September 2001

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Staff Development Feature: Action Learning

"At 80 I no longer judge others by what they already know, but by the questions they put to me."
Reg Revans, Founder of Action Learning

Action Learning remains the most popular approach to leadership training today. CAMLS has infused the practice into library education through its Management Training Series. The typical action learning model in corporate programs consists of experiential learning, that is, real-world, on-the-job problem solving of an assigned project, but with the support of a controlled environment that provides the learner with tools, information, and guidance. It is easy to understand why the collaborative, practical nature and instant usability of this approach is so popular in today's work world, yet basic action learning principles canand shouldbe applied in many organizational and staff development situations.

A Different Dynamic

Action learning was pioneered by British Professor Reg Revans, who worked for Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratories in the 1920s. While there, Revans "learned to learn," by taking part in weekly seminars where researches could only speak by describing what was not working with their projects. Through "sharing ignorance" with his colleagues, he stumbled upon a new dynamic for learning. According to Revans, Learning = Knowledge + Questioning, where Knowledge is defined as the traditional instruction "fed" to learners, a static foundation. True learning takes place outside the safety of the traditional knowledge base, in the Questioning zone.

Are you an Action Learner?

On the individual level, action learners continually take risks, are skeptical about what their experiences teach them, and never assume they have discovered the "best" way or correct answer (Kuh, Witt, and Shedd, 1987). They focus on what they do not know, rather than rehash what they do know. They remain in the changeable, unbounded questioning zone where there is room to grow. Through insightful questioning, they manage their own learning processes.

The Learning Organization

The staff of a service organization needs to continually ask itself "why are we doing it this way?" in order to change with their customer's needs and ensure that they are truly meeting those needs. Is it a tall order to expect an entire staff to embrace the unpredictability of the questioning zone? You bet. But it may be a lot less frightening if they can be escorted there one learner at a time.

Read more: The ABC's of Action Learning by Reg Revans
Currently out of print in the United States, but read excerpt here:

Copyright 2001 Cleveland Area Metropolitan Library System