Action learning is a term applied to a formal learning process that is derived from the fundamental way humans learn – from experience. We all learn from experience all the time and there are a number of learning theories based on this.
A classic example of experiential learning is children learning how to speak. They are immersed in a world of language from the moment they are born and experience words and phrases and grammatical structures without at first understanding them. They listen, make noises, mimic and try out words and phrases. They make improvements and refinements based on corrections received or the puzzled questions of clarification from adults or other children. They go away and talk to themselves or their toys and then connect with others and join in conversations. They experiment with their own language. They reflect on responses and listen and observe (watch a toddler watching adults talk!), and gradually acquire the new knowledge and capacity to speak through cycles of listening and practice, observation, reflection and response in a community.
In normal everyday living, experiential learning is not a formal educational process. Although it could be argued that children are “trained” in the acquisition of language from parents, siblings and peers, it is not a formal and structured process and such “training” is not the only way that they learn a language. Formal education starts with kindergarten and school. Everyday experiential learning is informal and not necessarily less effective than formal learning
Structuring experiential learning
Action learning is one way of formalising and structuring experiential learning. Other similar learning processes are problem-based learning, project based learning, work based learning and communities of practice. Action learning is also an organisational learning method that can be applied to business processes such as team-based problem solving, quality circles and change projects.
The process of action learning
The process of action learning involves groups of people in the following processes:
- Doing things based on the plan
- Observing what happens as a result of their action
- Meeting to reflect on their actions & observations
- Making adjustments to their plan
- Doing further action, observation, reflection and re-planning
…until they reach a point where the problem is solved or the project is complete and they have acquired new skills and knowledge.
The group meetings are usually facilitated by a member of the group or a team leader, a manager or a facilitator.
At the first meeting the group defines problems or issues to be resolved by action learning or develops an action learning project, like introducing change or innovation or testing a new process. Teachers and trainers can use action learning for student projects. As well as acquiring specific skills and knowledge, students learn to plan and reflect. Action learning enables learner collaboration and independent learning.
As the continuous loop of action learning proceeds the learning usually gets deeper and deeper with meetings engaged in analysis and problem solving and mutual support. It is an ideal way to make authentic changes and generate innovation.
Critical reflection is central to action learning.
It provides the opportunity to understand what we’ve learned from what our actions. It can lead to research and consultation that deepens the learning. During critical reflection, you examine what happened previously – review, rethink, re-plan, revise and come to agreements, decisions and conclusions before planning the next stage.
Critically reflective questions
Questions to gather information:
What happened? What did you see? What did you hear?
What worked? What did not work?
How did people react?
What were the consequences?
Questions about responses and understanding:
How did you feel about it?
How did people react? Why?
What is the significance of what happened?
Why do you think it happened like this?
What does that tell us about…?
Can we find out more through research or consulting others?
What have we learned?
Questions for moving on to the next stage in the action learning cycle:
How does our reflection change things?
How can we build on our success?
How can we address any problems or issues?
What will we do now?
What help do we need?
What are the next steps?
When do we meet again?
The final meeting
At the end of the project you should evaluate the project and summarise what has been learned.
How successful have we been? What contributed to the success?
What were the critical success factors?
How would we do things differently next time?
What new skills and knowledge have we acquired?
How has this changed us? The organisation? Processes?
The Kolb learning model describes learning as a never-ending cycle of four stages: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation. Applied to teaching it would mean using the following process:
- Practising a task (concrete experience) and experimenting with different ways of doing it asking the learner to reflect on the practice and what could be done differently next time (reflective observation)
- Discussing “the why” of the skill and linking to theory or principles (abstract conceptualisation)
- Further practicing and experimentation guided by the new abstract or theoretical knowledge(active experimentation).
For more on Kolb see http://www.businessballs.com/kolblearningstyles.htm and http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-explrn.htm
Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) acknowledges the importance of informal learning by assessing knowledge and skill acquired from everyday experiential learning.