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Learning Styles

Action Learning

December 4, 2013 by Dr. Jon Warner in Learning Styles

Action Learning

Action learning (an approach first evolved by Dr Reg Revans in the UK over 60 years ago) has today become a well-respected approach to not only organizational problem solving but to help adults to more quickly learn and make good decisions in their respective workplaces. But how does action learning differ from other approaches?

The term “Action learning” may intuitively sound as if the main focus is on learning by doing or drawing conclusions having taken a decision or action of some kind. Although reflection following action is an important component of the process, Action learning is actually a much more integrated and sophisticated approach that differs significantly from traditional learning methods.

The chart below summarizes the key differences.

Traditional learning Action Learning
Fixed/Set curriculum Open/Flexible curriculum
Individual orientation Group/Team orientation
Inputs are key Outputs are key
Knowledge matters Action/results matter
Focused on solving puzzles Focused on solving problems
Teach people the right answers Teach people the right questions
Passive Active
Learning occurs individually Learning occurs individually and collectively
Past orientation Present and future orientation
Downward expression of certainty Upward expression of doubt
Converges to a single best option Diverges towards greater options

As this chart indicates, perhaps the most significant difference in relation to Action learning is the fact that it assumes that learning is most effective when it relates to real and practical issues and what is then “studied” is flexibly assembled on a “just-in-time” basis. In other words, an Action learning approach is more interested in what works in practice than what may have worked in the past (in theory or in practice). This is not to say that past knowledge is not important but that it should only be drawn upon when relevant and applicable, and when related to present issues. The other key factor in relation to an Action learning approach is that it is a predominantly collaborative learning-based or collectively orientated system. As a consequence, learning is best achieved in what Reg Revans called a “learning set” or a group of people, all interested in the same broad subject area, topic, issue, challenge or general goal. This allows each person to learn both individually and collectively as part of the set and to share ideas at every stage.

In terms of how the Action Learning process works in practice, Reg Revans called all existing or past knowledge “Programmed” information (and assigned the letter “P” to represent it). By existing or past knowledge Revans included information that is already contained in books or that may have been documented formally in concepts and theories which have then been drawn upon to “program” students or learners under a traditional learning or educational approach.

Revans accepted that Programmed knowledge or “P” is an essential ingredient of learning, but felt that by itself it is insufficient. He believed that there is an equally important component in terms of overall learning, one which has tended to be squeezed out by traditional educational methods. This he calls “Q” for Questioning Insight. By Questioning Insight Revans meant the capacity to uncover the more hidden or future underlying data or potential answers that may lead to greater understanding (and therefore better future solutions). If learning is represented by the letter “L”, this creates the equation:

L = P + Q

Hence, concepts and theory are important, but in Action Learning the emphasis is on applying them. And so it is on “Q” that Revans ultimately focuses – on the questions which need to be asked and the experience which is waiting to be acquired. For Revans, the ability to ask the right questions at the right time and take action is at the heart of Action Learning.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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