Developing “criticality” in action learning

As Chair of the International Foundation of Action Learning (IFAL) I recently attended a fascinating event about Critical Action Learning (CAL) led by Professor Kiran Trehan.  As always at IFAL events, we were offered a wonderful opportunity to challenge and question our practice as action learning facilitators

Mike Pedler says that the application of ‘critical theory’ is designed to ‘help the action learner stand outside the prevailing social or organisational situation in order to see how it could be different and changed for the better’.  CAL stresses the need for critical questioning and exposure of power relations within groups, of surfacing and understanding complex emotions and unconscious processes.  It suggests that, in order to do this, there may need to be a more active facilitation role.

In order to move towards ‘criticality’ we had to be, in Kiran’s words, ‘disturbed’ or coaxed away from our normal way of doing things – sitting in a neat circle, making polite introductions, giving clear instructions etc.  Kiran started the event with an exercise which challenged participants by creating a random arrangement of chairs – rather than our more usual, comfortable and comforting circle – and then asking us to tackle an exercise in a group, without specifying further details on what ‘group’ meant.  This created the ‘disturbance’ and the starting point for new learning.  Some people moved away from the seated area and stood to talk, I immediately started talking to those people nearest, and most easily accessible to me, others wondered whether we should be working as one single group and seemed momentarily stranded.  The exercise was designed to help us notice how we thought, felt and behaved during the time of not-quite-knowing what to do and how that might relate to how we are and what we do in our organisational contexts.

In debriefing the exercise and during the subsequent discussion I wondered about what were being described as ‘critical action learning and ‘classical action learning’ and what assumptions were being made with regard to the difference.  There seemed to be an assumption that ‘classical’ action learning fails to raise awareness of power dynamics and emotions at play within the set.  In my experience, working with this significant blind spot is not the natural state of a well-functioning action learning set.  Simply being in a set starts to challenge our assumptions of how things ‘should’ be and what we take for granted.  Incorporating more ‘criticality’, however, could encourage us to probe and provoke more in order to generate greater knowledge, awareness and understanding of what is happening both in the set and in the wider organisational system.

If not sensitively facilitated the meta-processing associated with CAL could, it seems to me, intrude unhelpfully into the presenter’s space so that the presenter’s learning is obstructed.  As presenter what I need from the set is that safe, respected, reflective space where I can deconstruct my dilemma and reconstruct the true narrative using the insightful questions (supportive and challenging) of set members. If you believe that in action learning set members learn from others’ stories, situations, possibilities and reflections, then it is likely that everyone’s learning could be obstructed.

Which is why, in what I think of as the ‘classical’ method (and which may not correspond to others’ ideas), the process review stage (the opportunity to meta-process) is a separate stage at the end of the set process once the presenter has formulated actions and given and received reflections and feedback from the set.  For me, this would be the point where CAL could come into its own.  Pedler and Burgoyne (2008) say that ‘AL can benefit from critical thinking, but only if this is offered in the spirit of peer inquiry and in the context of a mutual striving for useful action.  It is the assumed superiority and hegemony of theory and theorists over practice and practitioners that is rejected, not the value of critical thinking’.

There was some great learning in this workshop and here’s my list of what I took away to try and do more of:

  • revisit the core essences of action learning, being clear with the set what this set needs those to be here and now, and highlighting – with ‘criticality’ – any blind spots that may affect set function or the choices the set is able to make
  • be more active in drawing out individual and collective learning experiences and linking learning in the set to wider organisational learning and impact
  • check for, engage with, and question any challenging organisational practices and norms that are surfaced within a set
  • give more time for processing what might be the complex emotions at play in any group – outside of the presenter’s space
  • make, as Alastair Wylie so succinctly put it, the implicit explicit.

John Heywood is Chair of IFAL and an Associate with Action Learning Associates.


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