Sunday 14 June 2020

Adaptive Action Learning

Group of university student working outside a classroom
Typical Action Learning set
I am working on another Action Learning (AL) paper, reflecting on the success of the large cohort I led to great success in 2013 (Callaghan, 2013); on the type of AL I used; which type of AL; how did it change through the course; what are the implications for AL practitioners, and others (teachers, learners, institutions)? And is AL a pedagogy, a method, or a toolkit? And what is ‘Adaptive Action Learning’?

Here are my thoughts so far:

Adaptive Action Learning

In 2012 I led a group of 60 undergraduate education students through their dissertation process. Social Constructivism was my guiding pedagogy – informed by Salmon’s 5 stage model (2004) that encourage me to offer initial support, but then, quickly, step back and allow the students to support each other. The result was stunning – over 57% of the students achieve a First in their dissertation (Callaghan, 2013). Today, being more informed about teaching and learning, I look back on my approach and see that it quickly morphed away from Social Constructivism to be more accurately categorised as traditional ‘Action Learning’ – and because this ‘evolved’ from a constructivist cauldron, perhaps ‘Adaptive Action Learning’.

From design to reality

I designed the course, the discussion boards, and webinars to facilitate discussion amongst the student about their diverse topics – all informed by a Social Constructive pedagogy. There was a central theme – the ‘dissertation’ process that they were all going through – this was perhaps the ‘wicked’ problem (an AL reference) – trying to do their research, devise their methodologies, and write it up to be able to submit a dissertation at the end of the process. I was also keen to generate a community spirit, to get them to help each other with their ‘wicked’ problems, and I was following Salmon’s model (2004) of the tutor becoming highly engaged in the first few weeks, and tapering that involvement quickly as the course progresses.

My approach cannot be classified as ‘problem’ or ‘case’ based learning (Callaghan, 2018), as the topics were selected by the students. The key attributes of a traditional AL approach (Marquardt, 2004) were present – and those of other pedagogies, such as a single source of ‘truth’, a ‘right’ answer, and clearly defined learning content were not.

Move from Sage to Ghost

It is interesting to look at how my role changed – being fully engaged with the students during the first few weeks, encouraging interaction with the discussion boards, the webinars, and each other (following Salmon’s 5 step model (Salmon, 2004) of early tutor support). Therefore, my approach may be better categorised as Marquardt’s AL model (2004), where I was the ‘Action Learning Coach’. As I followed Salmons model further, my input needed to be reduced, aiming to move from a ‘Sage of the Stage’ (King, 1993) to a ‘Ghost in the Wings’ (Mazzolini and Maddison, 2007) – moving away from Marquart’s model, towards Brook, Pedler & Burgoyne’s ‘Key Principles’ (2012:271) where there is no facilitator. Note - Revans expressed concerns about the facilitator being an obstruction to learning, demanding that the facilitator of the group "...must contrive that it achieves independence of them at the earliest possible moment" (Revans, 2011:20).

During the final few weeks my input was minimal with students feeding back to each other on their work, following my lead from feedback I had given in earlier weeks. One of my final posts, on the Discussion and Conclusion board was along the lines of:

At this stage in your dissertation, you have led us on wonderful journey, we have read your literature, have a thorough grasp of your methodologies, and know clearly what you have found and understood your analysis of the data. What I would like to see in at the end of your Discussion and Conclusion are the implications for you, your organisations, and wider society. You have done a beautiful job of taking us on this journey, up the mountain – now it is time to tell us what you see on the other side.

This post, like a handful of others in the final weeks, was designed to elicit novel and insightful perspectives on the problems they have been studying – pushing student reflection and personal development – key indicators of AL.


It seems quite clear that an AL approach had been taken with this cohort – not from the outset, and not intentionally, but then again, AL was originally ‘stumbled across’, so I feel in good company 😊.

One of the tensions I see now is the role of ‘coach’: Revans identified dangers of being prescriptive – steering participants in directions that would hinder learning and produce poorer outcomes, both for the participants and their organisations. At the time I was very mindful of this as I fed back to students – yet I did not have AL in mind.

Now I see the role of facilitator as key in an AL context – too much and it becomes Problem or Case Based Learning, too little and learning opportunities can be wasted – so skilled facilitation seems key to a successful AL approach.

Also, I see AL as a pedagogy, a method, and a toolkit. It gives us a perspective on teaching and learning that helps teachers design curriculums that are engaging and effective.

Further, Revan’s work seems to have come full circle in some areas, with authors such as Marquardt (2004) emphasising the presence of a coach, whilst the more recent key principles by Brook, Pedler & Burgoyne (2012:271) don’t include this role.

Implications for students, teachers, and other stakeholders

Well, that will be in the final paper, I hope! And when done, I will link from here 😊


Brook, C., Pedler, M. and Burgoyne, J., 2012. Some debates and challenges in the literature on action learning: the state of the art since Revans. Human Resource Development International15(3), pp.269-282.

Callaghan (2013) A Tidal Wave of Discussion … How active discussion produced outstanding* results, The Best of TEL, 1 November, Available at: (Accessed: 14 June 2020)

Callaghan (2018) What is Case Based Learning (CBL), Problem Based Learning (PBL), & Scenario Based Learning (SBL)?

Mazzolini, M. and Maddison, S. (2007) When to jump in: The role of the instructor in online discussion forums. Computers & Education, 49 (2) 193-213

King, A., Learning, P. A. and Questioning, G. R. P. (1993) From sage on the stage to guide on the side. College Teaching, 41 (1) 30-35.

Revans, R. (1983) ABC of Action Learning (Bromley, Chartwell-Bratt). London: Chartwell Bratt.

Revans, R.W. 2011. ABC of action learning. Farnham: Gower.

Salmon, G. (2004) E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online. London: Routledge.

Marquardt, M. 2004. Optimising the Power of Action Learning: Solving Problems and Building Leaders in Real Time. London: Davies-Black.

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