Revans was born in Portsmouth, where his father was His Majesty’s Principle Surveyor of Mercantile Shipping. As a boy he saw his father receive a visit from seaman’s representatives after the wreck of the RMS Titanic and describes this as his first inspiration for action learning. As a five year old he wondered how a vessel of that size should strike an iceberg on its maiden voyage. Reflecting later on those seamen who survived the sinking, Revans saw they knew all about the problems of the ship including the speed it maintained to achieve a transatlantic record. However they never saw the captain to discuss their concerns. This theme of trusting the wisdom of people doing the jobs remained constant in Revans’ writing.
Defining action learning is difficult, at its core is the willingness to recognize what we don’t know rather than rest on what we do. Searching questions and deep reflection then provide the source for the learning in a group of peers, whom he described as “comrades in adversity”.
As a young man Revans represented Britain at long jump in the Olympics in 1928.
In the late 1920’s he was a doctoral student in astrophysics at the Cambridge University. A Commonwealth Scholarship in 1930 took him to study astrophysics and astronomy at Michigan, and on his return to Cambridge as a fellow at Emmanual College he worked at the Cavendish Laboratory under Lord Rutherford and Sir J J Thomson. They were two of five Nobel peace prize winners in the laboratory and the openness of the peer review process amongst these great scientists was another influence.
“What I learnt was not so much about atomic physics as the need to ask silly questions when you have lost your way; when you are like the majority of us all and do not know what next to do, and it is useless to pretend that you have the answers somewhere at hand – as do most people with letters after their names”.
Revans described the weekly seminars where to speak one had to confirm that your research was not going as well as it hoped and you became skilled in describing “one’s very ignorance”.
These influences were consolidated when Revans took the job as Director of Education for the National Coal Board (NCB) in 1945. He was charged with writing an education plan for one of the largest employers in the country.
Revans went through the Cavendish steps and encouraged groups of pit managers to meet together in small groups and ask one another questions about what they saw. Using this action learning technique he helped them find solutions to their own problem. The practical results of Revans’ work was a 30% increase in productivity within the NCB.
Revans then became the first professor of industrial management at the University of Manchester (1955–1965) and left to develop the inter-university action learning programme in Belgium. This was set up to improve the country’s poor economic performance – Belgium was ranking at the bottom of the OECD league. Working with five universities and 23 of the country’s largest businesses, Revans’ collaborative approaches succeeded in raising Belgium’s industrial productivity growth rate above that of the USA, Germany and Japan. Action learning had made a real impact where traditional measures had not succeeded. Revans’ international recognition began and he was awarded with the nation’s top honour by the King of Belgium.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s he travelled and wrote books including Origins and Growth of Action Learning (1982) and ABC of Action Learning (1983). He worked with public and private sector organisations, in the UK and internationally, advocating the process of action learning as a way of enabling and empowering people to learn with and from each other.
A final, but lifelong influence on Revans was the fact he was a lifelong Quaker, a member of the Christian Protestant group known as The Society of Friends. Their values provide more insight into Revans’ development of action learning.
They are known for their “inward spirituality”, or respect for the “Inward Teacher”. Quakers put strong emphasis upon the equality of believers which accounts for the absence of clergy. Quakers actively oppose war, slavery and inequality are well known for their philanthropy.
As a Quaker Revans was a pacifist and one of the reasons he left the field of nuclear physics is because he was distraught to see the Government’s growing interest in the military applications of the research being undertaken at the Cavendish Laboratory and refused to be involved in warlike preparation.
The influence of Quakers can also be seen in the similarity between action learning and meetings for clearness which is a Quaker practice that goes back to the 17th Century. In these meetings an individual can ask for help with a big decision or a problem; they select individuals to help them, they sit in a circle and use silence and questions to help the person resolve the issue or reach a decision. Remarkably similar to action learning!
Reg Revans made furniture as a hobby, played the trumpet and painted — even illustrating small books for his children.
He died in Wem, Shropshire on 8 January 2003.