Teaching and Learning - Action Learning

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Strategies for teaching in higher education. Specific learning problems of artists and designers. Postgraduate learning, how to support researchers. Suggestions of how to evolve new natural learning environments.

Text of Teaching and Learning - Action Learning

Critical Reflections on the benefits and limitations of An Action Learning Set Christine Sterne 27th September 2007 ABSTRACT I have to admit I have not been a fan of education theory. I feel that teaching and learning strategies have done little to truly assist lecturers at the coal face. The research I have read has seemed to me to be reiterating the bleeding obvious but renaming it in new sexy jargon. Terms such as transferable skills and reflective practice are I feel essential components of good teaching and cannot be avoided, if you are doing your job properly. In this context Action Learning has been a terrific surprise. This paper will examine personal experiences and reflect on the experiences of ALS members; analyzing participants Conversation, Discourse, and Protocol in addition to evaluating the groups Symbolic Interaction1. I will evaluate the contribution Action Learning has made to developing my PhD proposal. I will also reflect on the benefits of action learning and suggest creative strategies to develop learning in the future.


Conversation analysis

Discourse analysis

Protocol analysisSociology/linguistics


PsychologyAnalysing the way in which talk is structurally organised, focusing on sequencing and turn-taking which demonstrate the way people give meaning to situations Examining the way knowledge is produced within a particular discourse and the performances, linguistic styles and rhetorical devices used in particular accounts Examining and drawing inference about the cognitive processes that underlie the performance of tasks Symbolic interactionism Sociology/social psychology Exploring behaviour and social roles to understand how people interpret and react to their environment


INTRODUCTION WHAT IS ACTION LEARNING Reg Revans is the originator of action learning. An award winning physicist and Olympian, it was at Cambridge University that Revans developed the concept of action learning. He experienced first hand the importance of team working, collaborative thinking, and the creative effect of having views challenged by coworkers. His clear incisive reasoning and elucidating definitions of specific factors such as the difference between a puzzlei and a problem are pragmatic and practical. The innate appeal of Reg Revanss methodology is that it is based on an ethical attempt to resolve real-life problems. His consternation at the ridiculous and ineffectual hierarchical management structure of the Titanicii and the deeply embedded and stultifying class structure that was underlying this, due to its historical context; caused him to create an egalitarian learning environment within the company structure, constructed to generate the upward expression of doubt (in contrast to the downward expression of certainty) [Margerson Charles. 1995] to avoid such horrors re-occurring. 1. Participants experience The Set Advisor had a diverse range of knowledge. Her experience of creating new businesses and innovating existing businesses; both within the private and public sectors in addition to her creative understanding as a practicing artist allowed empathy with every ALS member. Using this erudition she was able to connect with the existing knowledge of each participant to recommend highly specific and personal strategies for both cognitive and affective learning. Student One is a pedagogic researcher with a commitment towards resilient therapy. She was unsure how to advance her research and had not yet enrolled on the PhD programme. Her research is involved with investigating how and why some children are more resilient than others when confronted with emotional trauma, abuse and problems. Her intentions were to find a means of disseminating her ideas to a wide audience; and to write a handbook for parental guidance. Student Two is a graphic designer having completed a highly successful masters programme is now researching her PhD; she is investigating Fugitive Moments from the Edge of Memory: how Social History and artwork can be integrated to reveal perceptions of womens roles. She was having problems finding the best matched supervisor. She was concerned to strike a harmonic balance between a creative supervisor and a more theoretical and academic supervisor who could challenge her intellectual concepts. She had to complete an application for a research grant, and also had a responsibility as a single parent to address problems of bullying 2

at school with her young son and negotiate a consensus with her ex-partner. The Set Advisor recommended someone who could provide a list of supervisors. Student Three (Me) I arrived at the ALS with an idea of researching the semantics and archetypes contained in tarot cards and hopefully locating where they originated and if they have a relationship with the kabbalah. I have a great interest in alchemy, symbolism and semiotics. My initial concern is to refine my research to a more specific area. It was suggested that I should investigate female archetypes within tarot, as this was an area of interest to me. Student Four was researching for a professional doctorate in the area of childhood bereavement and how this affects their educational progress. I was impressed by his genuine concern and commitment towards resolving bereavement issues for children who are often neglected by society at this difficult and sensitive time. After a detailed discussion it was suggested he should talk to his supervisor at the next available meeting and renegotiate how to progress and make changes regarding feedback and correspondence. I felt a little worried by the amount of anger being expressed and a focus on emotional issues rather than discussing and developing research ideas, which I was very interested in. Student Five is from a business background but with surprising areas of knowledge in other subjects, particularly alternative theology. He is researching reasons why ethics are not upheld within business and has great commitment to engendering ethical and morally responsible attitudes in the workplace. He is finalizing his in-depth proposal and analyzing what to pursue.

2. Review of participants learning from actions taken Some of the problems outlined in Tom Bourners article Action Learning comes of age are applicable to this experience. The two comparable experiences were similar to those described in the The uncommitted set and the The set advisers set but for very different reasons. Student four did not continue the ALS; it was disappointing and upsetting, as he would have made an interesting contribution. I tried to persuade him to re-attend but he was not interested. I think he felt it was not structured enough and he was extremely angry that medical students 3

can receive a masters in research after completing the URTF whereas other students only receive a diploma. It is interesting that a student on a professional doctorate course, which is considered to have the highest level of support, seemed to need the greatest amount of emotional support. This contradicts the assumptions of higher levels of effective support in the article 'Professional Doctorates in England' [Bourner, Tom et al. 2001.] Both student one and student four seemed to have predominately emotional issues to resolve; one participant was ex-services and had severe difficulty accepting the ill-disciplined and lackadaisical university approach to time keeping and deadlines. The other set member was undecided about their commitment to post-graduate study and exceedingly nervous about embarking on a solo project without the safety net of an organization to hide behind; both for reasons of professional accountability and the implementation & publicizing of the research result. Student one attended several sessions but failed to continue the module; again this was a big disappointment and threatened the continuance of the ALS. Fortunately the hard-core members had a firmer resolve. Student two displayed great emotional intelligence and gave student one excellent advice, student two has the ability to pinpoint underlying anxieties by creative and incisive questioning. She is sensitive and creative and her skills are in direct opposition to student five. Student five with many years experience in the business world was of great value to me in structuring my ideas and organizing and developing arguments, he displayed a passionate interest in my subject area and a great knowledge of the Hindu and Buddhist religion which became increasingly relevant as my research developed. Student two had many unfounded insecurities it was very exciting for me when she brought in her MA work, it is one thing to discuss ideas for creative pursuance, quite another to see the artwork itself. The formal structure of the URTF and its bias towards business and engineering, caused student twos confidence to nosedive. I have made recommendations to combat this in section six. 3. Critical reflection of actions taken What I found most surprising was the genuine lack of ego and the group commitment to the greater good. It was as if we had taken an unspoken pledge to work for the maximum benefit for all participants. I was genuinely shocked, in retrospect, at how earnestly I pressurized myself to meet targets set by myself in the company of peers. I was also greatly encouraged by the level of warmth, support and genuine interest shown by participants. I have certainly saved at least six months of research time in honing my ideas to specific area of research. 4

The discussion of personal aims and setting personal targets has a much more potent impetus on the work ethic of a student. The intimacy of the ALS structure creates camaraderie and group loyalty especially in a post-graduate context because issues of commitment have already been established. I feel the cross-cultural nature of the participants was an unexpecte