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Active learning
  1. Andrew Curwen


XLVets UK recently launched VetSkills, a programme that is designed to provide practical, proactive and participative CPD. Chief executive, Andrew Curwen, explains why

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HERBERT Spencer, the Victorian philosopher is credited with identifying that: ‘The great purpose of education is not knowledge but action.’ There can be little doubt that while acquiring new knowledge for the sake of it may have its place, it's better if we can use this new knowledge to do something.

Can you recall what was involved when you learnt a new skill? What steps were involved in acquiring a new surgical skill? What processes did you undertake to become proficient in interviewing for a new vet? How did you reach the point where you could explain the aetiology of a novel disease to a client? Chances are that in all of these cases it will have involved some sort of activity, even if that activity was confined to playing around with the new thing in your mind or simply talking to others.

What about CPD? There seems to be a danger that, as a profession, we fall into the trap of thinking that CPD equates to sitting (normally silently) in front of a competent clinician or surgeon and passively listening to him or her talk about highly specialised and specific things that we aspire to do. It's what we've been brought up to understand education looks like. We can recall sitting dutifully through all those lectures at university and so more of the same feels and sounds right. But how good is it at delivering new knowledge that leads to action?

The RCVS website makes clear that CPD should be much more than lectures. It encourages us to think of CPD as including review and discussion with colleagues, mentoring or being mentored, and considering how new ideas from outside of our normal world can be applied to good effect to make things better.

How would you describe success?

Your answer is likely to be strongly influenced by personal values and beliefs. However, ‘being effective’ is a commonly admired attribute that influences perception of how successful an individual is in life. And in a busy veterinary surgery being effective is certainly a valuable asset.

Stephen Covey looked closely at the habits of effective people who were assessed by their colleagues as being successful in both their business and personal lives. He concluded that they were clearly aware of what they considered to be right and important and that this dictated their actions. He identified seven key habits that they shared.

  • Being proactive;

  • Beginning with an end in mind;

  • Putting first things first;

  • Thinking win-win;

  • Understand and then be understood;

  • Synergise;

  • ‘Sharpen the saw’.

The first three points relate to personal independence and they drive behaviour that ensures that the individual is in control. These people are described as ‘those that make it happen’. Without such behaviour you are more likely to be a member of the other two groups: ‘those that watch it happen’ or, worse still, ‘those that wake up one morning and wonder what on earth happened’! The second set of three habits relate to personal interdependance and recognise the success that comes with working effectively with others. The seventh habit is what this is all about – ongoing, continuous, professional development.

Being proactive

Being proactive involves setting the agenda and not giving others a blank sheet of paper to fill in. However, Covey also identified that it means taking full responsibility for one's own actions and not blaming circumstances or the past for current behaviour. Moreover, these individuals consciously choose their response to any given situation and take pride in it, even if this means extra work for them or it is not the route of ‘least hassle’. Being proactive means that you choose your attitude.

Begin with an end in mind

‘If you don't know where you are going, how do you know whether you've ever got there?’ This habit relates to the activity of setting clear objectives – specific, meaningful, ambitious, realistic and timely – SMART. However, it also relates to challenging why things are being done. When asked why something is being done, many people respond: ‘Because . . .’. A more positive response, that has an end in mind, starts with: ‘In order to . . .’.

Putting first things first

This third habit is vital in ensuring effectiveness as it determines that the right thing is being done. Understanding the difference between important things and urgent things is the key to ensuring that we ‘do the right things’ as opposed to just ‘doing things right’. Write down all the things that you need to get done. It's likely that it is the important but not immediately urgent things that you will need to make space for. This is at the centre of the ongoing debate about the ‘work/life balance’ and it is important to realise that many of the ‘first things’ to be put first include personal health and fitness, responsibilities to families and developing friendships.

Thinking win-win

Although the expression may be considered to be rather hackneyed, it means a great deal. For the science behind it, Robert Axelrod's book ‘The evolution of co-operation’ is a highly accessible and enlightening insight into the success of this strategy of mutual gain. Success for one party does not have to be tied to failure for the other. Instead, both Axelrod and Covey clearly show that strategies that look for a ‘win’ for both parties are the most successful in the long term.

Understand and then be understood

How do you know if someone is listening? Listening to other people first is a powerful habit associated with being effective. It is shared both by experienced salespeople who seek to clearly identify customers’ needs before extolling the virtues of their products and clinicians who work hard to establish a diagnosis and really understand what the client perceives before describing and prescribing a treatment regime. Actively listening involves showing the other person that you understand what they are saying. It not only ensures clarity of the situation but it also makes others feel important and valued, which brings out the best in them. It also leads to a greater likelihood that they will listen in return. Open questions, starting with What, How, Why, When, Where, are a useful tool to help understand what someone thinks and feels.


Synergies can come from the habit of looking for the win-win. However in using this term, Covey also includes behaviour associated with innovation, generating new ideas and, in particular, recognising the value of working with teams of people who possess different skills in order to achieve solutions and results that would not be possible in isolation.

Sharpen the saw

By ‘sharpen the saw’, Covey means ‘on reflection, what can we learn?’; he is clear that it stands for continuous professional development. The habit of re-evaluating and refining behaviour is not restricted to 35 hours a year but instead is an ongoing, conscious and active process. It involves seeking and being open to feedback from everyone around you and creating and exploiting new opportunities to learn.

Making it happen

VetSkills workshops aim to answer business needs that vets tell us about across a whole range of animal health and welfare topics and on business and staff management topics as well. All workshops are delivered in small group workshops of six to eight people by facilitators who are recognised leaders in their field and who have had their own training styles developed by following the LANTRA Awards Train the Trainer programme. The aims of the workshops are clear: to deliver practical, up-to-date, technical and business-related skills to vets in a participative way, leading to actions and business improvement.

Further reading

‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ Steven R. Covey. 2004. ISBN 978-0684 858395

Putting it into practice

Through its simple and clear assessment of sometimes complex issues, Stephen Covey's model provides a straightforward checklist to allow examination of your own behaviour or that of others. While it is clearly aimed at individuals, aspects of it can also be applied to the veterinary business as a whole.

Applying the seven habits

  • Is the practice proactive in its relationship with its clients and its own staff?

  • Does the practice team share clear and common goals?

  • How are priorities set within the practice? Who sets them? How are they communicated?

  • In its relationships with its suppliers, other practices, pharmacists and other professionals, does the practice look for the win-win?

  • What steps does the practice take to listen to and understand its clients? Does the practice use client questionnaires or seek feedback? Connected with this, what actions actively show the clients that the practice seeks to understand their needs?

  • How does the practice encourage and reward new ideas from staff members? How well does the practice team function? How well are the different skill sets of the members utilised?

  • And, finally, how is CPD ‘cascaded’ through the practice? And is non-clinical CPD recognised as being as important as clinical CPD and implemented?

So you know about these habits. Do you believe that they make a difference? If not, how about discussing them with a friend or colleague? If yes, what three things will you now do?

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