2 Testing Experience Reflection Generalisation Experiential learningTestingExperienceThe Kolb cycleReflectionGeneralisationI think that most academics, certainly those (like me) who entered the profession in the 1990s were probably introduced to this model of experiential learning. All that I point out here is that we consider learning to be a largely inductive process – we develop knowledge from understanding special cases, from thinking about the common features of those cases, from developing a more systematic understanding through reflection, and then testing our new understanding by examining more empirical examples. I might refer back to Kuhnian notions of disciplinary practice at this point, arguing that this is a problem solving process, more likely to support micro innovations than macro ones,
3 Action Experience Planning Understanding The learning processActionExperienceActing or trying out the plan in the situationObserving and reflecting on the consequences of action in a situationPlanningUnderstandingPlanning actions to influence the situation based on newly formed or revised understandingForming or revising understanding of a situation as a result of experienceAction learning uses a similar process. People come with experience, typically from their work environment, but in this case from academic study. It is perhaps worthwhile explaining to students that they have substantial experience of how to go about acquiring new knowledge already – they have all gone through extensive training to get to university.The process that we use in action learning is for a participant to try to solve a well defined problem – for students, it could be project work within a course of study, but they might be able to see that there is a larger project, the completion of the degree for which they are registered.So, students are expected to think for themselves about what they have been doing. With colleagues, in an action learning set, they will develop a deeper understanding of what they need to do, and then plan actions that will enable them to achieve their objectives more effectively. It is then left to individual students to try out the planned actions, and to draw further lessons from experience.Importantly, in action learning, the problem is at the centre, not subject knowledge. I think that this has important implications
4 The learning process (2) Learning = Progammed Knowledge + Insightful Questions(Revans, 1973)Programmed knowledgeWhat we usually deal inConveyed throughbooks,lecturesstructured learningRevans associated withpoppycockplatitudeprofessorInsightful questionsAsked at the right timeBased on experience or attitudes to project workobjective to drive work forwardRevans associated withqueryquizThe learning process may be expressed as: Learning = Programmed knowledge + the ability to ask `insightful' Questions, or L = P+Q Programmed knowledge (P) is conveyed through books, lectures and other structured learning mechanisms. It is an accessible format for knowledge, but it may take time to find exactly what we need, and in isolation is not sufficient to fulfil all learning needs. Revans argues that it is overvalued in management learning. Insightful Questions (Q) are those asked at the right time and are based on experiences or an attitude about ongoing work projects, as well as creativity which goes beyond acceptance of ready-made solutions. Revans maintained that P is the domain of experts while Q is the domain of leaders who wish to drive projects forward by getting answers. Revans noted also that P was the initial letter of poppycock, platitude and professor, while Q initiates query and quiz. Insightful Questions are the key to Revans' process. P will not take you very far unless you focus on the reflective side of what you do. Revans argues that it is not just `doing' but learning to learn by doing--Q is much more important. Revans suggests that each participant should have the following (deceptively simple) questions at the forefront of their thinking. * What are we really trying to do? * What is stopping us from doing it? * What can we do about it? * Who knows about (understands) the problem being tackled? * Who cares (genuinely wants something done) about the problem? * Who can (has enough power to) get something done about it? Action Learning requires solutions to be implemented, not just recommended. Because it demands probing and sensitive questions, it can also require levels of tact and diplomacy.
5 Mutual support and challenge Features of action learningVoluntaryParticipant expertsReflection onexperienceEmpoweringGradual developmentMutual support and challengeHolistic approachPerhaps the most important point to make here is that action learning is a holistic approach. I think that ideally, it would be adopted at an institutional level and inform the design of degree courses.Traditionally, participation in action learning is voluntary, typically a part of professional development programmes for staff in large organisations. This is not possible in a university environment, but my experience has been that students, at least once they have begun to participate in action learning, can see why it might be helpful and are willing to engage with it.The two important characteristics of the experience are the opportunities for reflection on experience and development of a supportive environment in which students challenge one another’s ideas. When I say that the student is the expert, that is because no one is in a better position than the individual student to identify and analyse the problems that emerge in completing work. Also, in many ways, it may be that students are better able to provide support for one another than staff. I have spent twenty years thinking about some of the problems that students are meeting for the first time. It is difficult for me to recall why I found them difficult when I first met them. I know how to solve them, but how do I encourage students to solve them for themselves?In describing the process as empowering, this reflects the change in the process of learning. One of the most common problems identified in NSS responses is students’ belief that they obtain insufficient feedback. In action learning, students provide feedback mutually. This is not a process that can easily be hurried – where I think that action learning has worked most effectively for me was in a class where it was provided during the whole of a semester, with students then writing project reports over a three week vacation. I think that it might work very well across dissertation work.
6 Implementation in final year Action learning used in final year course, 25 studentsClass divided into three sets at the start of the semesterIntroductory workshop + ‘top-up’ reviews of processInvolved students in setting syllabus and learning outcomesPossible problemsNot understanding process of action learningTrying to solve each others’ problemsLack of subject knowledge
7 Implementation in second year Action learning used in three courses (75, 70 and 35 students)AL sets combined for first two courses – eight setsSeparate sets for third course (semester 2)Introductory workshop + some guided discussionSingle sets met in my officeSubstantial differences in attitudes between semestersPossible problemsNot understanding process of action learningTrying to solve each others’ problemsLack of subject knowledgeFear of sharing knowledge – perception of zero sum gameLimited fluency in EnglishOwnership of space – physical and intellectual
8 Student attitudes (1)Action learning required a different type of engagementA lot of your lectures are clean cut, this is the question, this is how we want you to do it, with a lot of coursework it was just answer this question.For a lot of your kind of exams and that stuff, it is very focused, so you don’t really have a choice of how you go about it.
9 Student attitudes (2)Action learning promoted deeper learning and reflectionInitially you presented your faults and your progress and then others were asking through constructive questions to understand in more detail what you were actually doing….it was the first time I’ve done any such thing as action learning and initially I found it a bit challengingencouraged to do much more personal research and actually take our own initiative where we want to go and sort of do our own research, what topics to choose... and go really deep into them
10 Student attitudes (3)Action learning is a useful skill that requires practice[G]radually it became better as we all got deeper into the research questions or the questions we were researching because then it became much clearer who was keen on working and we started to ask the right questions because we knew a bit more[B]e the active member of the discussion and be sort of the one who can direct the speaker through constructive questions to help them learn and reflect on how they do their own research and how they go about doing their other coursework.
11 Staff expectationsStudents will use action learning sets to reflect not just upon the projects that they were ostensibly set up to support, but the much wider range of issues that they confront in their learning.Students would use action learning sessions to identify the resources that they needed in order to solve the problems that they had identified, and, especially in the context of project work, that this might include consulting a subject expert on the teaching staff.Students will approach their work in a semester as a project, and plan early on how they are going to assign resources across activities, so that from a given starting point, the desired outcome might be achieved.
12 Communities of practice Final year students:established common knowledge and understandingrepertoire of approaches to engaging in supporting each others learningbelieved this was necessary for them to learn effectively together
13 Communities of practice You couldn’t have done it in second year. There’s no way you could have done it because there wasn’t the knowledge. Maybe in some other subjects you could have got away with it but I don’t think in economics you could have pushed it much earlier.The background knowledge is really really important for the success of the action learning.That you were actually able to give people enough understanding for feedbackAnd to understand that we could sort of see where they were trying to come from rather than just listening for 10 minutes to something we hadn’t a clue about.We knew enough of the subject roughly to make comment on what they were trying to do.