Action Learning and Action Research

Action learning and action research are closely related processes. The terms have been defined in a variety of ways. For present purposes, we will use the following definitions.

Action learning

Action learning can be defined as a process in which a group of people come together more or less regularly to help each other to learn from their experience.

As Reg Revans used and described it, it was mostly used across different organisations i.e. the participants typically came from different situations, where each of them was involved in different activities and faced individual problems. Most commonly the participants have been organisers or managers, though this is not essential.  The current practice more often now is to set up an action learning program within one organisation. It is not unusual for a team to consist of people with a common task or problem.

There may or may not be a facilitator for the learning groups which are formed. Revans mostly avoided them. Current practice, I think, is mostly to use them.

Action research

Action research is a process by which change and understanding, in addition to learning, can be pursued at the one time. It is usually described as cyclic, with action and critical reflection taking place in turn. The reflection is used to review the previous action and plan the next one.
It is commonly done by a group of people, though sometimes individuals use it to improve their practice. It has been used often in the field of education for this purpose. It is not unusual for there to be someone from outside the team who acts as a facilitator.

A comparison

I used to think that action research was the umbrella term, and action learning was an application of it. Some of my colleagues, I found, argue that action learning is the umbrella term. On reflection, I don’t think it’s worth debating.

As they were previously practised, I think a useful distinction could be made. In action learning, each participant drew different learning from different experience. In action research a team of people drew collective learning from a collective experience.  More recently, the advent of in-company action learning programs has begun to change this. The use of a team with a common project or problem leads to an action learning program which looks remarkably like action research.
There were also some differences, on average, in field of application. Action learning was more often used in organisational settings. Action research more common in community and educational settings. This distinction, too, is beginning to blur.

Drawing a bigger circle and including both – Experiential learning

Both action research and action learning may be seen as a form of experiential learning.  As usually described, it is a process for drawing learning from, and building on, experience. The experience can be something which is taking place, or more often is set up for the occasion by a facilitator or mentor. Clearly, both action research and action learning are about learning from experience. The experience is usually drawn from some task agreed on by a person or team.

All are cyclic i.e. all involve action and reflection on that action. All have learning as one of their goals. In this way experiential learning can be seen as the basis for the learning component of both action learning and action research.

Further both action learning and action research are intended to improve practice. Action research intends to introduce some change and deepen understanding; action learning uses some intended change as a vehicle for learning through reflection.

In action research, the learners draw their learning from the same change activity. All are stakeholders in this activity. In action learning, as I said earlier, the learning and the activity used to be unique to each learner. With the increasing use of project teams in action learning programs, this is no longer true.

The experiential learning cycle

Consider the following simple learning cycle. It appears to capture the main features of experiential learning, action research, and action learning. At its simplest, it consists of two stages: action and reflection:
(1) action and reflection in an ongoing series of cycles.

However, the reflection gains its point by leading to learning, which in turn leads to deeper understanding and ultimately to changed behaviour/actions in the future:
(2) action –> reflection –> action

We can therefore expand the action component to include observation via. notes for learning journal for instance (these notes can be used to write up your project for listing):
(3) action –> observation –> reflection –>

Next we can expand the reflection component to include change that is intent to act differently next time. We want to take into account that it is a critical review of the last action and also planning/intending for what will happen in the next action cycle.
(4) action –> observation –> reflect –> planning –> (action – next cycle)

After several iterations (action cycles) we can use the reflection phase to ‘generalise’ or observations and to link them to our reflections i.e. we can start to add ‘theory’ or principles to this. In our review, we can only make sense of the world ‘from the ground up’ in ways which build on our prior understanding. In enhancing that understanding, we become better able to act on the world.

When we are acting, we often don’t have the time to be deliberate about what we are doing. The theories we draw on are intuitive theories. In reflection and planning our theories can be made explicit.  In other words, action is informed by intuitive theories which, in turn, are informed by our actions. Critical reflection and planning can then build generalisations and theories (bottom up) and may be informed by conscious theories and assumptions (top down). These generalisations as such are derived deliberately from recent experience, and used to plan the next experience.

You could say, then, that experiential learning functions by a dual alternation: between action and reflection; between unconscious and conscious theories; between grounded (bottom up) and grand (top down) theories. By engaging with both of these in a cyclic procedure, we integrate them.

Now to return to action research and action learning…

In each, action informs reflection and is informed by it. The reflection produces the learning (in action learning) or research (in action research). Think of both learning and research as understanding. In the latter, the action is changed in the next action cycle as a result of the learning/research in the previous cycle, and thus leads to more learning/research.

Source: developed from Bob Dick 1995-2000.  (accessed 05-2009)

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About Paul Wildman

Paul Wildman is founder of Kalgrove, Kids and Adult Learning, in Brisbane. Set in a grove of Australian gum trees Kalgrove manages child care and early learning centres and undertakes adult learning commissions. Paul also runs a niche publishing business Prosperity Press, publishing in futures related areas. From 1989-2001 he managed the Vocational Training area concentrating in Apprenticeships and Traineeships in Queensland. From 1994-97 Paul was lecturer at Southern Cross University (SCU) where he developed, and lectured in, Futures Studies (FS) then the only on line Masters specialisation in Futures Studies in the world. From 1990-94 Paul was State Deputy Commissioner for Training, and Director Employment in Queensland for TAFE. Here he was developing and implementing employment and training policy inc. access and community initiatives for State Government policy with indigenous Australians. He also undertakes research into youth and work futures. Website:

1 thought on “Action Learning and Action Research

  1. Rod Jensen

    To Paul Wildman and Duncan McLeod,

    The launching of this website will be regarded in time to come as a very important occasion in the UC – it will not only assist and inspire many of our people but also contribute to a real sense of family in the UC. I know there has been a lot of work so far put into this project and that there is a lot of work ahead but we want you to know that your work and vison are very much appreciated.


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