Reg Revans, often referred to as the father of action learning, said ‘action learning takes so long to describe because it is so simple’. While we agree that ALS is a simple and elegant process that is better experienced than explained, we believe we can give you a flavor of the process in this article.

What is an action learning set?

It is a group of between 4 and 7 people, who meet regularly to support one another in their learning in order to take purposeful action on work issues. A professional set facilitator, who enables the set members to ask searching questions and the problem holder to reflect on the actions to be taken, facilitates the meetings.

The power of the set comes from the type of questions used and the gift of time for reflection, which is granted to the problem holder. The set members also consider the process: was it effective, what questions worked well and what emotions had to be considered?

What do we mean by process in action learning?

Reg Revans summed up the action learning set process in the following formula:

Learning (L) = Programmed Knowledge (P) + Insightful questioning (Q) Programmed knowledge is the knowledge in books – what we have been told to do for years. It also refers to our own acquired personal knowledge. Both of these need to be questioned
Questioning asks what aspect of that knowledge is useful and relevant, here and now. It is also a way of saying ‘I do not know’.
Learning results from the combination of P & Q.

‘Lasting behavioral change is more likely to follow the reinterpretation of past experience than the acquisition of fresh knowledge’ REG REVANS

Action learning also predicates that learning has at all times to be greater than change: L>C.

So, what does this process look like during an ALS session? Action learning posits that we may well already have enough knowledge and what we need are new ways of applying what we know to new situations.

The emphasis is on reflecting, deciding to experiment with new action, taking action and, having moved on to a different place, starting the cycle again.

In effect, individual set members present a problem, have their thinking provoked by the questions of fellow set members, are given time to reflect, go away and take appropriate actions and then, at the next session tell the set what happened.

Problems are the focus of the set: unlike puzzles, problems have no one right solution – rather, they have many different solutions and the presenter of the problem has a choice as to the course of action to be taken.

Learning contract

Learning happens at a number of different levels and it can be an uncomfortable process. It is therefore vital that the set be a place where members feel safe enough to express themselves and say, ‘I don’t know’. To make this a workable proposition, set members agree the ground rules of a learning contract.

In a typical contract, the acronym RECIPE covers the main points:

  • Responsibility for oneself
  • Experience-led, i.e. the problems presented are real problems
  • Confidentiality – the only thing taken out of the set is the learning
  • I language is used
  • Process is addressed, as well as content. Attention is given to feelings, relationships and feedback
  • Equality of opportunity is ensured

Why does it work?

Because action learning sets up a dialogue, which gives each person space to focus on themselves and what they are grappling with at work.

The constant emphasis is on learning and how it is achieved, building on the asking of questions and listening, followed by reflection, free from time pressure. It does not rely on the giving of advice or the offer of ready-made solutions.

You will hear the question ‘what did I learn from that?’ again and again.

What is the rationale for action learning sets?

It is well documented that adults learn best when they decide what it is they want to learn and when the learning is closely linked to issues or problems of immediate concern to them.

They learn:

From their peers From people for whom they have regard

When an appropriate degree of personal risk is present

What skills do I need to be an effective set member?

1. Rapport and relationship skills: These are needed to enable members to be open with and to trust each other.

2. Listening skills: Set members need to listen not only to what is said but also the meaning behind what is being said and to ambiguities. They also need to be comfortable with silence in order to fully allow time for reflection

3.Questioning skills: Open questions are usually most useful – i.e. they cannot be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

The main types of questions are:

Pure inquiry – to help the client clarify the situation, the options, the way forward.

Challenging questions – to help the client achieve insight.

Catalytic questions – to trigger new ideas.

Cathartic questions – on those few occasions when it may help to release the emotions associated with the problem.

4. The ability to take information from models:

It benefits set members to use a common model to channel the questions so they have a cumulative impact. An example of a simple questioning model:

Goal – What do you want to achieve?

Reality – Where are you now?

Options – What could you do and what else could you do?

What next – What action will you take? By when will you report back?

What skills does an effective facilitator need?

  • Self-management
  • Knowledge of and ability to work with group dynamics
  • High order listening skills
  • Familiarity with problem solving models
  • Ability to time interventions and keep them to a minimum
  • Emotional Intelligence

What is the role of the facilitator?

It is to introduce set members to action learning and to manage the process during the set, e.g. the facilitator enables everyone in the set to participate, ensures that the questions build up coherently to be of most use to the presenter of the problem, checking with the participants the usefulness of the process at each step. This is referred to as managing process losses and gains.

What can action-learning sets be used for in the education context?

We believe that sets can be used for the same purposes in schools as in any other organizational context – i.e.:

  • Personnel issues
  • Management concerns
  • Change processes
  • Communication e.g. between teachers, students and parents
  • Insight and innovation leading to the improvement of the school / department

What focus can be the impetus to form a set?

Across schools:

The desire for people in the same role (e.g. Headteacher / department head / assistant head) across schools, to pool resources and to arrive at new solutions for common problems.

Whole school internal:

For a whole school initiative: e.g. implementing a new behavior policy.

A suggestion for members of a set with a behavior policy focus could involve representatives from senior management to mid-day and playground supervisors.

School departmental:

This process could be used for members of a department team to focus on a new initiative – e.g. use of whiteboards, incorporating technology into the classroom, etc.

Training and cascading ALS in organizations

ALS is a very cost-effective tool for managing change in organizations.

It is a process that begs to be cascaded through a whole organization internally, once a core group has been trained in facilitation.

Our experience in training ALS facilitators has shown that the process can be cascaded over an academic year. Trainee facilitators attend a 3-day intensive workshop followed by 6 set sessions at monthly intervals. It is a practical and interactive training during which participants have the opportunity to facilitate and receive feedback from the course leaders. They can work towards an NVQ 4 in facilitation through the formation of a pilot set within their organization under ongoing supervision.

The next steps


Action Learning: a practical guide, Kristina Weinstein, Gower 2002

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, December 2004.