these that are known to maximise learning through reflection and inquiry, allowing the learner to grow in understanding, and by reflecting on their practice, self-identify future learning needs.

Key Insights

Coming back to the question of how an all-inclusive culture of learning can be established within the healthcare team, Sign Up To Safety (2015) offer the following thoughts for consideration:

  • Real, sustainable, active improvement depends far more on learning and growth than on rules and regulations.
  • It’s important to find a balance between the hard guardrails that keep things in proper order and the culture of continual learning that helps everyone to grow.
  • To become a learning organisation, leaders should create and support the capability for learning, and therefore change, at scale.
  • Rules, standards, regulations and enforcement have a place in the pursuit of quality, but they pale in potential compared to the power of pervasive and constant learning.
  • A commitment should be made to lifelong learning about patient safety and quality of care through customised training for the entire workforce. Topics should include safety science, quality improvement methods, approaches to compassionate care and teamwork.
  • Collaborative learning through safety and quality improvement networks can be extremely effective and should be encouraged.
  • Patient safety cannot be improved without active interrogation of information that is generated primarily for learning, not punishment, and is for use primarily at the front line.
  • Investing in learning, growth, development, ambition and pride can unleash momentum for improvement that no simple, top-down, control-oriented, requirement-driven culture ever can.

Perhaps it could be argued that some of these suggestions are idealistic, or simply unattainable with limited resources, but that doesn’t stop them from being goals to reach for in the pursuit of greater learning.



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Anne Watkins View profile
Anne is a freelance lecturer and medical writer at Mind Body Ink. She is a former midwife and nurse teacher with over 25 years’ experience working in the fields of healthcare, stress management and medical hypnosis. Her background includes working as a hospital midwife, Critical Care nurse, lecturer in Neonatal Intensive Care, and as a Clinical Nurse Specialist for a company making life support equipment. Anne has also studied many forms of complementary medicine and has extensive experience in the field of clinical hypnosis. She has a special interest in integrating complementary medicine into conventional healthcare settings and is currently an Associate Tutor, lecturing in Health Coaching and Medical Hypnosis at Exeter University in the UK. As a former Midwife, Anne has a natural passion for writing about fertility, pregnancy, birthing and baby care. Her recent publications include The Health Factor, Coach Yourself To Better Health and Positive Thinking For Kids. You can read more about her work at