Action learning as an approach is credited to Reg Revans who developed the technique based on his experiences as a physicist at Cambridge University where eight (future) Nobel prize winners met regularly to discuss their experiments. They didn’t meet to convince each other how clever they were but “to see if we can understand our own difficulties.“ Revans used the technique when working for the National Coal Board in the 1940s and it has been popular in the UK public sector since that time.
The essence of the method is people being prepared to understand the limitations of their own knowledge, to develop new ideas through insights received from questioning by others and to test those ideas in action and reflect upon the results.
Revans summed up the approach in a formula:
L = P + Q
Where L = learning; P = programming (knowledge already established) and Q = questioning to create insight into what people see, hear or feel.
"It is recognised ignorance not programmed knowledge which is the key to action learning."
Reg Revans, Revans, R. (1983), ‘Action Learning: Its Origins and Nature,’ in Pedler, M. (ed.) Action Learning in Practice. Gower, Aldershot, pp 5-13.
Marquardt (2009) adapted the formula to read:
L = P + Q + R
Where R = reflection.
The technique is one that focuses very much on the individual and hence it is used in management development programmes more frequently than within project teams. The approach has however been used by Jisc to support project managers (see section on Applying action learning).
"…you could be forgiven for thinking that it sounds a little tree-hugging/bean-baggy. That’s certainly what I thought when I read-up on the process which deliberately veers away from problem solving and instead concentrates on giving individuals space to reflect on their work. But it’s worked really well…”
Dave White, University of Oxford