Action learning in the university by guest blogger Trevor H.J. Marchand, Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology, SOAS

Professor Marchand’s blog discusses the results of using action learning with postgraduate research students at a London university. A full-length ‘ethnographic’ account of practice will be published in the March 2017 issue of the journal Action Learning: Research & Practice.

I am an action learning facilitator as well as a social anthropologist. I have supervised numerous PhD students over the years and was a long-serving Research Tutor for my department. In recent years, I experimented in the research-training seminar by asking MPhil students (numbering 16) to adopt basic action learning principals during student presentation-and-question exercises. My aim in introducing an abridged version of action learning in that setting was to prompt these burgeoning young scholars to more thoughtfully consider and appreciate the skill involved in both attentive listening and asking timely and relevant questions. These are core competencies needed for conducting successful social science fieldwork with human subjects and gathering insightful qualitative data.

In 2014, I formed a conventional action learning set with six PhD students who were at more advanced stages in their programme of study. None had prior knowledge of, or practice in, action learning. My invitation therefore explained that the aim of a set is to create a safe and supportive space for participants to probe more deeply their individual work and to overcome hurdles by engaging in communal reflective learning. It also emphasised that the set is meant not to replace existing supervisory relations, but rather to supplement them and enrich the PhD experience.

By its nature, a PhD is a solitary, and often lonely, endeavour. A doctoral degree is awarded for producing a unique body of knowledge that makes a significant contribution to one’s particular discipline. Identifying a topic, defining the research question, developing a methodology, carrying out the research, and writing up the dissertation are carried out by the individual alone, with varying levels of guidance, feedback, and presumably encouragement from their academic supervisor(s). The community of scholars with shared interest and expertise in one’s specialisation is typically small, and sometimes extends to only a few individuals worldwide. This means that opportunities for students to engage in exchanges focussed on their topic are indeed rare. Even scarcer are occasions to discuss with peers one’s personal experiences as a researcher and the challenges of balancing academic pursuits with life’s other activities and responsibilities. The key purpose of the action learning set was to cultivate a dedicated space for addressing the latter set of concerns.

With successive set meetings, the group dynamic strengthened, levels of trust grew, and the fluidity and rhythm of the process was further refined. The participants looked forward to our scheduled dates and deeply valued the ‘day out’ for grappling with arising issues and reflecting on where they were at – work-wise, emotionally, and in life in general. The process of presenting and receiving supportive-yet-challenging open questions from fellow set members enabled individuals to become more acutely aware of habitual patterns in their thinking, feelings, and reactions (or inaction) to situations. The power of timely, well-articulated open questions caused sometimes-seismic shifts in perspective, ultimately freeing presenters to react differently and more mindfully to their situation, and to focus on solutions rather than issues. Intentional use of the first-person-singular contributed to taking ownership of both problem and solution, where the latter was defined by self-identified actions to be taken, and a realistic timeframe for doing so.

Perhaps one of the most significant results that contributed to reducing anxiety and improving wellbeing was the perceptive realisation that much of the pressure felt was self-imposed and that, as people, we often tend to ‘be more generous with others than we are with ourselves’. For several presenters, this cleared a space for exploring alternative possibilities, clarifying goals and priorities, and, importantly, identifying actions for being more patient and kinder to oneself.

Set members concluded unanimously that action learning should be made an integral component of any research training programme. The process makes room for researchers to present themselves as whole persons and to thereby grapple with, and better manage, a wider range of real-life issues that have direct impact on their academic performance. Institutional investment in making action learning a part of postgraduate training would pay back with dividends: it cultivates peer-support groups and, as a consequence, reduces dependence on – and thus workload for – academic supervisors, student counselling, and other costly and overburdened support services. Perhaps most vitally, action learning incites individuals to take responsibility for their own development and learning. That isn’t merely a ‘transferrable skill’. It is a quality essential for achieving success in any endeavour.

Trevor Marchand is Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology, SOAS, University of London. He trained as an action learning facilitator with Action Learning Associates in 2013. He can be contacted here.



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