The value of action learning


Action learning has been around for many years, and can be a highly effective way to help students learn about teamwork and solving complex problems. But the key principles of action learning are often overlooked.

I recently read a great article on action learning and how it was conceived and developed by Reg Revans in the mid 20th century. At the heart of Revans’ approach was his rejection of the cult of the ‘expert’ in problem-solving due to the way that people will always defer to the ‘expert’ in the room.

Instead, Revans held a passionate belief that the ‘non-expert’ was just as important in solving complex problems, and that the wisdom of a diverse group of individuals was more effective than the specialist knowledge of an expert. He also believed that “there is no learning without action, and no (sober and deliberate) action without learning”. This highlights the importance of focusing on ‘what do you want students to do’ when designing learning, as championed by Biggs (1996, 1999).

An action learning approach to learning and problem-solving makes it ideal for working with groups of university students, and helps reduce the tendency for them to defer to the ‘expert’ teacher. The following quotations from Revans explain the core philosophy of action learning:

“At its simplest, (the foundation of action learning) is a set of comrades in adversity”

“In a changing world, it is extremely important that people should become the masters of the art of posing questions. When no-one knows what is going to happen next, you must have the skills to ask questions that are likely to get you somewhere”

“The fundamental difference in action learning is that there is small amount of ‘P’ – programmed knowledge – and a large amount of ‘Q’ – the ability to ask penetrating questions”

“(Action learning) is the balance between what you are instructed to do by experts, and what you are finding out you need to do for yourself”.


Using action learning in your teaching

There are four elements that underpin an action learning set:

  1. Each person participates voluntarily
  2. Each person must own an organisation task, problem, challenge or opportunity on which they are committed to act
  3. The group is formed to help each member think through the issues, create options, and above all…
  4. Take action and learn from the experience of taking that action (Pedler, 2013).

Action learning is an effective way to reduce students’ dependency on the teacher and help them develop valuable and transferable problem-solving skills. If you’d like to know more about using action learning in your teaching, please contact Tony Reeves or Annamarie Mckie.


Biggs, J. (1996) Enhancing Teaching through Constructive Alignment. Higher Education. 32, 347-364

Biggs, J. (1999) What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research and Development. 18(1), 57-75

Pedler, M. (2013) Facilitating Action Learning: A Practitioner’s Guide. Open University Press.

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1 Response to The value of action learning

  1. Pingback: The value of action #learning | teaching knowledge and creativity

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