Action learning – high challenge and high support for project development by guest blogger Tony McBride

Project background & challenges

In February Cardboard Citizens were delighted to receive an Extension Award from the Wellcome Trust to further develop a theatre project exploring neuroscience and The Heritage of Violence. It’s an ambitious project and one made more so by a very tight schedule.  Although the project was designed and funded to go into schools, we had no firm commitment from our identified schools, just a conviction that it would be of interest to them.  But a niggling doubt remained – Is it something that they need and want?  What happens if not?

 Action learning set – high challenge/high support

At the time when these challenges were being faced, I had been a member of an action learning set funded by A New Direction (AND) for three months and had contributed to presentations made by other set members – asking clarifying, then open questions to support and challenge the presenter towards identifying specific actions towards desired outcomes.

Having decided to present, I had a decision to make:  whether to present on a personal work related issue, or to use the opportunity to present on the A Heritage of Violence project.  Having been reassured that it was ok to present on a specific project, I decided to do so.  I’m glad I did.

Having prepared little, my presentation was rather rambling and garbled.  I felt there was a lot of information to share in order to understand the provenance, context and ambition of the project.  Having finally finished, I looked up and into some rather bemused looking eyes, and noticed the accompanying silence, eventually broken by the facilitator: So, what do you need from us?

It was a great question which, I felt, both forgave the lack of clarity of the presentation, and got to the heart of the matter – what did I need?

After another considered silence, I attempted:

Reassurance (did people get it?)
Schools sector knowledge (is it practicable within the schedule?)
Clarity (what do I need to do next?)

In which case, replied the facilitator, you’ll need to give us some more information – let’s move to clarifying questions.

In response to some of the clarifying questions – When is the project due to start? (soon); Have you made contact with schools yet? (no); Have you asked them what they want? (Uhm…no!) – I began to feel my heart, along with others, sink a little, whilst observing the odd sympathetic smile.

And then we moved to open questions:

Why are you doing the project?
Why focus it on schools?
Why should they be interested?
How would you sell it to a teacher?
What needs to happen to deliver the project within schedule?
What’s your plan B?

 The aim of action learning is to be able to ask (and be asked) highly challenging questions in a highly supportive manner.  It did feel like I was being given a bit of a grilling.  But, this time, when I managed, mid-answer, to look up and into the questioners’ eyes, I was met with a subtle smile and nod of encouragement, as though willing me to find the answer to which I would, eventually, arrive.

One thing I noticed during open questions, was that I had the freedom to respond as the artist who had conceived the project and was able to speak with passion about it, rather than the bureaucrat (?) who needed to satisfy different sector needs (funder/science; arts; education).  My conviction, that it would be an attractive and workable offer to schools, was given space to be articulated and heard – most importantly, the artistic conviction that it would be an innovative and impactful collaboration of: young people as actors and audience; science; theatre and education. The questions regarding how it would fit within the curriculum (etc) were of course important, I just hadn’t conceived it that way round.  Rather, my belief in the pedigrees of the Wellcome Trust, Cardboard Citizens (and our ACT NOW young people’s programme), along with the universal, human and vital nature of the subject matter, led me to assume that schools would find a place, within or without the curriculum!

We moved to identifying specific actions (mainly via who and when questions) which provided a plan of attack, a practical list of things to do, with deadlines which might, just might, enable the project to be delivered within schedule.  The actions were writ large on a flip chart, for all to see, I couldn’t avoid them now!

Finally, the group was asked to offer an observation on the presentation, and session as a whole.  Here, finally, I began to hear and absorb the reassurance I needed.  Each person validated the project (a real relief), most expressed their belief that it could be achieved within schedule, a few (well, one!) that it couldn’t.  Each person then wrote down one comment, by way of suggestion, or advice.  These written comments I took away and read later that day, in the evening, over a glass of wine.  Comments included:

It’s an amazing project – so inspiring.  I think you can do this – go for it!
It’ll be tight, but I think schools will totally get this and want it.
It sounds great!  I can’t wait to see it!  It’s just about possible with time frame, but consider that plan B!
Sounds like what schools need, whether they realise it or not!  I think they’ll want it and it can be done – good luck!
You might want to buy yourself more time.  I really suggest you consider a plan B option! (this from the schedule doubter!).

 I finished my glass of wine, and indeed the day, with the reassurance, knowledge and clarity I needed and had sought.  I had a plan of action and the confidence to approach it, or lack of excuses to avoid it!  The next day I got up and on with it.


Since my presentation the project has progressed and as we approached the last week of term, the following actions had been achieved:

Contracted School Liaison Officer, writer and creative team
Five schools in Tower Hamlets came on board
Delivered two R&D workshops per school
Schools tour being scheduled
Auditioned and contracted five young actors
Had presentations from Mindfulness practitioner and neuroscientist
Writer inspired and well on his way to delivering 1st draft.
Rehearsals began on 18th August
Show opened 15th September!
We performed to 580 young people and 36 teachers
A showcase performance played to an audience of 100 young people & 80 professionals

 We are now exploring further funding opportunities for the project which we hope to repeat in the near future, extending the tour to reach schools across London.

Tony McBride is Director of Projects at Cardboard Citizens  a charity that has been making life-changing theatre with and for homeless people for 23 years. 

One thought on “Action learning – high challenge and high support for project development by guest blogger Tony McBride”

  1. Thank you Tony – this is a wonderful description of how it feels to take part in action learning. You have really captured how powerful the process can be, and how it offers both support and challenge for the presenter.

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