Breaking Stagnation: Advancing Action Learning

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    Advancement of Action Learning: Breaking Stability

    © Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, Ph.D., Authenticity Consulting, LLC.

    (This article appeared in the January 2000 issue of the International
    Federation of Action Learning’s newsletter Action Learning News.)

    Attention to the action learning process has increased dramatically over
    the past ten years. The amount of applications and literature has increased
    accordingly, yet their focus has remained largely the same. We seem stuck
    in how we think about and use active learning. Perhaps it is time we reflect
    on the status of action learning, take actions to further evolve the process, and reflect on what we learn.

    Limited Focus of Applications and Literature

    Books do a wonderful job of describing basic elements, core learning theories, and how to implement programs. Articles analyze the dynamics of action learning
    with reference to the learning equation, adult learning theories, systems
    theory, etc.

    Descriptions of applications, whether in books or articles, are almost
    always in the context of management development in large organizations.
    Each description briefly addresses the nature of the client organization,
    design, and composition of sets, types of projects, and structure of meetings.
    The primary emphasis is on various outcomes from the application.

    To Evolve Action Learning …

    1. Develop More Guidelines for Designing Programs and Groups
    Action learning literature tends to gloss over critical questions of program
    design. As programs expand to more practitioners and venues, we need guidelines
    to answer questions, such as: Should we have a part-time or full-time program?
    Use a single-project or open group program? Use horizontal- or vertical-
    or diagonal-slice sets? Use familiar or unfamiliar settings and problems?

    2. Reach Low-Income and Rural Areas
    Action learning literature should place more focus on features of action
    learning that make it so highly accessible. People can start their own groups
    at a very low cost. They can schedule their own meetings and locations. They
    can incorporate free materials from the World Wide Web. The wide accessibility
    of action learning makes the process ideal for applications with low-income
    groups and people in remote areas away from training centers. Action learning
    “starter kits” could freely be made available on the World Wide

    3. Provide Framework for Support Groups
    Action learning purists tend to focus primarily on skills in reflection
    and inquiry, and problem-solving. The role of support is sometimes minimized.
    Yet, there is tremendous pain in many organizations today as they struggle
    to remain viable in an ever-changing marketplace. Action learning can provide
    ongoing support to participants without minimizing the role of actions and
    learning. There are a few other processes that can provide badly needed support
    while integrating ongoing actions and learning.

    4. Cultivate Communities for Change
    The concepts of popular and folk education are expanding rapidly across
    the globe. Their purpose is to help people raise consciousness about their
    roles in the world, cultivate shared meaning and vision, and implement strategies
    to enhance the quality of their lives. Key values are that the people hold
    the answers within themselves and that solutions must start from them as
    well. Key group techniques include ongoing actions, inquiry, and reflection.
    Action learning holds tremendous promise as a highly accessible means of developing
    local learning communities for social action and learning. (For more information
    about folk education, see on the World Wide Web.)

    5. Offer Local Learning Clusters
    Action learning can be straightforward means for self-directed learners
    to organize local learning clusters. Members can download free materials
    from the World Wide Web, hold open discussions about the materials, and then
    go into an action learning format to deepen and enrich learning around the
    materials. For example, members can download materials from the Free Management
    Library, which includes 600 well-organized topics about personal and professional
    development. (See on the World Wide Web.)

    6. Research Online Sets
    We must find suitable means to carry out sets over the Internet/Web. This
    venue has its limitations compared to face-to-face sets. However, the wide
    expansion and accessibility of the Internet/Web make it a critical medium
    for expanding the use and impact of action learning. More research must
    be conducted in this venue.

    7. Integrate with Other Programs
    Too often, action learning is portrayed as a standalone program. However,
    the process can be used to enrich other forms of development as well. As
    Reeves (1996, p. 6) points out, “If action learning is to come of age,
    it is time that its practitioners stopped sniping at alternative modes of
    management learning and instead embraced their complementary strengths.
    Otherwise, action learning really will be marginalized as a cult.”

    8. Ally With Coaching and Peer-Helping Practices
    Personal and professional coaching is fast becoming a major service to individuals
    and organizations. The nature of this coaching and action learning are somewhat
    similar. Both believe the agenda should come primarily from the client.
    Both place a strong emphasis on the roles of ongoing inquiry, reflection, and
    actions. Action learning provides a time-tested framework in which to conduct
    group coaching.

    Peer-helping services are highly efficient means for the low-cost sharing
    of services and materials. Perhaps the best example is peer-counseling and
    peer-mediating programs in schools. Action learning certainly is certainly
    another powerful example. Yet the process is rarely mentioned in peer-helping
    organizations. Action learners would benefit from association with other
    peer organizations. For example, see Peer Resources at and the
    National Peer-Helping Association at on the World Wide

    A Call to Action And Learning

    My doctoral work focused on developing and evaluating a national action
    learning program, a program I have directed for the past five years. I have
    spoken to numerous action-learning practitioners and clients. Clearly, action
    learning has achieved almost mythical status among many of us. The process
    is practical, basic, and timely, and yet theoretical, abstract, and eternal.
    We have strong perceptions of what action learning should and should not
    be, and what it should and should not include. Our perceptions may have
    us stuck.

    Fifty years ago, Reginald Revans fought hard against the dogma of traditional
    educational institutions. At that time (and still too often now), learning
    was interpreted only as that which was conveyed by an expert in a classroom.
    Universities and colleges were viewed as the keepers of our learning.

    With the help of pioneers, such as Revans, Myles Horton, and Paulo Freire,
    we have come to realize that without practice there is no knowledge. One
    hopes we will learn that the broader the range of that practice, the broader
    the range of our learning.

    Reeves, T. (1996, May). Is action learning a cult? Action Learning News,
    15, 2, 6.