Top flight associates in mental health and social care delivering service improvement



What Miles David Taught Us About Course Design

By Hári Sewell

Posted: Tuesday August 1 2017

Miles Davis was and us known for his use of space in composing and improvising.  There is often a tempation to pack conferences and training courses with input however the evidence suggests that time for reflection and practice is critical to embedding learning.  The HS Consultancy Training Course Prospectus can be found here.

Miles Davis was a jazz trumpeter and was a leading light in the heyday of the genre.  One of his most recognised characteristics musically was his use of space. In an era when jazz music sounded busy, with lots of notes, Miles played with a wide-open style.


I get asked for proposals for training courses.  It is a significant element of the HS Consultancy business portfolio.  There is always a conflict in designing a course.  People who commission training want to see maximum use made of the time that employees are away from service delivery. They also want to get as much expertise from a high-profile trainer as possible and this is often measured in terms of the amount of knowledge the trainer imparts. The temptation is to be drawn towards proposals with a dense programme; one that appears to explicitly justify the funds being spent.


Life isn’t quite like that though.  Maximum leaning is not measured by the amount of information being consumed but rather by the amount of learning that actually happens for delegates.  Contrary to tradition, most learning is not best detected by an end-of-course evaluation.  Ok, hands up, I do make much of the fact that my courses are particularly highly evaluated.  I do recognise however that these evaluations measure immediate impact rather that the extent to which leaning has changed the way in which delegates do their job.  Such impact requires complex longer-term measurements that take account of all factors (e.g. good supervision, organisational culture as well as training).  The application of training into practice usually requires wider organisational development activity as much as the training itself. 


However, whilst we focus on what a training course can do it’s worth noting that the evidence is very clear that practice in training is critical to embedding learning.  What if the training is about judgement and developing critical thinking and changing attitudes? 


Delegates work through their thinking by practising; practising articulating their ideas, hearing others articulate theirs and by doing exercises that make them try out concepts and frameworks.  In doing so they will perhaps stumble over errors that mimic what they experience in real working practice, so that they can learn in the less risky setting of the training.  This requires space in a programme.


Packed training course can be illusory.  Like the approach of Miles Davis, space in between the busy-ness can create the context for real appreciation and absorption.  For jazz fans, many will know that Miles’s most influential collaborator was John Coltrane, who was at the time was known for his dense style of playing, referred to as sheets of sound.  In Miles’s twilight years he lived in an apartment furnished sparsely with little more than a baby grand piano upon which the only photograph in the house sat.  It was a picture of John Coltrane who died in the midst of the jazz heyday.  Miles, with his spacious playing was drawn to someone who stylistically was the antithesis.    


The design of a spacious training programme may not reflect a sparsity of ideas but rather a recognition that space and complexity are two sides of the same coin, much like Miles and Coltrane. Take note.


Hári Sewell is founder and Director of HS Consultancy and is a former executive director of health and social care in the NHS. He has worked as national equalities lead for the National Mental Health Development Unit as part of his consultancy.  Hári was editor of the Journal Ethnicity and Inequalities in Health and Social Care and was part of the Marmot Review of Health Inequalities post 2010. 


Hári regularly runs training days for the NHS, local authorities and voluntary sector organisations and is widely published on the field of equalities.  He is Honorary Senior Research Fellow at University of Central Lancashire and is an Associate of the Centre for Citizenship and Community.


The HS Consultancy Training prospectus can be found here. 




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