Revisiting how social workers learn in the workplace

We want to pause to consider what we are really talking about when we plan for supporting NQSWs to learn through the early career stage.

There are several things to reflect on: What do we mean by learning?; What do we value as individuals and organisations in terms of learning?;What is it really like to learn as a social worker and what does that actually involve?; How do we develop the best opportunities for social workers to learn through work?

What do we mean by learning?

There are many theories about how individuals learn, how organisations learn and how we facilitate learning. Social work as a profession strongly promotes reflective learning, self-awareness and reflexivity. We will be including some information about learning theories in the next stage of the website development. It is interesting to think about what we mean by learning, what we think social workers need to learn, and how they learn. In terms of workplace learning, there are rich and diverse opportunities for social workers to learn through the direct work that they do. Understanding more about the nature of how social workers learn in the workplace can help us think about how we maximise the potential and value of this aspect of professional learning.

What do we value as individuals and organisations in terms of learning?

If you can pause for a moment and think about one of the most important things you have learned as a social worker or as a professional in your career. Then make some notes.

Head icon with gears to indicate reflective thinking
  • How did you learn this?
  • What was it you learned?
  • Where did you learn this?
  • Who supported or influenced this learning?

Many different activities lead to learning. These include formal, informal and self-directed things that individuals, teams and organisations might do. Although guidance for continuing professional learning highlights the range of possibilities that count as learning, many social workers and managers focus on organised training sessions.

Our most significant learning experiences can be through so many different aspects of our work. We are drawing from some recent research in Scotland (Ferguson, 2021) that explored the lived experiences of social workers learning through work. The study highlights that learning in social workers’ workplaces can be incredibly potent in relation to the kind of work they are doing, yet it is not a primary focus in planning for continuing professional learning.

What is it really like to learn as a social worker and what does that actually involve?

The research was concerned with going back to explore the nature of learning in the workplace, for social workers. The study was located at the intersection of different fields of knowledge about individual learning; organisational learning; social work professional learning; and workplace learning. The central research question, “What are the lived experiences of social workers’ learning in the workplace?”, was at the core of the study, drawing from and contributing to these different areas of existing knowledge and offering new insights into how these fields connect.

Social workers learning in the workplace

The study found that learning to be, and learning as, a social worker in, through and at work is an intricate web of sensory and emotional experiences while negotiating and navigating places, spaces and tasks. The lived experiences of social workers can be understood as involving the seven superordinate themes for the group, Journey of the self; Navigating tasks; Navigating landscape and place; Learning through the body; Learning through others; Practices and conceptions of learning; and, Learning by chance. Striking metaphors helped social workers convey their experience of learning in the workplace that encompassed these themes.

Learning as a complex web

Learning as a complex web (Ferguson, 2021)

The themes of social workers’ learning in the workplace should not be considered merely on a surface or simplistic level. It is important to pause and consider what these different themes might mean for an individual social worker, then how these might combine. The threads of the relationship between these themes form a web that is unique to the individual social worker, deeply connected to their embodied experience of learning and the type of work opportunities that they undertake. Understanding the nature and complexity of individual social workers’ experiences can help us design more effective workplace continuing professional learning opportunities.

We will be linking to key ideas from this research and adding more information in the next stage of the website development.

You can find out more about the research and findings “When David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust” The Lived Experiences of Social Workers Learning Through Work (Ferguson, 2021).

How do we develop the best opportunities for social workers to learn through work?

Several important implications arise from Ferguson’s research for those involved in supporting social workers’ learning in the workplace.

  • We need to acknowledge the intensity of the emotional and embodied aspect of social workers’ learning.
  • Social workers are vital to each other’s learning.
  • Learning through direct work with real people who use services is absolutely vital.
  • Direct practice is essential to equip social workers with the kind of learning that they need.
  • We need to understand and value learning through work tasks and consider how we allocate tasks to social workers.
  • The personal value and commitment of social workers to their learning is of fundamental importance. We need to consider how frameworks and regulatory requirements dovetail with this.


Ferguson, G M. (2021). “When David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust” The Lived Experiences of Social Workers Learning Through Work. The Open University

Trauma is everybody’s business

The experience and impact of trauma and adversity in the lives of Scottish people is more pervasive than has previously been recognised. This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. NQSWs have a key role in understanding the impact of trauma and working in a way that recognises this.

A vision for Scotland

“A trauma informed and responsive nation and workforce, that is capable of recognising where people are affected by trauma and adversity, that is able to respond in ways that prevent further harm and support recovery, and can address inequalities and improve life chances”

National trauma training programme Scotland 2021

The National Trauma Training Programme (NTTP) supports the shared ambition of the Scottish Government, COSLA and partners from across Scotland of a trauma-informed and responsive nation and workforce as seen in this vision.

A trauma-informed nation

  • Realises the prevalence of trauma
  • Recognises the impact of trauma especially in relation to barriers it can create to life chances
  • Responds with that recgnotion in mind
  • Does no harm, supports recovery, creates systems that remove potential trauma-related barriers
  • Recognises and supports resilience
  • Understands that relationships matter

National trauma training programme

Whatever your role as a social worker, it is important to develop skills and knowledge that understands how the impact of trauma might affect people’s responses to you and your organisation. Learning more can help you adapt your work approach. You may also have an explicit role as a social worker supporting children or adults affected by trauma to recover.

Please let us know if there are any learning resources that you would recommend to other NQSWs.

Developing professional knowledge

Supervision is an important component of shaping professional knowledge and development as an NQSW’s practice develops. Professional knowledge is drawn from theories, research findings and practice experience (Drury and Hudson, 1997); those forms of knowledge include: theoretical knowledge, personal knowledge, practice wisdom, procedural knowledge and empirical knowledge.

The SSSC guidance for professional learning is included on the NQSW requirements page. This reinforces the message that professional learning takes many different forms.

Feedback from the pilot work was that NQSWs wanted to move away from what feels like academic training and learning. Setting up and running a peer group (see the peer reflective practice section) with other frontline workers creates reflective and action learning. The SSSC refreshed approach to CPL is about recognising and recording when learning has taken place and logging this accordingly.  

IRISS, argues that practice wisdom integrates a wide range of knowledge. This will include theories and relevant research to our thoughts and feelings in response to casework. Study participants reported that evidence was relevant information from case histories, notes, observations and reports from other professionals but less from theoretical or research sources.

After qualifying, we can still benefit from support to maintain your awareness of research knowledge and to become more skilled at making connections between casework activities and the human factors that inform our decision making.

Supervision is not the only way for workers to develop their professional knowledge and other methods are often used to complement staff development. Tsui et al (2017), argues that a ‘future path of supervision will be a form of organisational learning, where social workers rely not only on supervision, but also mentorship, consultation and coaching’.

The SSSC approach to continuous professional learning (CPL) is about recognising and recording when learning has taken place and logging this.

Developing your knowledge may include visiting and creating learning accounts at resources such as Social Service Knowledge Scotland (SSKS). A specific guide for NQSWs is also provided by SSKS.


Useful ideas

  • We recommend the SSSC MyLearning app which puts your learning at the centre.
  • This is a smartphone-based service available to anyone.
  • The app helps you record your learning whenever and wherever it happens.
  • You can get reminders to reflect on your learning activities.
Network of social workers

Shared by NQSWs

Head icon with gears to indicate rflective thinking

Reflective questions

  • Reflect on how you record your learning from practice
  • When does learning happen for you?
  • What different ways of developing your knowledge and skills can you think of?
  • How could you evidence that in your learning logs?
  • How can you continue to access knowledge to support you to improve work with people who use services and contribute to your organisation’s learning?

Go to NQSW supervision resource 7 – NQSW wellbeing and resilience needs