Action Learning - What Is It?

Action Learning (AL) involves working on real problems, focusing on learning and actually implementing solutions. It is a form of learning by doing. Pioneered by Professor Reg Revans and developed worldwide over the last 50 years, it provides a well-tried method of accelerating learning which enables people to handle difficult situations more effectively.

AL is a process of inquiry, beginning with the experience of not knowing 'what to do next', and finding that the answers are not available through current expertise. When expertise fails to provide an answer, collaborative inquiry with fellow learners who are undergoing the same questioning experience is always available. To be effective, this partnership in learning needs to be both supportive and at the same time challenging, deeply caring yet questioning. Such partnerships actually create themselves when different people with different ideas engage whole-heartedly with each other to resolve each others' problems.

This is a profound shift: from dependence on available expertise and pride in the steady accumulation of knowledge to learning with and from fellow learners, honestly disclosing doubts and admitting ignorance. AL is based on a radical concept: L = P + Q. Learning requires Programmed knowledge (routine knowledge in use) and Questioning insight. The process integrates research on what is obscure with action to resolve a problem, and personal and communal reflection.

The process takes place initially in small groups, called 'Sets', but is free to find other opportunities for furthering inquiry e.g. where applicable, AL is currently pursued at arms length using web-based or other communications technologies. Each question has possible answers which are tested in action. Those taking part in this process find that they have opened up far more than a useful technique of investigation; they have found a new way of life where being responsible for one's own learning is a continuing process of personal development.

AL was founded on the principle that it creates conditions in a tight learning community such that real people are obliged to tackle real problems in real time:

  • small stable group ('Set') of about six 'comrades in adversity' working in a regular social process

  • learn from and with each other to take observable action

  • target the reality of the 'mess' at field level

  • problems are complex and have no identifiable solution

  • issues have significance and risk for the participants

  • proceed by conjecture and refutation

  • exchange advice, criticism and support

  • activities lead to examination of the problem(s) and the self

  • learning is both defined and accidental

Together with its worldwide partners TLA has the knowhow and experience to help you readily become familiar with the processes and benefits of AL, and to assist you in successfully implementing or upgrading your AL-related initiatives. If you or your enterprise anticipates undertaking or optimizing your usage of this important approach, please contact us to explore how TLA's Staff Consultants and/or Associates may help you.