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Using Participatory Action Learning as enablers of change

Some of us may have heard of Participatory Action Learning and be wondering what it is, and others may have heard of it and think it’s an outdated technique. We’ve talked about Action Learning in a previous episode and introduced you to Reg Revans who actually developed the idea of action learning back in the 1940s. We mentioned Participatory Action Learning in passing as well, so in this episode we’re going to further explore what it is and how we might use it as enablers of change.

You might remember that action learning is based on the idea that people learn most effectively when working on actual problems in their own environment. Participatory Action Learning (PAL) is an extension of this and actually links to research or action science. PAL is a collaborative and participatory process that engages stakeholders in problem-solving and learning through action-oriented research. This approach has been shown to be an effective way to address complex problems in agricultural extension and promote sustainable development. PAL involves a range of stakeholders, including farmers, community leaders, extension practitioners, researchers, and policymakers, and can lead to the co-creation of context-specific solutions that are tailored to the needs of local communities.

Let’s now look at experiential learning, and in particular, transformative learning. Kolb (1984) described experiential learning as ‘the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.’  The experiential learning cycle he developed has four stages: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation. Effective learning occurs when the learner progresses through the four stages of the cycle. Firstly, having a concrete experience; followed by observing and reflecting on that experience; leading to the formation of abstract concepts and generalisations; which are then used to test a hypothesis in future situations, resulting in new experiences.

The experiential learning cycle. Source.

Like experiential learning, PAL can also contribute to transformative learning, which involves critical reflection on our assumptions and beliefs, the development of new perspectives and actions, and the transformation of individual and collective identities. This process can deepen understanding of the complexity of agricultural systems and the challenges facing farming communities and promote innovative and sustainable solutions.

The key steps involved in PAL include firstly, building relationships and rapport between all those involved, such as researchers, extension practitioners and farmers. Why is this important? ‘It is through building trusting relationships that learners develop the necessary openness and confidence to deal with learning at the affective level, which is essential for managing the threatening and emotionally charged experience of transformation’ (Taylor, 1998, p.37). Taylor  goes on to say ‘Without the medium of relationships, critical reflection is impotent and hollow, lacking the genuine discourse necessary for thoughtful and in-depth reflection’ (p.37). 

The second step is understanding the problems and opportunities of the situation, and allowing for disorientation and learning to occur. We shouldn’t be surprised when difficulties rise during this step. As Van der Fliert & Braun (2002) noted, ‘The importance of determining and then reconciling the different perspectives of each of the stakeholder groups cannot be overly stressed. When the different realms and disciplines are brought together, communication often breaks down. Although it takes time and energy to achieve this, it is critical to project success’ (p.35). 

The third step is about looking for things to try. This involves examining the problems and exploring solutions that might work. It is particularly important for the project team to regularly practise self-examination of their assumptions and ensure their biases aren’t affecting their approaches. The fourth step is experimentation, where the team actively experiments with various solutions to see what will work in practice. The fifth step is that of sharing the results with others and the final step is sustaining the process so that a continuing cycle of experiential learning occurs. 

These steps can create a collaborative and participatory learning environment that promotes local ownership and empowerment. PAL can benefit enablers of change by enhancing our facilitation and engagement skills and fostering our professional development. This approach can also promote horizontal learning between stakeholders and build trust and social capital in farming communities. PAL can contribute to the co-creation of context-specific solutions that address the complex challenges faced by farming communities.

Some of us may be wondering how Participatory Action Research (PAR) differs from this. The short answer isnot much! PAR is also a process that involves active involvement and collaboration of community members, researchers, and practitioners to solve real-world problems, and involves the following six steps. Firstly, identification of the research problem, which involves working with community members to identify and define the problem that needs to be addressed. Secondly, planning, where the research team and community members work together to plan the research process, including the research questions, data collection methods, and analysis techniques. 

Then comes the data collection which involves gathering data from various sources such as surveys, interviews, and observations. Community members are actively involved in data collection, and their input is crucial in ensuring that the data collected is relevant and meaningful. Once the data has been collected, it needs to be analysed. In this step, the research team and community members work together to identify patterns and themes in the data, and develop theories or hypotheses to explain these patterns. Then the findings from the research are used to develop and implement action plans that address the research problem. Community members are actively involved in the implementation of these action plans. The final step involves reflecting on the research process and evaluating its effectiveness in addressing the research problem. This step also involves identifying areas for improvement and making recommendations for future research. So PAR is very similar but has a stronger research element to it. 

And you’re probably also wondering how action learning fits into this. We think action learning is focussed at the individual level, whereas PAL is more a collective approach to learning, although this will also include individual learning as well. PAL (and obviously PAR) seems to be associated with research settings more than action learning.

Well, you’ve read our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below and tell us about your experiences with using participatory approaches such as PAL or PAR, including any tips and further ideas about it. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversationjoin in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

Thanks folks for reading this Enablers of change episode. Remember to subscribe to our newsletter if you’d like to know when new episodes are available. And if you liked what you read, please tell your friends so they too can join the conversation!


Chambers, R. (1997). Whose reality counts?: Putting the first last. Intermediate Technology Publications.

Pretty, J. N. (1995). Participatory learning for sustainable agriculture. World Development, 23(8), 1247-1263.

Percy, R. (2005). The contribution of transformative learning theory to the practice of participatory research and extension: Theoretical reflections. Agriculture and Human Values, 22, 127-136. Available online. 

Taylor, E. W. (1998). The Theory and Practice of Transformative Learning: A Critical Review. Information Series No. 374. Available online.  

Van de Fliert, E., & Braun, A. R. (2002). Conceptualizing integrative, farmer participatory research for sustainable agriculture: From opportunities to impact. Agriculture and Human Values, 19(1), 25-38. Available online. 

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Ramesh Raj Puri
Ramesh Raj Puri
1 year ago

Thanks John and Denise.
I am very interested in PAL and PAR. I have a better understanding of the difference now. It looks like Participatory action learning and research (PALR) coming together. I will be involved in this process and am trying to build a data collection format to document the information generated during PAL and PAR. Can you suggest any template for this type of information documentation.


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