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Keywords:

  • ethnography;
  • neonatal intensive care unit;
  • nursing;
  • workplace learning

Abstract

Title. Learning how we learn: an ethnographic study in a neonatal intensive care unit.

Aim.  This paper is a report of a study to identify how nurse clinicians learn with and from each other in the workplace.

Background.  Clinicians’ everyday practices and interactions with each other have recently been targeted as areas of research, because it is there that quality of care and patient safety are achieved. Orientation of new nurses and doctors into a specialty unit often results in stress.

Method.  An ethnographic approach was used, including a 12-month period of fieldwork observations involving participation and in-depth interviews with nurse, doctor and allied health clinicians in their workplace. The data were collected in 2005–2006 in a paediatric teaching hospital in Australia.

Findings.  The findings were grouped into four dimensions: orientation of nurses, orientation of medical registrars, preceptoring and decision-making. The orientation of new staff (nursing and medical) is a complex and multi-layered process which accommodates multiple kinds of learning, in addition to formal learning. Workplace learning also can be informal, incidental, interpersonal and interactive. Interactive and interpersonal learning and the transfer of knowledge include codified and tacit knowledge as well as intuitive understandings of ‘how we do things here’.

Conclusion.  Research into how nurses learn is crucial for illuminating learning that is non-formal and less recognized than more formal kinds. To provide a safe practice environment built on a foundation of knowledge and best practice, there needs to be an allocation of time in the busy workday for learning and reflection.