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What is action learning?

  • 6 min read
  • Learning

Maybe like us you’ve heard people use the term ‘action learning’ and you’ve wondered whether it’s as simple as it sounds or whether there’s more to it? In today’s episode, we’re going to briefly explain action learning and point you to some great resources if you’re interested in learning more.

We need to start by introducing you to Reg Revans who actually developed the idea of action learning back in the 1940s! Revans studied astrophysics, and once he finished, he ended up in Cambridge at the Cavendish Laboratory with Ernest Rutherford (a New Zealander!) and Joseph John Thomson. Rutherford and Thomson were two of five Nobel prize winners in the lab. While you might think that they would feel as though they knew it all, apparently the openness of the scientists to peer review had a strong influence on Revans’ thinking. The culture of the lab was that everyone was there to learn. Revans noted the importance of “the need to ask silly questions” and not “to pretend that you have the answers somewhere at hand”. The lab held weekly seminars where if you were speaking, you had to describe where your research was not going well. It sounds like a pretty amazing environment to work in!

In 1945 Revans took a job with the National Coal Board in the UK as a Director of Education and it’s here that he had to develop an education plan. So Revans adapted what had been done in the  Cavendish lab and got groups of pit managers meeting together in small groups to ask each other questions. And in doing that he helped them find their own solutions to the problems they had. Apparently productivity increased by 30% in the coal board because of this approach!

Revans worked at the University of Manchester and then established an action learning programme in Belgium. He developed collaborative approaches to do this. In the 1970s and 1980s he wrote a number of books outlining the process of action learning as a means of helping people to learn with and from each other. He died in 2003. 

Just as an aside and a fun fact, Revans was a long jumper! He represented Britain in the Olympics in 1928 (although didn’t get a medal placing). But at the British Empire Games in 1930 he won a silver medal in both the long and triple jump!

In terms of action learning Revans came up with a formula; L = P + Q. That is, learning equals programmed knowledge plus questioning insight. Another of his ideas became known as Revans’ Law. This states that in order for an organisation to survive, the rate of learning must be equal to or greater than the rate of change in its external environment.  

What is the takeaway for us as enablers of change in this? The fundamentals of action learning emphasises learning from each other’s successes and failures rather than from experts. And it has been embraced by extensionists and used a lot in agricultural circles under a range of names from participatory extension, participatory learning and action, farmer first, farmer networks, study circles, and peer to peer learning. We’ve put a small selection of papers that showcase what’s been done into the references below but we’re sure you’ll know of others! 

In Australia, action learning underpinned extension thought and training at Hawkesbury (at Western Sydney University) and then at the Rural Extension Centre at Gatton. And then there’s Bob Dick (who we’ve mentioned in an earlier post), who is an action learning and research specialist based in Brisbane. We have added some of his resources into the references below as well, since we think they provide some great ideas and give much more detail than we could cover in this post.

So to sum up, action learning—from Reg Revans to Bob Dick—is a process where groups of people come together to learn from their experiences and each other. If you are keen to know where to start now you have a bit of an idea of what action learning is all about, we recommend having a read of the resource developed by the NSW government (NSW Government, nd.). This outlines some of the processes and practices we need to set up to put action learning into action. 

To briefly summarise, there are five steps to an action learning process once an issue has been identified. 

Step one: We start with a brief introduction where the group member who identified the issue is given five minutes to describe the issue in more detail.  

Step two: We explore the issue. Group members ask questions to explore the issue and the implications for action. 

Step three: We define the problem. The group members make statements that seek to define the problem. Then the issue owner prioritises these statements into a list and creates a question to ask the group.  

Step four: We consult. In this step group members offer ideas, solutions and/or advice. This enables the issue owner to identify any actions to implement. Actions should be specific and achievable.

Step five: We evaluate. This is where everyone in the group has an opportunity to reflect on the process. 

And now you have read our thoughts, now we would like to hear yours, so we can learn from your experiences! Add a comment below and include any other papers or resources you have found useful. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversation – join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

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

 

Resources

Beilin, R., & Andreata, S. (2001). After the group: extending the farmer. Journal of International Agricultural and Extension Education, 8(2), 43-52. Available online

Chambers, R. (2009). Farmer first revisited. I. Scoones, & J. Thompson (Eds.). Rugby: Practical Action Publishing. Available online

Collins, R., Kelly, R., McCosker, K., Buck, S., Lambert, G., & Sparkes, D. (2001, January). Experiences from using action learning groups to develop sustainable farming systems for central Queensland. In Proceedings of the 10th Australian agronomy conference’. Available online

Dick, B. (2013). Action learning: Using project teams to build leadership and resilience. Available online

Dick, Bob (2020). Action learning for leadership development and cultural change (revised). Chapel Hill, Queensland: Interchange. Available online

Dick, B.  (1997) Action learning and action research [On line]. Available online. 

Fell, R. (2010). Putting the action into action learning through training for extension practitioners. Adult learning for regional development: Book of readings. Available online.

Knook, J., Eory, V., Brander, M., & Moran, D. (2018). Evaluation of farmer participatory extension programmes. The journal of agricultural education and extension, 24(4), 309-325. Available online

NSW government (nd). What is action learning?  Available online

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