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Relevant Principles and Theories

Leveraging the Power of Peers(sm)

It's important to understand the principles, or "values in action", behind any major approach to development. One reason that principles are so important is that they can quickly depict the "personality" of the development approach. Also, principles are important because they are the "guiding light" around which the approach can be organized and modified, if necessary.

You could ask 10 different Action Learning practitioners, "What are the major principles behind the Action Learning process?, and you'd probably get 10 different answers.

The following principles of Action Learning are those from which Authenticity Consulting, LLC, designs and implements Action Learning programs.

Note that to really appreciate the principles behind Action Learning, it's useful to understand how those principles can be used to address current, major problems in training and development. To read about the issues. Then realize the mismatch between traditional one-shot training sessions and the following principles of learning.

Principle #1: People Learn Best Working On Real-World Problems

Research in adult learning suggests that adults learn best when
1) Applying new information or materials to current, real-life challenges in their lives or workplaces, and
2) Exchanging feedback with others around those applications.

Adults can learn particularly by skillfully asking questions (these are skills in inquiry) and skillfully answering questions (these are skills in reflection) about their real-world experiences. The hallmark of Action Learning is group members' asking and answering useful questions.

Action Learning also involves members taking actions toward their real-life goals between meetings. Members continue to take actions and reflect on these actions, thereby generating tremendous and transformational learning for themselves and often those around them.

Principle #2: People Learn Best When They Share Feedback

People are systems, just like organizations are systems. Systems operate most effectively when they are open systems, that is, when they are exchanging feedback with other systems. This is true for all types of systems, for example, plants, families or businesses. Therefore, people learn best when they consider the questions, advice, opinions and values of others.

One can understand this principle when they consider the opposite case, that is, when people are closed off, lost in their own world of thought. Quite often, these people can "self implode" without new insights and occasions to test their own insights in the reality of day-to-day living.

The Action Learning process facilitates highly focused feedback among group members.

Principle #3: People Get Stuck On Perceptions, Values, Feelings – Not From Lack of Procedures

The school of thought which perhaps best explains this principle is that of systems thinking. Systems thinking, especially as explained by Peter Senge in his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline, is a way of viewing systems that helps the viewer to quickly clarify underlying structures and patterns in systems -- thereby enabling the viewer to more effectively understand and work with that system (remember that organizations and people are systems) . Senge described the "ladder of inference" from which people make (sometimes erroneous) conclusions based on their own misperceptions. (More about the "ladder of inference" later on in the section Action Learning: Some Related Theories.)

Action Learning is ideal for helping members to understand their own perceptions (and often misperceptions) about their current challenges in life and work.

Principle #4: Learning Involves the Whole Person

People usually can't separate their hearts from their minds. One of the most powerful ways to be reminded of this fact is to experience an Action Learning group member who addresses a major challenge first by being able to briefly clarify his or her feelings about the challenge! The recent popularity of the concept of emotional intelligence is clear recognition of the critical role that emotions play in living and learning in today's world.

In Action Learning, each member is given their own time in each meeting in which to share description of the current issue or goal that they are working on in their group. It's almost always most effective if the member starts by briefly describing how they feel about the issue. Members don't dwell on their feelings, but they recognize that the more fully that fellow members understand each other's goals (including how they feel about their goals), the more effectively that members can be in helping each other.

Principle #5: Finding The Right Problem Is as important as Solving It

Quite often, one of the first things that new Action Learning members realize is that, after several meetings, members are rarely working on the same goal that they first brought to the group. That's because help from fellow members has helped other members to quickly get past their initial misperceptions and on to addressing their real issues in their life or work.

The role of questioning is critical to the power of the Action Learning and coaching processes. Giving advice is rarely as powerful as asking useful questions. That's because advice usually deals only with the least important needs. Advice can be quickly given and quickly addressed. Powerful questions help each group member to carefully reflect, to peel off each layer of understanding until they're faced with understanding their most important -- and real -- problem at the moment.

Principle #6: The person With the Problem Is the Real Expert on the Problem

This is often the hardest lesson for new Action Learning facilitators and group members to learn. Quite often, members of new groups, when hearing someone's goal, will quickly resort to telling that person what they must do (akin to lecturing the person). Too often, that person will write down each piece of advice and promise to follow it. Soon, group members realize that the person either didn't follow the advice or even if they did, they really didn't learn anything from following the advice (remember: a primary goal in Action Learning is doing -- and learning at the same time). Eventually, members come to realize that unless a member comes to realize on their own what their problem is, there is little learning to be accomplished by that member.

Often the most powerful ways in which new facilitators and members learn this critical principle is when they loudly proclaim what another member's problem is and what the other member must do about it -- only to learn later that what the new facilitators and members thought was the other person's problem was not the real problem at all!

If You're Interested in Theories Related to Action Learning

The following link is to a variety of theories that help to explain what were very likely early influences on the development of Action Learning.

To return to Action Learning and Peer Learning Programs

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