Action learning

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:

  • Planning
  • 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 and

Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) acknowledges the importance of informal learning by assessing knowledge and skill acquired from everyday experiential learning.

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Learning & assessment principles for competency based training


These were generated at a workshop I facilitated recently with a group of vocational education teachers.

Although there are many official documents, standards and policies that stipulate similar principles, the group wanted to develop their own as away of confirming that they were in agreement and also as a way of emphasising what was important to them as educators.

The group agreed that these should be addressed when designing learning and assessment and as a set of criteria against which learners could provide feedback and evaluation could be conducted.

What learners need to understand

  • the nature of competency based training & assessment
  • the scope of the qualification, the units and its various applications
  • how they can/will learn
  • the purpose of assessment


  • are encouraged to critically reflect on their learning
  • interact constructively with other learners
  • have the opportunity for peer and self assessment
  • are supported, especially those with special needs which have been identified in the pre-training review or LLN assessment
  • are engaged in the evaluation of the learning & assessment


  • is aligned with the unit requirements: elements, performance criteria and range of conditions etc
  • focuses on the achievement of competency
  • is appropriate for the qualification level
  • is communicated effectively to learners
  • uses a range of methods to collect evidence
  • aligns with the principles of assessment
  • meets the rules of evidence
  • encourages reflection on practice
  • is engaging and enjoyable


  • A variety of learning modes & approaches is used
  • Learning and assessment strategies cater for a range of learning styles
  • Learners are engaged in practical activities & performance of the competency
  • New skills & knowledge build on previously acquired skills & knowledge (scaffolding)
  • Strategies, assessment practices and materials are culturally sensitive and inclusive
  • Learning processes and materials are industry relevant and up to date


  • is applied in real world situations, especially workplaces or community settings or a simulated environment
  • Alternatively, complex case studies are used for application of knowledge
    • Also, learners have the opportunity to create their own case studies based on their own work experience
  • Learners explain their practice and activities as a way of demonstrating their understanding of required knowledge

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Designing assessment










I am working with a program team at the moment to design assessment.

Sitting with the units or courses beside us so we have an overall perspective, the first thing we are doing is looking at assessment across the whole of the qualification. What do we want for our graduates? This might, in part, be encapsulated in graduate outcomes. Otherwise we will profile our graduates’ broad capabilities and attributes.

Then we start playing around with possible assessment across the whole qualification.

  • When does assessment take place? Can we identify assessment points?
  • How can we spread the assessments to be fair to students?
  • Is there a way to link assessments across the whole qualification or semesters, for example using the same context or project in one unit/course to assess a related capability in another.
  • Does the assessment across the qualification reflect the increasingly more complex capabilities being developed in the students?
  • Does the sequencing of assessment gradually allow for greater student participation in its design as they become increasingly independent in their learning from first year through to final year?
  • Can they design the final assessment, perhaps a capstone or a major project, for themselves?
  • Are there opportunities for holistic assessment or co-assessment across units/courses?

Out of this process we will have a tentative map of the assessment for the whole qualification.

When designing the individual assessment tasks we focus on how the students will demonstrate achievement of the unit/course outcomes. What evidence would satisfy us?

The assessment criteria for each assessment task are therefore derived from these outcomes. Sometimes there are graduate attributes or graduate outcomes to take into account as well. Assessment is an integral part of the curriculum design process and not something which is tacked on at the end. In fact, once you have outcomes, move to designing the assessment first. Then design the learning processes and activities that will enable students to be successful.

In designing assessment, we aim to align:

  • unit outcomes
  • graduate outcomes
  • assessment tasks
  • assessment criteria, and
  • learning activities.

The process of designing the assessment can be a means of validating the unit outcomes. If assessment designers have difficulty developing valid assessment tasks, then it may mean going back to the unit outcomes and reviewing them.

There are some variations to the alignment and the process for competency-based assessment, but that’s the stuff of another blog.

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Educational design that meets 21st century needs


The principles are predicated on three generally accepted conditions:

  • Learning is a lifelong process,
  • Design is always evolving, and
  • Resources are limited.

To meet the nation’s needs for the twenty-first century, learning environments should

(1) Enhance teaching and learning and accommodate the needs of all learners

(2) Serve as a center of the community

(3) Result from a planning and design process that involves all community interests

(4) Provide for health, safety, and security

(5) Make effective use of available resources and

(6) Be flexible and adaptable.


Formative assessment helps students & TEACHERS learn

I am scribbling this blog quickly after I reviewing some assessment strategies for a client and would appreciate your thoughts.

Formative assessment is probably badly named – it should be just “learning and feedback” or “learning and constructive feedback” or “in-process evaluation”.

 The general goal of formative assessment is to collect…information that can be used to improve instruction and student learning while it’s happening. What makes an assessment “formative” is not the design of a test, technique, or self-evaluation, per se, but the way it is used—i.e., to inform in-process teaching and learning modifications.

Formative assessment is usually linked to summative assessment, for example, a draft of an essay; checklist of key concepts to be applied in an assignment; a plan for conducting an assignment; a concept or mind map etc. It assists the student in being successful in the summative assessment because they get feedback on it from the teacher.

Formative assessment helps the teacher understand what the student has learned (and how) and they can then provide relevant support and coaching. It also helps the teacher understand how effective they have been and may mean that they change/improve their practice.

It is not marked, as in graded; but there will be feedback. It may not even be “taken up”, but be referred to in a conversation with the student.

It is an integral part of learning, think of it as assessment for learning.

Summative assessment is assessment that takes place at a critical and logical end point or stage in the learning and this includes at the end of a learning cycle or term. It usually assesses student performance against expectations or standards, but should also include constructive feedback so that the student is assisted to learn further. Summative assessment is also for learning, not just of learning. It is often for high stakes, ie contributes to overall final grade.

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Transformation and insight through collage


The collage process is a tool for transformation – a creative visual process that can open you up to new ideas, provide insight into yourself, your current situation and a possible future, suggest a new way of doing things and a new way of being and shift your planning or thinking into something you would never have thought of if you had stayed in a verbal mode.

I learned this collage process from Dr Catherine Camden Pratt when I was undertaking my Master of Arts (Social Ecology) at the University of Western Sydney. She said of the collage process

 Collage is working in metaphor – done today – and a snapshot in time – done tomorrow it may be different …and it cannot tell the whole story…but it can enrich your perspective and understanding and offer a glimpse of something new.

What you need:

  • Piles of magazines
  • Scissors (optional)
  • A3 paper
  • Glue

Work in silence through this process. Be open to surprises. Do not resist any images that attract you. Be prepared for transformation!

1. Decide a focus question or topic. Be specific.

For example:

  • My future business
  • My life in three years time
  • My life with my business flourishing

2. Scan quickly through the magazines keeping the focus question or topic front of mind. Chant the focus to yourself like a mantra if you like. Tear out images and words that “leap out”. Try to stay with images over words – keep words to a minimum. (10 minutes)

Working quickly in the scanning stage yields rich fields, ie  your usual rational mind gets out of the way so other intelligences – visual and kinaesthetic – can have a “voice”.

 3. Arrange and glue the images you have torn out onto an A3 sheet of paper, allowing patterns and connections to emerge from the images you select. You may not use all the images you collect. Check the back of the chosen images. There may be better ones there! (10 minutes)

4. Then sit back and look at what you have created. Do not judge. Just contemplate and respond.

5. If you are with others, get into pairs or a threesome and show your collage to the other(s). Talk about what you see and how you have responded. How does the collage “answer” your topic or question?

The listener(s) should stay quiet and just listen. You might then want to invite the listener(s) to tell you what they see. The listener(s) contributes only if invited to do so.

Swap, share and listen to the others as you want.

6. Write some notes in your journal. What did you see in the collage? Were there any themes? Were there surprises? Disappointments? How did it make you feel? Do you have an explanation for that response? What did others see? Has it changed anything for you? Do you understand something better? Have your ideas or thoughts or perspective changed or been transformed? So now what will you do? Are there any actions you want to take? When? With whom?

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13 principles for authentic learning


I am in the process of designing a program for a client and have developed 13 principles for learning that will guide the design and delivery of the program.

  1. Enable learners to negotiate and customise the learning to suit their individual needs and goals
  2. Generate learning activities from the experiences of the learners
  3. Make learning a delightful experience
  4. Encourage learners to apply their learning and learn through practical activities
  5. Provide opportunities for learning through social interaction
  6. Offer a blend of delivery methods and tools to suit learner needs
  7. Monitor learners’ progress and provide appropriate support
  8. Regularly provide constructive and concrete feedback
  9. Foster the learners’ motivation to learn
  10. Develop self directed learning skills
  11. Develop learners’ capacity for reflection
  12. Provide opportunities for feedback from peers
  13. Engage the learners in the evaluation of the program

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Transformative learning


I have been very interested in the concept of transformative learning (or is it transformational?) for some time, and I am planning to collate all my notes and writings and pull together some piece (an essay, perhaps!) that captures my views and those of others. This may take a while. In the meantime…

Stephen Covey once wrote:

“If you want to make incremental improvements and minor changes, work on practices, behaviours or attitudes. But if you want to make significant, quantum improvement, work on paradigms… i.e., perceptions, assumptions, theories, frames of reference or lenses through which you view the world.” (Source unknown)

He was talking about transformative learning, learning that results in significant personal (and often social) change of some sort – a change of “structural integrity” (O’Sullivan page 209).

Transformative learning is different from other forms of learning and it is not something we do every day although our daily activities may cumulate in the drive for transformation. And it is not something that everybody experiences. Many people prefer to stay in an entropic state or in equilibrium:

But if the fluctuations in the system reach a critical level, the system becomes sufficiently turbulent so that the old connecting points no longer work: the system transforms itself into a higher order, one with new and different connecting points…The parts reorder into a new whole… (Ibid p 209)

Although we may be accumulating the experiences for our next transformation we also learn in less dramatic ways. Apart from anything else constant transformation would be exhausting! We develop skills and we practice and hone them and we accumulate knowledge and apply it. Sometimes we reflect on our experiences, skills and knowledge, question underlying values and assumptions and make some changes as in Schoen’s double loop learning model. There are times when it is appropriate to remain in single loop learning, just moving through a simple feedback cycle.

Reference: Edmund O’Sullivan, 2001, Transformative Learning: Educational Vision for the 21st Century, Zed Books, London