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Action Learning is a simply structured way of working (alone or - more usefully - in small groups) on complex and difficult issues of practice.
It is a powerful method for deepening understanding of complex problems of practice and working on ways forward.
Action Learning (AL) is based on an experiential approach to learning - that is it works with real problems and activities as raw material for analysis and reflection.
AL starts from the premise that:
"There is no learning without action and no sober and deliberate action without learning" (Pedlar 1997)
A typical AL group or set will consist of around 5-6 people who commit to work together over a period of between 6-9 months. The set will meet regularly and each time set members will have an opportunity to 'present' a problem drawn from their own practice.
The group will then help the 'presenter' work on that problem through supportive but challenging questioning - encouraging a deeper understanding of the issues involved, a reflective re-assessment of the 'problem', and an exploration of ways forward.
AL was developed by Prof Reg Revans over 50 years ago. It is now widely used in all sectors in many countries as a learning approach. It is particularly appropriate for professional and managerial level learning and personal development work.
AL work is most effective when faced with some of the most difficult problems or challenges we come up against in our work and organisations.
The sort of problems AL works best with will have some or all of the following aspects:
They are problems that are not amenable to 'expert' solutions, or have ready made right answers.
Once the problem is outlined by the presenter the rest of the group help work on this problem through questions to the presenter. AL encourages a particular type and use of questions - questions that develop dialogue and reflection, rather argument and recommendation.
The questioning helps clarify and deepen understanding of the problem. It may help challenge assumptions and perspectives held by the presenter. It may provide a basis for 're-framing' the problem.
Each member has their own air space during the AL set. During that time the group as a whole focuses exclusively on that person and their problem.
Being honest with oneself and others;
Honesty with ourselves is key to our own potential for learning in AL work. If we are not self aware and honest about our actions, assumptions and mistakes, then our capacity for learning is limited, and our view of problems will always be distorted.
With these basic processes and values in mind an AL programme is composed of the following elements:
Individual and organisational benefits of AL
AL work, at one level, offers the individuals in the set an opportunity for their own personal development, around issues in their professional practice.
Action learning can be seen as a step toward promoting organisational learning - although these behaviours are not enough on their own. What is also needed is a will to use them and respect their outcomes, a supportive learning culture that enables them, and structures and systems that give space for them to have an impact on practice.
AL is not an all curing remedy for global learning ills. It is however a powerful approach for working on some of the most intractable problems we face in professional practice. It can help us model good practice in learning work in organisations. And it is a practice that can be taken back into your own organisations for wider use.
David Kolb (1984) suggested the idea of experiential learning. This idea is used with particular reference to adult learning, although experiential learning as a broad discipline is not just about adults. In Kolb’s model, learning is represented as a cycle as illustrated.
Learning is a process of acquiring and remembering ideas and concepts. The process not only involves getting information but also full participation by the learner. No longer are the traditional roles of teacher/student: teacher giving, student accepting, considered the only way to learn or even the best way [Kolb 1984].
Learning is also experience based and often related to the personal application required.
Kolb views the learning process, as a four stage cycle: concrete experience followed by observation and reflection, which leads to the formation of abstract concepts and generalisations, which leads to hypotheses. The hypothesis can then be tested leading to new experiences and the cycle continuing.
Comparison of the learning cycle with problem solving skills