Action learning usually takes place in groups known as action learning sets (ALS). The aim of the set is not to resolve issues together but rather to help each individual member accelerate their own rate of learning with the support and challenge of the other group members. The optimum size for an action learning set is generally thought to be around 4-7 members. If there are too many then not all can participate fully and if there are too few there may not be sufficient diversity of experience and opinion within the group.
Being part of an ALS offers a range of opportunities, including:
- time and space for your own reflections
- Insights from others/with others
- Different perspectives and ideas with/from others
- Knowledge and experiences of others
- Being questioned by others
- Support from others
- Challenge by others
- Sharing confusions with others
- Sharing successes with others – and learning from them
- Hearing yourself be helpful – and gaining in confidence
- ‘Hearing yourself think – and respond’
- Building your questioning and listening skills
- Moving forward to address a problem or manage task – having committed yourself to action
The ALS will have structured meetings. These can be either face to face or virtual. Experience suggests the approach requires a degree of trust which may be best fostered by meeting face to face initially although entirely online sets have been successful.
"After three ALS sessions I’m pleased to report that the format does translate into the ‘virtual’ very nicely. It’s a classic case of people needing to get-to-know one another and build a modicum of trust before the conversation flows in an ‘honest’ manner.
… if you are taking part in an online Action Learning Set and you are trying to build trust online hold-out for at least three sessions, it’s well worth the wait."
Dave White, University of Oxford
The ALS agrees how its meetings will be organised but each member usually has a turn to focus on their project or issues at every meeting. The speaker will usually take about a third of the allocated time to present to the rest of the group who will listen actively and then formulate questions to help that member clarify the issues in hand and identify actions to take.
The action is of course as important as the discussion at the meeting and each member is accountable for taking action. In subsequent meetings they will then reflect on the outcomes of that action.
When starting up an ALS members will establish a series of ground rules that are likely to include confidentiality and behaviour during meetings.
An ALS will often appoint a facilitator to help each participant gain the maximum from the learning opportunities presented. Some advocates of the model believe that sets can self-organise without the need for this role but experience from change projects in the education sector indicates that those new to the approach welcome this type of support. The interventions of the ALS facilitator are not those of a tutor, expert or Chair. Their focus is closer to those of a mentor or coach whose aim is to empower participants. To this end, the tasks of the facilitator include:
- Introducing, explaining and modelling the core process and skills of action learning
- Ensuring that the process of action learning is maintained with all group members respecting the agreed process and limits/ground rules
- Ensuring that time is fairly distributed across the set members
- Nurturing effective learning that focuses on listening, questioning and developing deeper understanding
- Encouraging the group beyond superficial analysis
- Developing group trust and confidentiality and creates safety for individual members to explore sensitive issues
- Ensuring that all members are actively involved without allowing one or two members to dominate the set
- Promoting reflection on the individual and group learning process encouraging participants to challenge and experiment with the process with awareness
- Helping participants observe all levels of their experience – what they felt, thought, sensed – that emerge within the process
- Enabling the group to draw out general points of learning and evaluate learning outcomes
Experiences of Jisc ALS (Action Learning Sets) participants
"… as we took it in turns to listen to each other talk about project issues, ask helpful questions and make practical suggestions. I noticed how often people said ’thanks, that’s a really great idea!’ People seemed to find the human contact reassuring."
Project manager, King’s College London
"I have to admit I was sceptical about how useful these would be when we were first asked to participate in them but they’re actually incredibly helpful – for both reassurance and shared learning."
Project manager, Coventry University
"… ‘problem-solving’ would be an erroneous approach, especially as everyone involved comes from institutions of differing character so the specifics vary. The value in the ALS is not in directly finding solutions but in having a space in which it becomes clear that everyone is negotiating similar overarching challenges and that it’s not all about being clever with technology."
Dave White, University of Oxford
Not all views of the experience are however quite so positive and this quote comes from the critical friend to a group of projects for whom the technique did not work and therefore had to be modified:
"The participants found it a frustrating experience, they wanted others to share their experiences and advice and felt quite capable of hearing opinions from others without feeling judged or their experiences diminished. My impression was that the concerns about a safe neutral space as mentioned in the ALS document were overly cosseting their feelings and they felt somewhat patronised by that."
Action learning questions
The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education has developed an action learning toolkit that gives a useful guide to the types of questioning that may be useful in action learning sets.
We’d highly recommend taking a look at their guidance: LFHE Action Learning Toolkit.