health caseworkers must maintain their competence with up-to-date
skills, knowledge, information, judgment, and performance in order to
serve clients and team members effectively with appropriate clinical
processes. A range of quality mental health services is needed which
are individualized and responsive to client needs. Understanding the
learning activities that influence the development of mental health
professional competence is important in order to ensure accountability
in the forms of risk minimization, the delivery of error-free quality
services, and professional development.
practitioners learn through their participation in formal instructional
programs sponsored by educational institutions, professional
associations, and the employing agency, research (e.g., Anthony, 1992;
Farkas & Anthony, 2001) has shown that much of professional
learning that is highly valued by professionals occurs informally
within the workplace. This informal learning is, however, an area that
has received little treatment in the research literature (Eraut, 2002).
Therefore, this study was designed to explore the informal learning
activities of mental health caseworkers that increase the effectiveness
of their professional practice.
qualitative research design was employed to identify and describe
patterns of learning in which caseworkers in community mental health
centers engage to develop and maintain professional competence. One
central question guided the present study: According to the
perspectives of the study participants, what different learning
activities do caseworkers use in their professional development?
obtained approval to conduct the study from the University of Missouri
Institutional Review Board prior to collecting any data. We interviewed
eleven caseworkers, eleven supervisors, and eleven peers. Caseworkers
were employed in two mental health centers. The two community mental
health facilities were located in a mid-western metropolitan city
within the United States. Because the metropolitan area crossed state
boundaries, each mental health center was located in a different state.
caseworkers were female and four were male. All of the caseworkers had
obtained bachelor’s degrees in social science, sociology,
rehabilitation psychology, psychology, clinical psychology, social
work, and criminal justice. Four of the caseworkers had master’s
degrees, two in social work, one in telecommunications, and one in
counseling psychology. Two caseworkers were working on their master’s
degrees, one in counseling and the other in psychology. Two caseworkers
were planning to start working on their master’s degree the following
year; one in social work and the other in family and marriage
The caseworkers’ experiences also differed in terms
of years of practice within the field of mental health, ranging from
seven to 17 years. Only one caseworker had been at the same facility
where she had begun her career; the other ten caseworkers had worked at
several facilities but had stayed with case management work in the
different work settings.
We completed unstructured interviews
over a period of two months. Interviews with supervisors and peers, as
well as review of state policies and mental health center policies and
procedures were also conducted to triangulate the data and their
sources in order to address issues of trustworthiness and dependability
(Silverman, 2001; Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Creswell, 1998).
transcribed interviews verbatim and analyzed the data inductively
(Strauss & Corbin, 1998). The first stage of data analysis
consisted of reducing the data by assigning codes to small pieces of
information until all transcribed data had been coded; this process led
to identification of categories. In the second stage, we looked for
relationships between the categories (Strauss & Corbin; Creswell,
1998). These relationships constituted themes concerning the learning
activities that contributed to caseworkers’ competence development. By
using qualitative methods, we were able to explore the experiences of
mental health caseworkers as they voiced how they remained current with
professional knowledge, skills, and applications in their work.
This study was informed by four theoretical frameworks:
1. Nowlen’s (1988) Competence Models;
2. LaDuca’s (1980) Situated Model of Competence;
3. Eraut’s (1994;2004) conceptualization of the practitioner performance period; and
Theories of situated learning developed by Wenger, McDumott, and Snyder
(2002), Brown and Duguid (2002), and Rogoff (1990).
(1988) framework contains three models: Update, Competence, and
Performance. The Update Model’s focus is on updating knowledge of
disciplinary-based theories and concepts specific to a practitioner’s
profession, and enhancing the relationship between knowledge, skills,
and performance. This model draws attention to practitioners as
consumers of knowledge that they use in practice settings.
Competence Model (Nowlen, 1988) focuses on the effective, efficient,
thorough, and appropriate use of professional skills and abilities to
perform a professional role, as well as on maintenance of up-to-date
knowledge about one’s profession. Competence in this case includes
generic skills that are valid across a range of jobs and professional
practice, as well as competencies unique to a field of practice.
Techniques involving task analyses are used to define competencies
which are then stated in performance (behavioral) terms. These
capabilities involve a “synthesis of behavior objects as well as some
elements of covert behavior” (p. 32). Both the update and the
competence models focus exclusively on the individual with little, if
any, consideration of the social nature of practice and the mutually
constitutive role that context plays in practice.
Performance Model (Nowlen, 1988), in contrast, goes beyond the Update
and Competence Models and views professional practice as a social
activity occurring within particular practice environments.
“Performance is a function of both individuals and ensembles. Even when
viewed as an individual matter, performance is the result of
interacting social and personal influences” (p. 86).
LaDuca’s Situated Model
(1980) Situated Model of Competence shares many characteristics with
Nowlen’s performance model. The Situated Model focuses on the
interactions of the client, the clinical problem, and the clinical
setting. When a professional works with a client, the client’s
behaviors become part of the context; at any specific instance, the
situation imposes requirements for performance, and one cannot judge
professional competence without “situation reference for. . .described
tasks” (LaDuca, p. 255). “[P]erformance is not simply equivalent to
competence because an individual’s competence does not reside solely in
the ability to perform a task or activity, but in performing the task
correctly and at the appropriate time” (LaDuca, Engle, & Risely,
1978, p. 151).
Eraut’s Performance Period
(1994, 2004) viewed practice as operating within a performance
period. “The analysis of a performance period is concerned with
everything done by the performer during a specified period of time,
particularly with such aspects as reading the situation, deciding what
to do, changing one’s plan, responding to unforeseen events, allocating
time and managing the transitions to other periods” (Eraut, 1994, p.
Time is an important element of a performance period
(Eraut, 1994, 2004). When time and action coincide in the
action-present, the professional acts in an instant/reflex,
semi-explicit mode, reading the situation via pattern recognition,
making decisions instantaneously, and using learned practice routines.
When the length of time expands beyond the action-present, the
practitioner acts in a rapid/intuitive mode. The professional reads a
situation via rapid interpretation, and intuitively employs routine
activities of which they are aware. When ample time is available to
reflect back on a performance period, the practitioner employs a
deliberative/analysis mode of thought. The professional reads a
situation and makes decisions via discussions and analysis with others
and acts on the basis of plans developed through deliberation.
(1994) uses the concepts of “hot” and “cold” action to describe the
speed that the practice environment requires for the practitioner to
act. The characterizations of professional action within different
lengths of time coupled with the concepts of “hot” and “cold” action
provide a framework for exploring the role that time plays in the
informal learning of practitioners.
interact with others in communities of practice (Wenger, McDumott,
& Snyder, 2002; Brown & Duguid, 2002). Communities of practice
are “…groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or
a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise
in this area by interacting on an on-going basis” (Wenger, et al., p.
4). Through mutual engagement, members “… think, invent, and find
solutions together. . . .They share a basic body of knowledge that
creates ‘common ground,’ allowing members to work together effectively”
(Wenger et al., 2002, pp. 37-38), in order to solve problems. Brown and
Duguid (2002) concluded that communities of practice develop and
transfer the most accepted professional practices and skills because
members learn from each other and from the more skilled professionals
in the community.
New professionals learn through a process
that Rogoff (1990) termed cognitive apprenticeship, or participation in
an activity with the guidance of more skilled people. The apprentice
observes a practitioner who is more knowledgeable and skilled. The
apprentice also participates in the work, beginning at the periphery in
terms of essential practices but still engaging in legitimate
(genuinely associated) practices and ultimately moving to the core of
practice, where the apprentice will achieve required levels of
competence.“Communication between social parties [within communities of
practice] provides a medium for new members…to participate in more
skilled problem solving with the guidance of partners. . . .It
facilitates growing skills and participation in activities” (Rogoff, p.
Data analysis revealed three
interrelated themes about caseworkers’ informal learning. The first
theme, engaging in authentic work activities, included activities of
learning-by-doing, assessing situations, and making mistakes. The
second theme, learning from mentors, included activities of observing,
imitating, and receiving and acting on feedback. The third theme, using
physical and social resources and tools, included actively networking,
dialoging, meeting with teams, and reading. Table 1 provides a list of
themes and the individual learning activities that comprised them.
Pseudonyms are used in illustrative quotations below to protect
Caseworker Learning Activities
in authentic work Learning
Transacting with context
from mentors Observing
Receiving and acting on feedback
physical and social
Meeting with teams
Engaging in Authentic Work
learned from engaging in authentic work, by doing their jobs,
transacting with context, experimenting with solutions to problems,
assessing situations, and making mistakes.
Learning by doing.
Caseworkers reported that their most valuable learning outcomes were
achieved through engagement in job activities that occurred over a
length of time and in actual practice settings. Jo remarked: “. .
.learning kind of as you go, day to day, what’s effective. .
.experience is definitely the key.” Francis thought that she gained
knowledge about her job by doing it: “I—learned on the job…gaining
knowledge through my job…knowledge through the clients that I’ve worked
with.” And Gale said that “I really think that the actual
experience of doing it [casework] has taught me way more than anything
the books could have ever taught me.” Lennie added to this
understanding the importance of working in the actual practice setting:
“…but I think to do case management, it’s really the [case work]
activity—you have to be in the community day-to-day…that’s the most
important---engage in activity.”
context. A major part of learning on the job consists of the
process of contextual transaction in which mutual influence is exerted
by the context on the practitioner and the practitioner on context. In
this case context is defined to include problematic situations,
clients, and other caseworkers. Jo thought that getting together with
co-workers and “learning from each other was very helpful.” Francis
described situational interactions as:
… a combination of different
things: resources that you have out there for your own professional
career. Information that you glean from your co-workers; what you learn
from your co-workers. Hearing your doctor talk. Having a dialogue with
your supervisor. Knowing your clients. You have to be able to take in
Experimenting. By working in contexts
that are uncertain and ambiguous, caseworkers learned by trying out
different styles, techniques, and skills and seeing what did and did
not work. Alexis stated, “I think that’s something that I learned over
time. . .a kind of trial and error type situation working with
different types of clients.” Jo thought of her learning occurring
“…kind of through trial and error.”
Caseworkers experience new situations each day and learn by assessing
their various situations, circumstances, and clients: “kind of do an
assessment on how I’m going to do what I need to do. . .I just go out
there and see what’s going on” as one caseworker defined this process.
CJ reported that “probably one of the first things that I had to learn
when I first got into this field is how to assess someone, to see what
level of psychiatric crisis they were in and therefore be able to
incorporate the right intervention for them. . . .It’s all about
assessing their situations and assessing their level of need…”
mistakes. Caseworkers briefly discussed learning from their mistakes.
They reported that if they did something wrong with assessment or
treatment, they would commit that learning to memory and would use
those memories as references if they encountered similar situations in
the future. Ira admitted that along “with any job you start, you learn
from your mistakes; and you really have to do that.” Dot noted, “I know
we all make mistakes and I remember talking to co-workers…and realized
that I had to get [things] down pat [correctly].”
Learning through Mentors
observed and imitated co-workers who had expertise in particular
situations or from co-workers who provided feedback about job
Observing and imitating.
Caseworkers discussed how, when they first started their jobs, they
learned primarily through mentorship, role-modeling, and observations.
When Ira began his job, his reliance on his co-workers “to initially
help me was the key to really learning what I needed to learn.” Alexis
reported that ‘They set me up with another caseworker and that
caseworker would teach me what I needed to know.” Bo identified that
the “ride a-longs” were important to her learning processes: “We would
go with an experienced case manager to the clients on home visits. And
tag along and learn about community resources. The actual experience is
so beneficial.” Huie also reported, “But a lot of it was a growing
situation, learning from peers in my field and from supervisors in my
Receiving and acting on feedback. Caseworkers
identified clients, co-workers, and supervisors as the principal people
who provided them with feedback about their job performance. Gale
described a feedback experience: “I just had an incident last week and
there was another co-worker in the room and the client was getting
really upset and I didn’t think I was doing my job.” And then her
co-worker provided her constructive feedback about how she handled the
situation. Gale also praised her supervisor for her feedback: “That’s
one thing [with which]…I have been really blessed—her willingness to
let me know that what I am doing well, and maybe this is what I can
Using Physical and Social Resources and Tools
tools consisted of technology such as computers and cell phones and
other non-human resources such as buildings and printed materials.
Social tools consisted of co-workers, supervisors, agency staff
personnel, subject matter experts, and community resource personnel.
Caseworkers used these tools in several ways to learn.
Caseworkers actively networked when they exchanged and shared
information with co-workers, when they connected with community
agencies, and when they talked with community personnel about how to
obtain services for clients. Contact would be made either by
face-to-face encounters or through the telephone. As Ira explained, “I
had very limited knowledge on that [topic] and I had a co-worker that
had been doing the job for quite a few years and was connected with
those folks in the community and he kind of guided me through. I met
some key people in the community that basically you could go to.”
Talking with others was a mechanism used by caseworkers to share ideas
and information. If caseworkers did not know about a needed resource or
information, they used their cell phones to call other caseworkers to
obtain information. One caseworker would say to another caseworker,
“hey, I have a question” and then discuss the situation with her
colleague. Dialoguing and listening assisted caseworkers with
understanding how to do their jobs and locate and find needed
information and resources. Dot added: “And that’s how I’ve learned—just
through talking to other people, getting new techniques on how to
handle certain situations, going to treatment team, overhearing my
office mate while she’s on the phone with somebody.” Francis also
stated that “it’s just acquiring knowledge…day by day, paying attention
in team meetings, listening to my co-workers talk, having conversations
with them, talking with my supervisor.”
questions. Caseworkers said they also learned by asking questions. Bo
asked questions of her co-workers, therefore using them “as a
resource.” Gale used her supervisor as a resource for asking questions
and obtaining information: “I can ask her how…I do certain things or
ask her for suggestions and then she’s wonderful coming up with
things.” If caseworkers were out in the field, they asked questions of
their colleagues and even of community resource personnel over their
Meeting with teams. Caseworkers discussed how team
meetings provided a setting where learning occurred as they discussed
problematic situations and listened to ideas and opinions expressed by
co-workers. Gale thought that meetings were important to her job: “We
do have team meetings and during that time, we’ll talk about problem
solving.” Jo saw the importance of using her team members as resources
for learning: “We get together as a team and think or brainstorm to
think of ideas to help with clients.”
read reference materials, books, policy and procedure manuals, Internet
web sites, email messages, articles, newspapers, community bulletins
and resource guides. By reading, caseworkers again obtained information
that was related to job performance. Bo discussed how she “looked to
the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistics Manual-IV] and I go through it and I
look in there to see what the criteria is [sic] for such and such a
diagnosis.” Another caseworker discussed how she would read “a good
book on psychopharmacology and that’s been very helpful because clients
are always asking questions about their medications and side effects.”
Discussion and Conclusions
findings of this study were consistent with the literature on
professional learning. Further, the findings were likewise consistent
with the insights provided by the theoretical frameworks used to guide
the study. The following paragraphs provide illustrations of these
Caseworkers reported that they learned
primarily through on-the-job experiences and situations embedded in
their work. They did not perform alone or engage in solitary activities
but instead participated in social interactional processes (Wertsch,
Minick, & Arms, 2002) located within performance periods (Eraut,
1994). Therefore, they learned because they constructed their knowledge
as they engaged in practice (Daley, 2002), being present within and
actively involved in events and situations that took place within their
working environments (Brown & Duguid, 2002; Nowlen, 1988; Rogoff,
The findings of this study are congruent with Nowlen’s
(1988) and LaDuca’s (1980) focus on the central role that social
context plays in professional learning. The findings of this study
demonstrated that most of the caseworkers’ learning resulted from
social interactions with clients, colleagues, supervisors, and
community members. Learning was also fostered and influenced by their
working environments and the clinical situations and problems presented
by those environments.
Caseworkers interacted with each other
and used tools of practice within communities of practice (Wenger,
McDumott, & Snyder, 2002; Brown & Duguid, 2002). Caseworkers
learned from each other. They observed and discussed techniques and
skills that worked in certain situations while more expert caseworkers
role-modeled how to apply skills and techniques.
caseworkers learned from more experienced caseworkers. They shadowed
their more experienced co-workers by going with them into client’s
homes and observing the interactions and treatment interventions as
their experienced colleagues modeled, explained, provided feedback, and
reinforced what was going on in the situational interactions (Lave
& Wenger, 2002).
Caseworkers worked in
teams. As team members, they learned by building a shared knowledge
base about practice and treatment protocols. Regular team meetings
provided a networking context in which to network in order to exchange
information and learn through such activities as asking questions and
dialoguing about clients and work performance techniques.
consistently worked with novel and ambiguous situations and under
conditions Eraut (1994) termed “hot action.” Caseworkers learned to
solve problems as they dealt with diverse client needs that had unknown
solutions and made decisions rapidly and responded instantaneously to
problematic situations (Eraut). By learning from experiences and
situational contexts, caseworkers acquired the skills and techniques to
perform their jobs effectively.
As Eraut (1994) stated, the
caseworkers developed expertise when they developed the ability to cope
with difficult, ill-defined problems, demonstrated the ability to
correctly read situations, and resolved client’s problematic
situations. Caseworkers continuously learned as the demands of the
situations shifted and changed. Shared learning and knowledge creation,
coupled with authentic work engagement, enabled caseworkers to develop
skillful behaviors and deliberative processes.
Implications for Practice
interviews, supervisors and management concentrated on the formal
learning processes that are viewed by the mental health centers as
important to caseworker learning. One implication for practice
therefore is to begin the process of improving supervisors’ and
management’s recognition of the importance of informal learning and
related activities that help develop caseworkers’ professional
competence. In relation, another implication for practice is making
sure that caseworkers’ understand that most of their learning occurs
because of these informal learning activities. As such, supervisors
should help caseworkers use these learning activities to extract
knowledge and further the development of their professional development.
Implications for Future Research
the course of the literature review, we uncovered very few studies that
specifically explored the informal learning activities of caseworkers.
Thus, we conducted this study to contribute to a deeper understanding
of the types of informal learning activities mental health caseworkers
actually use in their professional development. We trust that we have
made a contribution in this area. However, more must be done. A
continuing need is for more detailed analysis of the ways
organizational processes influence informal learning, the exact content
of caseworker informal learning, and the relation between informal
learning and the development of particular mental health caseworker
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