Notes from an action learning purist

I trained as an action learning facilitator in 2010. Since then, in my role as a Professional Practice Facilitator in the health service and when working in higher education, it has become an essential professional development tool.

I have found the process of action learning to be so useful, that I’ve become a strong advocate for action learning sets as a way to develop my own learning, and to help develop others. I appreciate Action Learning in its pure form. Having witnessed other uses of action learning which weren’t in fact strictly action learning, it’s important to me that the rigour and ritual that surrounds pure action learning, is adhered to.

I feel that action learning works because it follows a set process and requires participants to adhere to its protocols from the outset. When you engage in it, you get a deeper, more profound form of learning.

Adapting action learning for different settings

Despite being a purist, I’ve also found ways of adapting the process to fit the groups and circumstances that I have faced at work.

Higher Education

I worked with new student nurses coming back to college from mental health settings. We practised listening and asking questions to help them make sense of the learning they were experiencing during their on the job training. Participants didn’t necessarily know they were taking part in action learning, although they were following its principles.

Dementia UK

I’ve also used action learning as part of a wider development initiative when working in the Professional Practice Development Team at Dementia UK. We bring together groups of Admiral Nurses on a monthly basis to support them in their complex and challenging work. Action learning might be used alongside other Practice Development Methods such as Appreciative Inquiry, creative methods such as illuminative expression using collage. These help nurses reflect, share and learn from one another.


Perhaps the most inventive use of action learning in my work has been when working in large groups in the NHS. I ran action learning sets with tiers of participants, an inner core who actively took part and two outer layers of observers – this is sometimes referred to as the ‘fishbowl technique’. The groups swapped around for each session, and this enabled new participants to observe the process first so they could opt to take part if they felt comfortable in doing so, once they knew what to expect. This was one way of managing a larger group of people whilst still using an Action Learning Process.

This form of experiential learning helped all group members to learn by seeing action learning in action, and by actively listening to the subjects being discussed.

Abiding by the action learning process

The principle of helping by only using questions is a powerful one. As participants become more adept at asking the right questions, the level of learning, reflection and finding answers grows. It’s one of the most engaging and change making learning experiences that I use in my practice and I can’t imagine being able to fulfil my role effectively without it.

Whilst adapting it to suit different groups, I still stick rigidly to the core principles of action learning practice. By doing so I have confidence in the structure, its effectiveness as a development tool and the outcomes. Perhaps also, given the sector in which I work, I value the support that action learning provides to professionals working in often difficult and challenging roles.

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