Action Learning

Here is yet another example of branding and bandwaggoning, but that should not be taken as a disparagement of its importance or effectivness

In many respects Action Learning (AL) is simply a description of how most people go about solving problems, with a group dimension added. Reg Revans, its originator (or perhaps “systematiser”) was always keen to emphasise the normality of the process. He was a physicist by discipline, who worked in the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge in the 1930s shortly after its “glory days” with great names such as Ernest Rutherford and JJ Thompson. He was impressed by the approach to problem-solving and hence learning in the team, and particularly by the process of scrutiny of both success and failure, so he set out to bottle it in the form of Action Learning.

Digression: on those "glory days" see Cathcart (2005)

He later developed and applied his approach in many settings, perhaps most notably with hospital managers (1972). It has proved very popular in management education, although the label (brand) has been hi-jacked by a number of training organisations — such as those offering adventure training and team-building experiences — which owe little to the “orthodox” approach. If you search the web for "action learning" you will find more on this than on the original method.


Action Learning is a form of Problem-Based Learning, but it goes further in insisting that the problem(s) being worked on must be real, in that no-one knows the answer already. They should preferably be non-technical (or at least non-specialist: too much specialisation limits the potential contribution of other members of the “set”), and evaluation refers pragmatically to whether the solutions work, rather than to the extent to which participants arrive at a pre-determined optimum solution. (Problems to which the answer is already known are referred to as “puzzles”, and although they may have their uses, they are not part of action learning.) Even so, arriving at a solution is not the whole story: AL sets differ from task forces or project teams in that the process is managed in order to maximise the learning as well as the outcome.

This can raise the thorny question of what constitutes learning: how do I know (perhaps more important in the business context, how does the boss know?) that I have learned something over and above arriving at a solution to the problem?

Participants need to have some investment in finding the solution, so most will bring real problems which they are currently encountering in their work-place. The programme may of course impose limitations on the nature of the problems tackled, so that there can be cross-fertilisation of learning between the participants, and so that any taught input (if any) has some relevance to all members of the set.


Participants work together in an AL “set” of from four to six members: they may all be working on the same problem, as would be the case in a task force created by an organisation, or they may each have their own problems, and simply meet in order to work as a set.


Each set has the services of an "advisor", who is experienced in the use of the approach, and whose role is:

Generally speaking the advisor will be more active at the beginning of the set's life.

Summary article here AL and Action Research


REVANS R (ed.) (1972) Hospitals: communication, choice and change London; Tavistock [Back]

REVANS R (1980) Action Learning: new techniques for management London; Blond and Briggs

McGILL I and BEATY L (1995) Action Learning; a practitioner's guide (2nd edn.) London; Kogan Page

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

Search and associated sites:

Delicious Save this on Delicious        Click here to send to a friend     Print

This site is independent and self-funded, although the contribution of the Higher Education Academy to its development via the award of a National Teaching Fellowship, in 2004 has been greatly appreciated. The site does not accept advertising or sponsorship (apart from what I am lumbered with on the reports from the site Search facility above), and invitations/proposals/demands will be ignored, as will SEO spam. I am of course not responsible for the content of any external links; any endorsement is on the basis only of my quixotic judgement. Suggestions for new pages and corrections of errors or reasonable disagreements are of course always welcome. I am not on FaceBook or LinkedIn.

Back to top