Action Learning Revisited

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What must good professional development be? Pick from the list: focused, reflective, cost-efficient, based around outcomes with demonstrable impact, flexible, collaborative and sustainable. Quite a list and there is a good case for action learning being able to tick every criteria.

Growing out of the post-war innovations of Reg Revans, action learning was a direct challenge to the prevailing normative, top-down approaches to training and management. In contrast, its ethos stressed professional autonomy and the value of a collaborative approach to reflective learning. By the 1990’s action learning was widespread in post-graduate study and was probably encountered by many PGCE students, as well as most reading for their MA.

Action learning is based around the learning set, a group of individuals working with the support of a facilitator. The ethos of the set is confidentiality, mutual support and respect for all domains of learning. Some sets are independent, that is they have formed in an independent manner, while others are directed. Regardless of how the set was created the same principles apply to its operation. They operate in a cycle of meetings over an extended period of time, so that the learning and the actions arising from it have time to develop and be evaluated. They follow an agreed protocol in which each set member has a dedicated period of the meeting to review their learning and propose their next steps, aided by the other members of the set.

An examination of the literature shows a flurry in the 1990’s and early years of this century. A highly recommended and comprehensive guide comes in the form of ‘The Action Learning Handbook’ (2004) by Anne Brockbank and Ian McGill. It provides a clear description of the principles of action learning arising from its early history. The book also details the role, rights and responsibilities of each set member, invaluable if the process is to be effective and successful for everyone. A copy can be purchased through many retailers and be found at the ubiquitous Amazon.

Since that time the action learning approach has lost some of its popularity, in part due to cut down versions of practitioner learning in the form of activities such as learning triads and lesson study groups. These micro-approaches tend to be easier to set up and quick to turn around but the impact can be limited and they have a tendency to become top down, in the form of ‘we want you to look at…’ or ‘a priority for the school is…

The true power of collaborative learning is only just becoming clear as the internet evolves and integrates itself into every aspect of life, personal and professional. As schools and colleges reach out to one another in school-led developments the time seems to be ripe to return to the unalloyed principles of action learning, offering as it does opportunities for practitioners from a mixture of contexts to support one another in a respectful manner over an extended period of time, and to consider if technological developments make action learning more accessible and applicable today than ever before.

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