Is It Time for an Action Learning Revolution? (Guest Post)


By Dr. Greg Waddell

How do people keep a bicycle upright when they ride it? Ask your students that question some time, and you will get some interesting answers. You are not likely, however, to receive the scientific answer that has something to do with centrifugal force and shifting the angle of the wheel in inverse proportion to the bicycle’s angle to the earth when it begins to fall. This is because we intuitively understand that learning to ride a bicycle is more than conceptualization. In fact, learning has not really taken place until the learner puts the concepts into practice, until they get on the bicycle and begin riding.

One study of highly effective managers found that the decisive factors were not academic achievement but skills in management, problem solving, planning, delegating, inspiring, leading change, resolving conflicts, and interpersonal communicating, all of which are people-intensive skills. In most universities today, however, students are given only a smattering of real-time workplace experience. They learn theories about management in the sterile context of the classroom–theories often based on solutions that were designed to answer yesterday’s questions–many of which must be unlearned because they no longer make sense in today’s business environment.

A fresh approach is needed in the educational world, one that seeks to recover the ancient practice of learning by doing. Before the industrialization of education, students would experiment with possible solutions to problems, test their solutions, ponder the results, adjust their theories to the realities of their results, and then come back and tackle the problem again. This is the cycle of Action Learning.

The time has come to break out of the mold of mass-produced education, education that is only supposed to take place in specially-designated rooms called “classrooms,” education that measures learning in precisely-defined chunks of time called credit hours, education that answers questions before they are asked, education that consists primarily of filling empty heads with words. An approach is needed that fuses good information with good practice and thereby prepares students for today’s challenges.

More important than learning a “body of information,” management students today need to gain the ability to adapt to real-life situations they will face in the workplace. A farmer’s seed has no effect until it is planted in the soil. In the same way, cognitive learning has no effect until it is planted in the soil of real-time experience. Leadership quality is produced in the crucible of life experience.

I’m suggesting that maybe the professor’s role needs to change from that of a source of information to that of a process facilitator, one who facilitates the process of learning by experience. According to this model, curriculum changes from answers to unasked questions into answers to student-initiated questions that are born from experience. Once action spawns questions, these questions can also direct the educational institution so that the institution itself learns better how to prepare leaders. By expansively understanding today’s business context and the people with whom they will have to relate, students in an Action Learning project will be better prepared for management in the real world.

Action Learning is an educational model that sees learning as the product of tackling real problems in real situations. By taking the approach of Action Learning students would not have to wait until they have graduated to begin doing something real. Their education would not be hypothetical; instead of learning prior to action, they would learn through action.

Particularly for those pursuing a career as a leader or manager, learning divorced from action can produce only a caricature of leadership. To avoid this, the student’s education needs to include the development of people skills and these can only be learned by engaging in real management. What about a system where, each year, new recruits would join an Action Management Cohort Team that would take on a real entrepreneurial project? What if the main evidence for a successful education would be the launching of a new small business enterprise? How would the world be different if educational institutions all began to measure success by the production of workable solutions and not just by the regurgitation of information?

Dr. Greg Waddell is a student of Organizational Development, Strategic Planning, and Theology. He received his doctorate in Strategic Leadership from Regent University. He is currently serving as Professor of Leadership Studies and as the Director of Institutional Improvement at Mid-South Christian College in Memphis, TN. Dr. Waddell is a technology enthusiast, connoisseur of classic rock, husband & father of 32 yrs, former missionary of 21 years, & a striving Christ follower. For more articles by Dr. Waddell, see his blog site: SpiritOfOrganization.com.

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3 Responses to Is It Time for an Action Learning Revolution? (Guest Post)

  1. Johann @LeadershipAgent says:

    Reflection and action go hand in hand. Very thoughful post. Action learning was first introduced in 1947. Although it is not a new concept, it still resonates in today’s world. Experiential learning is, I would say, the 21st century version of this notion. Case studies after case studies have confirmed that learning occurs first and foremost “on-the-job”, and is complemented by classroom-type learning. The challenge then becomes of offering growth opportunities to individuals, based on a thorough analysis of their leadership competencies. But all starts and ends with self-awareness I believe, as self-awareness brings about huge changes and opens doors to possibilities and opportunities. Being self-aware for me translates in being authentic and making myself vulnerable, being able to connect with others and allowing others to connect with me. That doesn’t mean being an open book, it means being true with our values and guiding principles, and making sure we always speak from a strong stance, while being open to what others have to say, being present and “in the moment”. Regards.

  2. Greg Waddell says:

    Johann,
    Thank you for your insightful comments. I am wondering if you could explain to our readers what you see the the core difference between the original “Action Learning” concepts of Reginald Revans and others and “Experiential Learning.” Is this just a difference of semantics or is there is substantial difference?

  3. [...] Action Learning is one technique for solving problems that emphasizes the importance of uninterrupted research. Some groups assigned to solving a problem lose this emphasis on learning and instead start to focus completely on resolving the problem. The problem with resolving the problem is that, once the problem has been resolved, we stop resolving. We stop thinking. We stop innovating. We stop experimenting. It’s easy to surrender to that powerful impulse to rush ahead to a solution, which is, after all, what we have been commissioned to do. But unless the learning receives equal emphasis, the problem-solving experience can become little more than a reason to stop innovating. [...]

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