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Putting the action into action learning through training for extension practitioners

Richard Fell

Managing Consultant (Low Hill Enterprises)/Adjunct Lecturer, Centre for Regional and Rural Innovation – Queensland, University of Queensland Gatton Campus, Q 4345


The Centre for Rural and Regional Innovation (CRRI-Q) provides a focus for training in extension skills for practicing extension professionals, through the accredited training programs.

The structure of each subject in the various courses is based on an action learning process and currently consists of:

1. A compulsory five day residential

2. A work-based or community-based learning project

3. A compulsory two day residential

4. A final written report (about the learning project)

There are three distinct action learning phases that are deliberately built into the various courses and into each subject, these are – micro-, macro- and mega- action learning cycles. Figure 1 illustrates the way the action learning process operates during the residential sessions. The activities that help ensure that the action learning cycle is put into practice are:

  • Quick reflection or debrief at the end of any particular session.
  • Learning Log, using the same prompt questions, is completed each day.
  • Walk-talk, 10 minutes discussion with a partner at the end of each day.
  • Learning review, to start each day there is a small group discussion, learning review, based on the action learning questions.

Each subject opens with a session on expectations and then a session that enables the participants to share their current level of knowledge (briefly) with each other and the trainers. These activities and the action learning process in ‘action’ also help to ensure that the subject is conducted with the principles of adult learning at the forefront.

Figure 1. Micro-process for learning in the Extension Course

Some subjects also use Action Learning Sets (McGill & Beaty 1992) or Learning Support Groups (LSG) during the first residential session – these are action learning based small group activities. If participants have found them useful, they have continued to use the ALS/LSG during the whole time they have taken on their learning [project (up to 2 months).

Action learning is used by participants in their own learning project as they feel they need to and is usually used at intervals during the project. Some participants continue to use their LSG throughout the learning project. Others have kept a learning log or diary to help keep themselves on track in their learning project. The learning log is also used by some deliberately to help drive their learning project; it is set up with this in mind. Figure 2 shows where the learning project sits within the action learning cycle.

Figure 2. Macro-process for the learning project

Each subject has the following elements in the mega- action learning process:

  • content and theory sessions that lead to a better understanding of the subject;
  • developing an action plan to put aspects of the theory into practice (learning project);
  • working through the action plan with reflection and review as they are going along;
  • review and reflection on the learning project in the second residential session;
  • generalisations and conclusions from the subject and learning project, the learning;
  • re-plan or plan to use in the future, written into the report at the end of the subject.

The mega-action learning process:

Act – Develop a learning project and conduct these activities

Reflect/Observe – Reflect and review the action plan for the learning project regularly. Change the plan as needed from these reflections. Final review to pinpoint learning.

Generalise/conclude – What can I conclude, what changes need to be made, what have I concluded from the ALRD subject for my work in general? What I can use in the future.

Plan – How will the changes be made to the action plan, Redo the action plan for the learning project, what and how will I use in the future? How I will use the learning. Write a report for the learning project, emphasising learning – a final reflection.

Using action learning in real workplace learning projects

Action learning for a Cabbage Field day

Sue Heisswolf (1995) used action learning as the driving process to design a field day – then a separate but linked action learning cycle to conduct the field day.


Develop an action plan for the field day



Involve co-operators

Requires a time commitment

Be flexible

“Design a field day


Discuss the potential field day with farmers and consultants


Think about and check back with farmers and consultants

about process and content


Figure 5 . Using action learning to design a field day

A second ALC was concerned with conducting the field day:

Planning - Preparing the field day – getting it together

Activity - Holding the field day – a farm tour with various locations and activities

Reflecting - Review the field day with the participants

What did I learn from this activity? - Be flexible, good preparation is crucial, group make up is important, tap into farmer experience, plan the evaluation, make it a social occasion and reflect on activities

In her full report there were another series of action learning cycles that she used in various stages of the whole field day process. On reflection she felt that action learning was a process that had been very useful in carrying out this field day.

Action learning with a dairy discussion group

Belinda Haddow (1999) in her report on adult learning in a dairy discussion group describes ALC in practice and shows how the cycles spiral through a series of meetings. The starting point was:

Reflect/Observe – reflect on the current group processes. Are we learning and can we improve?

Understand (Generalise/Conclude) – coming to some understanding on how we can improve, review the session, better planning, include farm walk for instance.

Plan – planning the best way to make improvements

Act – at next meeting have a review session, farm walk and sharing experiences

Reflect/Observe – review the dairy effluent meeting

Understand – are there things we can improve or new ideas they would like to try?

Plan – needs assessment for the next session and planning for the next meeting

Act – two-fold; the activities and discussion at this meeting and putting into action our plans for the following meeting

Act (Reflect, Understand, Plan) – our next meeting, using the mind mapping tool

The spiraling ALCs are clearly illustrated here – but there is also some hint of the overlapping nature of action learning, as the use for planning a particular meeting overlaps with the action and review within a meeting.

Action learning amongst the crocodiles

Steven Peucker (1999) used action learning to improve the acceptability of a newsletter – called Crocodile Capers – for the crocodile industry. This was a regular newsletter that was specifically aimed at practitioners within the industry, as well as potential crocodile farmers.

Starting at the Plan phase he:

  • Developed a questionnaire to review the newsletter.

Then the Act of:

  • Sending out the questionnaire to stakeholders and
  • Collecting and collating the responses.

Through the Observe phase he:

  • Interpreted the information and responses with team members
  • Gauged industry feeling towards the newsletter

And felt changes were needed after the Reflect phase:

  • More time to get articles written
  • Deal with interstate and higher industry level matters

Plan the next newsletter to:

  • Incorporate the suggestions made

Then Act once more:

  • Publish the next newsletter

Observe through:

  • Gauging any response to the 5th newsletter at the next industry seminar
  • Seek suggestions from clients as to the purpose the newsletter is serving

Finally Reflect:

  • Consider any further suggestions and incorporate these in the next newsletter
  • Re-evaluate the newsletter

The process outlined above reflects the linked on-going nature of action learning – thus it can be used as a process (tool) to provide continuous improvement when applied rigorously to extension work.


Action learning can clearly be seen as a useful driving process for the planning and conducting of extension activities from the examples above. It is the deliberate choice of process for the accredited training courses that are offered and delivered for UQ by CRRI-Q. The process is useful over a wide range of activity involving clients in agriculture and natural resource management.


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Heisswolf, S (1995) Making pest management in cabbage more interesting – learning to use action learning cycles. Learning Projects Book Vol. 1, Rural Extension Centre, Gatton

Peucker, S (1999) Crocodile Capers – An industry newsletter: gauging the acceptability and ownership as perceived by stakeholders while looking for methods of improvement. From the Field - Extension In Practice, Learning Projects – Volume 4 Rural Extension Centre, Gatton

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