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Action learning is an educational process whereby people work and learn together by tackling real issues and reflecting on their actions. Learners acquire knowledge through actual actions and practice rather than through traditional instruction.
Action learning is done in conjunction with others, in small groups called action learning sets. It is proposed as particularly suitable for adults, as it enables each person to reflect on and review the action they have taken and the learning points arising. This should then guide future action and improve performance.
Professor Reginald Revans is the originator of action learning. Revans formative influences included his experience training as a physicist at the University of Cambridge. In his encounters with this talented group of scientists - several went on to win Nobel-prizes - he noted the importance of each scientist describing their own ignorance, sharing experiences, and communally reflecting to learn. He used these experiences to further develop the method in the 1940s while working for the Coal Board in United Kingdom. Here, he encouraged managers to meet together in small groups, to share their experiences and ask each other questions about what they saw and heard. The approach increased productivity by over 30%. Later in hospitals, he concluded that the conventional instructional methods were largely ineffective.
People had to be aware of their lack of relevant knowledge and be prepared to explore the area of their ignorance with suitable questions and help from other people in similar positions.
Later, Revans made this more precise in the opening chapter of his book (Revans, 1980) which describes the formula:
Q uses :
Although Q is the cornerstone of the method, the more relaxed formulation has enabled action learning to become widely accepted in many countries all over the world. In Revans' book there are examples from the United States, Canada, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia-Pacific.
Michael Marquardt expanded Revans's formula as follows:
L = P + Q + R 
In this expanded equation, R refers to reflection. This additional element emphasizes the point that "great questions" should evoke thoughtful reflections while considering the current problem, the desired goal, designing strategies, developing action or implementation plans, or executing action steps that are components of the implementation plan.
The proven power of the action learning process originates in its theoretical underpinnings (Waddill & Marquardt, 2003). Waddill and Marquardt demonstrate the link between adult learning theory and Marquardt's action learning approach in their article entitled "Adult Learning Orientations and Action Learning".
Today, action learning is practised by a wide community of businesses, governments, non-profits, and educational institutions.
Writers on the subject have included Yury Boshyk, Mike Pedler, Alan Mumford and Richard Hale in the United Kingdom, Canada and internationally, and Robert Kramer, Michael Marquardt, and Joe Raelin in the United States.
An action learning approach has been recognized as a valuable means of supporting the Continuing Professional Development of professionals in emerging professions. The Action Learning Question approach has been applied with, for instance the emerging professional field of global outsourcing as reported by Hale ('Actual Professional Development', Training Journal,2012). This supports the idea that powerful learning can occur at the boundaries of organizations as proposed by Wenger in his work on 'Communities of Practice'.
Organizations may also use action learning in the virtual environment (Waddill, Action E-Learning, Human Resource Development International, 2006). This is a cost effective solution that enables the widespread use of action learning at all levels of an organization. Action e-Learning (AEL) -- as defined and implemented by Waddill (2004) -- provides a viable alternative for organizations interested in adapting the action learning process for online delivery with groups where the members are not co-located.
As with other educational processes, practitioners have built on Revans' pioneering work and have adapted some tenets to accommodate their needs. One such branch of action learning is Action Reflection Learning (ARL), which originated in Sweden among educators and consultants under the guidance of Lennart Rohlin of the MiL Institute in the 1970s. With the so-called “MiL model”, ARL gained momentum with the work of LIM, Leadership in International Management, under the leadership of Ernie Turner in the USA.
The main differences between Revans’ approach to action learning and the ‘MiL Model’ in the ‘80s are :
The MiL Model evolved organically as practitioners responded to diverse needs and restrictions. In an experiential learning mode, MiL practitioners varied the number and duration of the sessions, the type of project selected, the role of the Learning Coach and the style of his/her interventions.
ARL evolved organically through the choices and savvy intuitions of practitioners, who informally exchanged their experiences with each other. It became a somewhat shared practice, which incorporated elements of design and intervention that the practitioners adopted because of their efficacy. In 2004, Isabel Rimanoczy researched and coded the ARL methodology, identifying 16 elements and 10 underlying principles.
Robert Kramer (2007a, 2007b, 2008, 2010) pioneered the use of action learning for officials in the U.S. government, and at the European Commission in Brussels and Luxembourg. He also introduced action learning to scientists at the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen and to officials of the Estonian government at the State Chancellery (Prime Minister's Office) in Tallinn, Estonia.
Unlike other writers in the field of action learning, Kramer applies the theory of art, creativity and "unlearning" of the psychologist Otto Rank to his practice of action learning. Rank was the first to see therapy as a learning and unlearning experience. The therapeutic relationship allows the patient to: (1) learn more creative ways of thinking, feeling and being in the here-and-now; and (2) unlearn self-destructive ways of thinking, feeling and being in the here-and-now. Patterns of self-destruction ("neurosis") represent a failure of creativity not, as Freud assumed, a retreat from sexuality.
In action learning. questions allow group members to “step out of the frame of the prevailing ideology,” as Otto Rank wrote in Art and Artist (1932/1989, p. 70), reflect on their assumptions and beliefs, and reframe their choices. The process of “stepping out” of a frame, out of a form of knowing – a prevailing ideology – is analogous to the work of artists as they struggle to give birth to fresh ways of seeing the world, perspectives that allow them to see aspects of the world that no artists, including themselves, have ever seen before.
The most creative artists, such as Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Leonardo, know how to separate even from their own greatest public successes, from earlier artistic incarnations of themselves. Their “greatness consists precisely in this reaching out beyond themselves, beyond the ideology which they have themselves fostered,” according to Art and Artist (Rank, 1932/1989, p. 368). Through the lens of Otto Rank’s work on understanding art and artists, action learning can be seen as the never-completed process of learning how to “step out of the frame” of the ruling mindset, whether one’s own or the culture’s – in other words, of learning how to unlearn.
Comparing the process of unlearning to the “breaking out” process of birth, Otto Rank was the first psychologist to suggest that a continual capacity to separate from “internal mental objects” – from internalized institutions, beliefs and assumptions; from the restrictions of culture, social conformity and received wisdom – is the sine qua non-for lifelong creativity.
Unlearning necessarily involves separation from one’s self concept, as it has been culturally conditioned to conform to familial, group, occupational or organizational allegiances. According to Rank (1932/1989), unlearning or breaking out of our shell from the inside is “a separation [that] is so hard, not only because it involves persons and ideas that one reveres, but because the victory is always, at bottom, and in some form, won over a part of one’s ego” (p. 375).
In the organizational context, learning how to unlearn is vital because what we assume to be true has merged into our identity. We refer to the identity of an individual as a “mindset.” We refer to the identity of an organizational group as a “culture.” Action learners learn how to question, probe and separate from, both kinds of identity—i.e., their “individual” selves and their “social” selves. By opening themselves to critical inquiry, they begin to learn how to emancipate themselves from what they "know" – they learn how to unlearn.
An ongoing challenge of action learning has been producing desired organizational results and meeting organizational expectations by taking action and learning in an action learning project. Usually the urgency of the problem or task decreases or eliminates the reflective time necessary for learning. More and more organizations have recognized the critical importance of an action learning coach or facilitator in the process, someone who has the authority and responsibility of creating time and space for the group to learn at the individual, group and organizational level.
There is controversy relative to the need for an action learning coach. Reg Revans was sceptical about the use of learning coaches and, in general, of interventionist approaches. He believed the action learning set or group could practise action learning on its own. Neither did he want a group to become dependent on a coach.
The concept of three key roles for the Action Learning Facilitator has been distilled from Revans by Pedler as follows:
(i) The initiator or “accoucheur”: "No organisation is likely to embrace action learning unless there is some person within it ready to fight on its behalf. ......This useful intermediary we may call the accoucheur - the managerial midwife who sees that their organisation gives birth to a new idea... ". (ABC of Action Learning Gower 2011:98/99)
(ii) The set facilitator or “combiner”: “there may be a need when it (the set) is first formed for some supernumerary ... brought into speed the integration of the set ....” but “Such a combiner ....... must contrive that it (the set) achieves independence of them at the earliest possible moment...” (2011: 9).
(iii) The facilitator of organizational learning or the “learning community” organiser: “The most precious asset of any organization is the one most readily overlooked: its capacity to build upon its lived experience, to learn from its challenges and to turn in a better performance by inviting all and sundry to work out for themselves what that performance ought to be.” (2011: 120)
This is the structure underpininning the accreditation of Action Learning Facilitators supported by Hale (2003, 2004). Richard Hale holds the position Professor of Action Learning at the longest established dedicated action learning based Business School, International Management Centres where he co-founded the development of the Action Learning Question approach which as been adopted by many professional, commercial and government organisations since 2000. This essentially places the Action Learning Question at the forefront of the learning process and provides a system for managers and leaders to embed an action learning approach into their organisation. The modes of the Action Learning Facilitator are described by Hale as Mobiliser, Learning Set Adviser and Learning Catalyst and these form the basis of the Action Learning Facilitator Accreditation approach reported as supporting organisational culture change and leadership development (Hale, 2012).
Self-managed action learning (Bourner et al., 2002; O'Hara et al., 2004) is a variant of action learning that dispenses with the need for a facilitator of the action learning set. Shurville and Rospigliosi (2009) have explored taking self-managed action learning online to create virtual self managed action learning. Deborah Waddill has developed guidelines for virtual action learning teams, what she calls action e-learning.
To increase the reflective, learning aspect of action learning, many groups now adopt the practice or norm of focusing on questions rather than statements while working on the problem and developing strategies and actions. Questions also enable the group to listen, to more quickly become a cohesive team, and to generate creative, out-of-the-box thinking.
The difficulty with relating Self-managing teams (e.g., Wellins, Byham, & Wilson, 1991) to action learning is that the former focus almost exclusively on finding or creating solutions for the problems with which they are tasked. Without reflection, action learning team members are likely to import their organizational or sub-unit cultural norms and familiar problem solving practices into their teams without making them explicit or testing their validity and utility. Cultural norms and practices inform action learning team members’ implicit assumptions, mental models, and beliefs about what methods or processes should be applied to solve a problem. Thus, not always but with great regularity, they apply traditional problem solving methods to non-traditional, urgent, critical, and discontinuous problems while mindlessly expecting them to produce viable, effective solutions—generally without enduring positive effect.
Some considering that action learning teams need a coach who focus exclusively on helping team members to inquire, reflect, and learn from their emerging experiences while explicitly refraining from any involvement in the content of the problem, team members often "leap" from the initial problem statement to some form of brainstorming that they assume will reveal or produce a viable solution. These suggested solutions typically provoke objections, doubts, concerns, or reservations from other team members who advocate their own preferred solutions. The conflicts that ensue are generally both unproductive and time-consuming. Self-managed teams, tend to split or fragment rather than develop and evolve into a cohesive, high-performing team.
One view is that without coaches who have the authority to intervene whenever they perceive a learning opportunity, there is no assurance that the team will make the time needed for periodic, systemic, and strategic inquiry and reflection (Marquardt, 2004; Marquardt, Leonard, Freedman, & Hill, 2009). Thus, self-managed versions of action learning teams are seen as unlikely to enable team members to make explicit efforts to learn – albeit Reg Revans the originator of action learning was somewhat dismissive of the idea of too much intervention from a facilitator, feeling the 'set adviser' might be a member of the action learning group and would seek to reduce any dependency relationship.
Several organizations focusing on the implementation and improvement of Action Learning sponsor events. Examples include The International Action Learning Conference, International Foundation for Action Learning events, and the annually held Global Forum on Executive Development and Business Driven Action Learning. Finally, the Action Learning, Action Research Association (ALARA) and the LinkedIn Action Learning Forum serve as online communities of practice for academics around the world.
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