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A Model for Action Learning

Lifelong learning is circular in its nature. All that we learn is recursive and subject to new knowledge, new life experiences, new social imperatives and new political agendas. For students to be equipped for a rapidly changing labour market, for example, what they have learned may be less important than how they have learned. Learning how to learn is, perhaps, the greatest challenge for our sector that the Dearing Report poses.

The purpose of the various activities is to provide a model for learning, which is equally accessible and equally applicable to students and lecturers. To be explicit, we propose that students and lecturers learn in the same way. Our first concern, therefore, was to provide an active day of learning in which the styles and methods are fully congruent with the styles and methods we propose for students. We are not going to give lectures about action learning!

The model for learning that we propose is necessarily a simple one, which those who use it can internalise both in its totality and its detail. In fact it serves both as a model and a mnemonic. A more complete model, say psychologically or socially, would run the risk of losing its use value. For students, a more complete model would be yet another piece of knowledge to be learned in whatever way they have gleaned from an education system which seems to value outcomes of learning rather than learning itself.

Also under-pinning the model for learning, which we have adopted, is the principle that learning is a risk-taking exercise, which involves mutual respect and trust between the participants. The balance between risk-taking and trust is a delicate one and, arguably it is this tension or dialectic, which provides the dynamism in the process. Trust, belonging, feeling OK are pre-requisites to learning, but by themselves they will not enable us to dig deeper in order to explore the problems and contradictions through which we move into new ways of seeing and understanding.

We intend to use the model in order to:-

  • A: Agree some principles for lifelong learning
  • C: Identify some of the institutional Controversies which we face
  • T: Test out some possibilities
  • I: Share some existing Initiatives
  • O: Look Openly at how these initiatives sit within existing structures
  • N: Consider how we might move to a New culture in our institutions

However, the order is not nominal and the mnemonic is not just a group of letters, which spell out ‘Action’. The idea is drawn from a cyclical model of reflective learning and was developed by Robin Richardson in ‘Daring to be a Teacher’. Although he used the word ‘AGENDA’ as the mnemonic, we have tried to follow the principle and the roller coaster ride which real learning follows. Some letters are comfortable and safe, while others are hard and grate in their annunciation.

The ‘Action Learning’ Cycle

A This letter sets the scene. As participants we each bring our own experience and expertise which gives a diversity of existing learning. This part of the day is to Affirm, Acknowledge and Accept the diversity as well as identify points of Agreement.

C This is a hard letter (as in cat) and moves beyond our comfort zones. The controversies, contradictions and crossfire within which we find ourselves have a collective as well as individual meaning for us. The purpose is to ‘trigger’ a dialogue about existing reality in order to move onto search for possible courses of action.

T In this session we will share own responses to some of the challenges. However, like the sound of the letter ‘T’, the solutions are tentative, testing out the water, attempts. They are not fully worked out ‘solutions’ to be shot down in flames by adversaries. Rather, they are an exploration of our various attempts to address the big issues at grass-roots level.

I This is less tentative and more of an assertive sounding letter. This phase of learning is about conceptualising as well as doing. However, because learning is recursive, ideas, initiatives and innovations are less final than theory or solutions.

O In the light of choices facing us, we need to identify a way forward. ‘Action plans’ are too rigid for this phase. Some authors refer to a ‘double loop’ in the cycle, within which we remain open to alternatives, which have been posed by the various ideas. So this phase is about options and operations while remaining open to alternatives. Overtness is another name for openness, but it also implies being transparent or explicit about where these initiatives come from conceptually.

N Is for New beginnings and New affirmations. This is meant to imply that we have returned to the beginning of the cycle. At this point we should have identified some new courses of action to follow, but we also need to energise eachother by accepting and affirming our (now shared) experience and knowledge with which we enter the cycle again.