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Authenticity Circles(sm) -- Powerful, Practical Peer Groups
for Personal, Professional and Organizational Development

Leveraging the Power of Peers(sm)

Action Learning (Peer Coaching Groups): Some Related Theories

 "I have come to believe that the only learning
which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered,
self-appropriated learning."
-- Carl Rogers, in "On Becoming a Person"


Any relevant movement, theory, model or technique in human development results from a combination of various bodies of knowledge.

Readers who are interested in understanding more about the various theories that are applicable to coaching and Action Learning will benefit from the following information. Literature about Action Learning has done a wonderful job of explaining the dynamics of how help occurs among participants in Action Learning. Thus, that literature is reflected in the following information.

The following information starts with description of the role of questioning in learning ("L=P+Q"), then explains systems theory's Ladder of Inference (how we make conclusions about our world), use of dialogue to closely examine the way we think about our world, a somewhat scholarly review of the structures and dynamics of the Action Learning process, difference between Action Learning and action research, and information about the role of Action Learning in overall organization development. Lastly, several relevant philosophies are mentioned.

Note that the reader need not have expert knowledge about Action Learning theories in order to carry out the process.

(Also review Major Principles Behind Action Learning.)

Learning Equation: L = P + Q

Descriptions of Action Learning often begin with description of the basic learning "equation" explained by Reginald Revans, founder of Action Learning, that L = P + Q, where "L" is learning, "P" is programmed (or expert-provided) knowledge and "Q" is insights from inquiry or powerful questions about our own experiences. Descriptions of the equation usually include the assertion that we've put far too much emphasis on learning from "P" and not nearly enough on learning through "Q". Action Learning proponents assert that major challenges in life and work are seldom addressed through "P" learning alone. Therefore, the role of questioning, or "Q", is critical to the Action Learning process. Schools focus on teaching "P" through the use of experts, while people can teach "Q" by focusing their inquiry on their own experiences. Revans asserts that "Q" does not cumulatively build our knowledge, but rather helps us re-organize our knowledge and see it anew. Participants in Action Learning learn from generating insights, rather than from collecting knowledge and advice. Action Learning seeks at least a balance of "Q" and "P".

The reader can find out more about this learning equation by reading any of the suggested books listed in the resources.

"Ladder of Inference" and Dialogue

Ladder of Inference

Questions help people to reflect on their experiences and perspectives in order to reframe, or take apart and put back together again, how they perceive their challenges, goals, issues, etc. This reflection and reframing is often critical to achieving useful insights and other forms of deep learning. Systems theories includes description of a framework from which people can begin to understand how their beliefs and perceptions are developed, ranging from first experiencing . Systems theories label this framework the "Ladder of Inference".

Senge (Senge, P., Roberts., C., Ross, R. B., Smith, B. J., & Kleiner, A. (1994). The fifth discipline fieldbook: Strategies and tools for building a learning organization. New York, NY: Currency Doubleday.) notes that, "We live in a world of self-generating beliefs which remain largely untested. We adopt these beliefs because they are based on conclusions, which are inferred from what we observe, plus our past experiences. Our ability to achieve the results we truly desire is eroded by our feelings that a) our beliefs are the truth, b) the truth is obvious, c) our beliefs are based on real data, and d) the data we select are the real data" (p. 242). Misguided beliefs often occur somewhere in the "ladder of inference" portrayed below. NOTE: Notice that the ladder proceeds bottom up.

  • Step 7. I take actions based on my beliefs
  • Step 6. I adopt beliefs about the world
    (our beliefs affect what data we select next time)
  • Step 5. I draw conclusion(s)
  • Step 4. I make assumptions based on the meanings I added
  • Step 3. I add meanings (cultural and personal)
  • Step 2. I select "data" from what I observe
    (our beliefs affect what data we select)
  • Step 1. I observe "data" from experiences (much as a videotape might capture data)


Action Learning helps members solve problems and learn primarily by their ongoing dialogue in their groups, that is, all members pose probing questions and supportive challenges to each member of the group. They do so in a roundtable fashion to ensure that each member gets help to understand their own application of the ladder of inference on their current, real-world challenges. As a result, all group members:
1. Become more aware of their own thinking and reasoning
2. Make their thinking and reasoning more visible to others
3. Inquire into others' thinking and reasoning
4. Inquire into what is the observable data behind a statement
5. Inquire whether everyone agrees on what the data is

Remember that Action Learning is more than a dialogue or discussion group, though, in that all members are charged to actually apply their learnings between group meetings. These applications of learning help to generate experiences from which to learn and they ground members' learning in the day-to-day realities of life and work.

"People don't learn from action per se.
There has to be a disciplined system of review".
-- Charles Margerison, Action Learning writer,
in "Action Learning in Practice"


Structures and Dynamics of Action Learning Process

The following link is to a rather scholarly overview of the structures and dynamics of the Action Learning process. The overview is in reference to the Leaders Circles(sm) program, a national, Action Learning-based, peer coaching program for nonprofit organizations. The program was developed by Dr. Carter McNamara, co-founder of Authenticity Consulting, LLC.

Action Learning and Action Research

Understanding the role of the researcher in experimentation and learning is becoming extremely important. Consequently, a range of relatively new concepts is under discussion, for example, action research, Action Learning, participatory research, etc.

The following link is to a resource that helps the reader understand the relationships and differences between Action Learning and action research.

Role of Action Learning in Organization Development

Historically, organization development (OD) has been explained as the body of knowledge or practices which uses knowledge from the social sciences to enact planned change in an organization in order to improve the overall effectiveness of that organization.

The following link is to one of the largest, on-line, free OD libraries. The library was developed and is maintained by Authenticity, LLC, co-founder, Dr. Carter McNamara.

The following link is to a resource that helps the reader understand the context of Action Learning in overall organization development, including from a progressive viewpoint. That article is also written by Authenticity, LLC, co-founder, Dr. Carter McNamara.

Some Related Philosophies, Movements, Trends, Etc.

As stated above, any relevant movement, theory, model or technique in human development results from a combination of various bodies of knowledge. Readers interested in understanding more about the possible early and related influences on Action Learning will benefit from reading about at least the following philosophies, movements and people.

  • The pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey, including his assertion that real learning must be based on real-life experiences.
  • Popular and folk education with its focus on learning by doing, learning by exchanging feedback with peers and learning not being an end in itself (eg, Paulo Freire and Myles Horton).
  • Existential tradition with its focus on one's responsibility for authenticity and taking action in the real world (eg, Soren Kierkegaard and Jean Paul Sartre).
  • Existential psychologies providing focus on practical application of the existential tradition (eg, Carl Rogers and Rollo May).

"Through constant questioning, we see more clearly just who we really are, and what remarkable resources we have access to.
We will also see more clearly what is really facing us,
and we will become more capable of
accepting and responding to change."
--Reginald Revans, founder of Action Learning.

To return to What is Action Learning?

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