Action Learning Sets

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What is Action Learning?

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) 

How does it Work? 

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. 

What sort of problems does AL work with? 

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 important to the presenter's organisation or their own practice, real and live, not made up exercises.

The problems are
complex in nature, dealing with systemic organisational or practice context issues.

They are problems that are not amenable to 'expert' solutions, or have ready made right answers.

Revans himself made a distinction between two types of problem. On the one hand he saw what he called
'puzzles' - relatively 'closed' problems in that it was possible to find a definite solution, and there was a clear and 'right' end point to the problem. (An example might be the 'puzzle' of trying to assemble an IKEA flat pack chair kit). 

On the other hand he saw more
'open' problems - complex problems where there is no clear 'right' solution, and where there may be a number of different possible ways forward or end points which have to be considered. (An example would be the problem of how best to raise a child). 

AL is designed to work with the second more open type of problem - which Revans and others see as the most challenging and important type of problem that we face in our professional or managerial practice. 

Questioning, space and time

What makes AL effective in helping learn and work around complex and difficult problems of practice? Essentially it is a combination of a number of elements and processes that form the AL approach.

Perhaps the most important element is AL's
use of questioning.   In an AL group meeting
different members take turns to 'present' a current problem of practice

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. 

AL work gives
space to work deeply on a problem. A basic rule of AL work is "one at a time". 

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. 

And AL work gives
time to consider a problem. Typically a presentation in an AL set may run for 70-90 minutes - with initial outline of the problem, questioning and reflection.  This amount of dedicated time given to one problem, with a group's collective resources tuned to it, allows the presenter to work down below some of the immediate surface features of the problem, and consider a range of possible ways forward. 

The combination of supportive but challenging questions, space and time gives AL work its potential for powerful enquiry. The AL approach is designed to help dig deep, to not rush prematurely to judgement, and
to stop us 'taking over' other's problems with inappropriate advice or recommendations.

These elements are also important in allowing an AL group to
build trust amongst members, and to build a culture of mutual enquiry

Some basic principles and values in AL work 

For AL to work effectively, and for its basic elements to flower freely set members have to subscribe to, and work with, some basic principles and values. Three key values are:

Being honest with oneself and others;

Respecting others and their viewpoint;

Taking responsibility for our own actions.

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. 

Being honest with others, while respecting them and their viewpoints is an essential pre-condition for building trust and openness in AL group work. Without these values operating the group cannot function as an effective learning group. 

Taking responsibility for our own actions, both in work in the AL group, and in the practice that we bring to the group is part of our being honest and self -aware, and crucial for understanding our own role in 'problems' and our possible ways forward. 

Elements of an Action Learning Programme

With these basic processes and values in mind an AL programme is composed of the following elements: 

The Set - the small group of five or six people who meet regularly and consistently, ideally once a month to every 6 weeks, for a day, to work together in a supportive yet challenging way. 

The "learning vehicle"- the work-focused, "alive" challenges/problems that each person focuses on during the programme. 

The processes/ground rules that the set adopts when working. AL suggests a series of processes and rules that help defend the openness of the work, and help ensure the depth of enquiry. 

A Set Adviser/facilitator - to help the set develop, to ensure set processes are practised and to help members reflect on their learning, as well as ensure that there is a conducive environment for learning to take place. 

The duration - usually a minimum of six months.
The emphasis on learning- which emerges both from working on particular issues/problems and from the working in the set itself.


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. 

It helps participants develop their capacity in the basic craftsmanship of learning work - particularly in the processes of deep enquiry and questioning. 

And it provides an opportunity for group members to learn how best to work with small groups to promote learning.

Beyond this though many of the disciplines and behaviours that are seen to characterise a learning organisation -
team learning, dialogue, suspending assumptions, personal mastery (Senge 1992), taking risks, converting mistakes into learning, asking questions, building in time for reflection (Honey 1994), are practiced within action learning sets. 

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’s Learning Model

Experiential learning

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