A brief guide to action learning

What is action learning?

Action learning is when the practitioners in a situation take responsibility for exploring it and seeking to improve it based on the learning that they develop.

As an approach action learning is a time efficient strategy to engage teachers in reflecting on and developing their professional practice.

Why is it called action learning?

It is called action learning to distinguish it as an applied form of research.  The process of learning and putting that learning into practice are integrated.

What else makes action learning distinctive?

Action learning is a mutually supportive process.  The practitioners who are engaged in the research may be exploring different things but support one another to explore issues in greater depth. These mutually supportive groups are called ‘action learning sets’, or just ‘sets’. Action learning is cyclical. Each practitioner visits, and re-visits several times, the issues that they are researching. In each new cycle new actions are tried, and new understanding is acquired.  The new learning is then used to plan the next actions.

What do participants get from action learning?

Participants get the opportunity to explore their own practice, share it with other professionals and learn from them together. This oftens to very productive cross fertilization as participants share experiences, insights, materials and resources that they develop or need as part of their learning.

What is the focus of action learning?

Each participant selects their own focus.  So for example, in any action learning set there might be a participant who is seeking to improve their deployment of assistants in the classroom, one who is developing blending home and school learning, one who is aiming to improve their middle leadership skills and another who is developing whole school literacy as part of the school improvement plan. 

What is the commitment?

The commitment of the participants is to attend a maximum of six action learning meetings in the academic year, to keep a journal of the learning and the discoveries that they make, and to contribute to the writing of a final report (if the school leadership decides that they want a single report of the action learning set’s activities).

The action learning meetings are hosted online with an experienced facilitator leading the group. The duration of the meetings depends on the number of participants.  Usually action learning sets are no smaller than four participants and no larger than eight.  Each participant usually requires 15 minutes of airtime in the meeting, so four participants means a meeting of around one hour.

What are the stages of action learning?

How do action learning sets work?

An action learning set is usually composed of about six practitioners and a facilitator.  The facilitator supports and moderates the conduct of the set. Each practitioner has privileged time in the set.  This is when they hold the floor.  The other practitioners only contribute when invited to and only in the form of probing and coaching questions.

The facilitator usually opens and closes the set, ensures that the next steps are framed on a SMART basis, and holds the practitioners to their agreed framework of conduct. The facilitator may intervene if a set member is dominating ‘air time’ or moves into ‘telling’ mode (ie: ‘If I was you I would think about doing…’).

What happens in the end?

Action learning comes to a conclusion after the last set meeting.

The participants learning may be: captured and shared in extracts from each reflective journal; presented as a single report, using the reflective journals as evidence; used to form new action learning sets to explore aspects that have emerged in the course of the original research; or presented in a single summary report for the whole group.

How do we help?

We provide the following to ensure that the action learning is focused and effective:

  1. A secure online platform for the action learning meetings.

  2. A checklist for participants to ensure that the action learning is correctly formulated.

  3. An action learning ethical framework for situations where the action learning involves participants engaging parents and children as a part of the learning process.

  4. An action learning reflective journal for participants to record their progress.

  5. An interim report on progress to school leadership.

  6. A summative report to school leadership.

  7. Support in achieving a platform for wider publication of the learning outcomes.

We have supported action learning at the University of Brighton for undergraduates and postgraduate students.

We have facilitated action learning in early years, primary and secondary settings.

We have been published by Impact (Spring 2020) the magazine of the Chartered College of Teaching, the National College and the Laurel Trust.  We have presented research at the Sussex Research Network (2016),BERA (2017) and the Laurel Trust conference (2020).  We have been accepted to present our most recent research at the 2020 BERA conference.

Interested?  To get started contact Stephen at stephen@fulcrumlearning.co.uk

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