Revans (1983), largely acknowledged as the founder of action learning (McGill & Beaty, 2002), described the process of learning in the terms of the reflective inquiry process, where learning is the sum total of attaining programmed knowledge and questioning of current insight. Marquardt (1999) added a third element, reflection, to this model of learning to emphasise its importance. The reflection component of the learning model is where information is recalled, dismantled and reorganised in an attempt to gain further understanding. When considering the facilitation of learning how to solve complex and ill-defined problems, educational methods focusing on the delivery of programmed knowledge alone are clearly insufficient. Programmed knowledge or access to this knowledge is a required pre- or co-requisite, however, questioning and reflection are also integral to achieving this higher level learning.
Action learning is a group-based educational strategy that facilitates individual learning through engagement with group members in the solution of current, real and complex problems. The process of action learning occurs in a group called a set. Widespread current practise is to use sets of between four and seven participants (Beaty, 2003). Sets may be led by a set adviser or facilitator, or they may be self-facilitating. Set meetings are conducted regularly throughout the duration of the problem or project of interest to set members. This problem or project may be individual, group or organisation dictated; however, it must be a real problem with which the set member is currently engaged. Also, the problem must be sufficiently complex so that it cannot be readily solved through direct application of programmed knowledge. Throughout the duration of the problem or project, set members follow the action learning cycle.
The action learning cycle consists of four distinct phases through which the individual learner within the set continually progresses. These consist of an action phase, reflection upon that experience, theorising based upon the reflective analysis of prior experience in the action phase, and eventually a planning phase, where subsequent actions are determined in the form of a list of action points (Beaty, 2003). Within the set meetings, the phases of reflection, theorising and planning undertaken by individual set members are supported by the other set members. Between set meetings the learner works through the action plan in the context of the real and complex problem of interest. The action phase therefore produces experience of direct relevance to further understanding and further learning related to the problem. Action learning thus provides a formalised educational structure to facilitate experiential learning. It allows the learner to move through the experience, reflection, generalisation and testing of these generalisations as described by the Kolb experiential learning cycle (McGill & Beaty, 2002; Kolb & Kolb, 2005) in a structured manner supported by the experiences, questioning and insights of others.
An action learning set is not a team, even if a single problem or project is shared among the set members. The group dynamics associated with teams are very different. Teams have well-defined group objectives and all members of the team work to complete associated tasks for the benefit of the team. Plans are generally discussed and agreed upon by the team as a whole and there is no emphasis on individual learning. In the action learning set, the set members have individual objectives, and the other members work to support the learning and actions of these individuals. This does not mean, however, that action learning set members cannot also concurrently function as team members. The two modes of group interaction, however, must be clearly delineated. At the other extreme in the continuum of group based education, it must be noted that a set is not merely a support or counselling group (McGill & Beaty, 2002). …