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Rethinking your CPD: “Human See, Human Do”


Fans of the film Planet of the Apes may recognise this quote.  It is a pastiche of ‘monkey see, monkey do’; referring to learning a process without an understanding of why it works. John Castledine, Head of Learning Development and Design at NIHR, explores the topic of learning through imitation in his latest blog as part of the NIHR's Rethinking your Continuing Professional Development (CPD) series.

Look up the word ‘aping’ in the dictionary and we are provided with a definition that starts by saying this is the act of imitating or mimicking. It may go on to say that the imitation is done ‘in a thoughtless or inept way’.

So, is it foolish to expand our learning through imitation? Should we only copy the actions of others when we fully understand why they are acting in a particular way?

Social Learning Theory observes that learning takes place in a social context and can occur purely through observation or direct instruction. Role models do not need to be living or real. They can also be symbolic, such as fictional characters found in literature. Business literature is also packed with statements advocating the importance of learning from role models and the experiences of others. But how do we make the most of role models as part of our continuing professional development (CPD)?

Learning is not purely behavioural (aping); rather, it is a cognitive process. We may not fully understand what we are seeing, but we extract information from those observations and make decisions that guide our own behaviour. Watching the actions of others and the consequences of their behaviour can help us learn what to do, and (equally importantly) what not to do! Role models are not just those colleagues who are most successful in their work.

Where we want to reproduce an observed behaviour we must be able to remember the details of what we saw. We can improve our learning by being more observant of those around us; what they are doing and what impact this has. However, retention of this knowledge may not be enough.  To reproduce the same behaviours observed in our role models may require skills that can only be developed over time. Where this is the case, we also need to understand the pathways of learning taken by these colleagues. Are we equally motivated to go on the same journey?

Let's not forget that we have the ability to act as good role models for others. Approaching this in a deliberate and knowledgeable way can help colleagues benefit from the knowledge and experience we have to offer. Conversely, if we catch ourselves stating “do as I say, not as I do,” then we may be undermining workplace learning. In other words; we all need to practice what we preach.

This short video describes six traits of good role models.  These are:

  • self-awareness
  • positivity
  • humility
  • professionalism
  • empathy
  • integrity

Our ability to help our colleagues learn will be influenced by our own skills in these areas. Consider the challenge of building a culture of wellbeing (a topic close to the heart of many organisations, especially after the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic). Leaders have an opportunity to personally role model healthy behaviours and to facilitate a culture that engenders support. In doing so, they encourage each individual team member to take steps to promote greater wellbeing in themselves.

English poet and dramatist Ben Johnson said that “Very few men are wise by their own counsel, or learned by their own teaching. For he that was only taught by himself had a fool for his master”. I’d encourage you to seek out role models from diverse areas. Look beyond your own team and organisation. As American astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson says in this video “Don't let the absence of someone who looks just like you be the reason why you don't become what you have always dreamt of being”.

John Castledine, Head of Learning Development and Design, National Institute for Health Research

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.