Action Learning: A Facilitators' Guide

Action Learning: A Facilitators' Guide
Summary: This article explores the GEMS model of action learning and offers a guide for facilitators looking to implement it.

GEMS: Gather, Evaluate, Meaning, And Speculate

Action learning is based on principles of adult learning where practicality, utility, dialogue, and experiential learning are the priorities that the action learning coach will use to guide the interactions among equals in the activity (Freire, 2000; Kolb, 1984). There are many approaches to guide the group in their discussions and actions. Curriculum is focused on what the participants know and bring to the discussion, openness to what they want to learn from multiple sources that they identify, and reflection on the action that participants take. Reflection should balance what the participants learned about the consequences of their actions in a particular field and also their perceptions, theories, and values about what is at play in the action and response (both within themselves and in the field), and how this is changing.

In environmental health, researchers attempting to understand the processes of action learning and communities of practice (Gerlak and Heikkila, 2011; Schusler, Decker, and Pfeffer, 2003) have emphasized the importance of shared goals and common purposes for the group, and also the quality and collaborative nature of the interactions and relationships of the action learning participants. The action learning facilitator should start with these goals for the group and encourage discussion and reflection on the activities planned for the learning community.

Action Learning Facilitators Guide: GEMS

The GEMS approach is one way to present and organize discussions. GEMS means the process of gathering (G), evaluating (E), uncovering the meaning of (M) and speculating (S) about the focus of learning, action, and reflection (Marquardt, Leonard, Freedman and Hill, 2009). The process could unfold in a sequential way where participants could share what they gathered, then evaluate the ideas and content that was discussed, moving next to dialogue about the meaning of what has happened and its consequences, and finally ending with speculation about how what has happened may impact the participants and outcomes in the field. In reality, there is going to be movement back and forth between the categories. An action learning coach and the learning participants themselves will gain facility in knowing when to raise the processes in turn to move the discussion forward, or to address emerging issues.

Self-Directed Learning

GEMS can be used as a map for the minds of the action learning participants and coach and may be helpful for the internal dynamics of learning, thought, and reflection. The concept of self-directed learning explained by Grow (1991) was used by Marquardt, et al., to structure each stage of GEMS, to link with a learning participant who starts out dependent (gather), becomes interested (evaluate), expands to involved (meaning) and emerges as self-directed (speculate). While this process may unfold according to their model, the approach may have more relevance to learners engaged in defined or traditional curriculum programs than to working professionals collaborating with each other to advance and sustain their practice. Action learning coaches should listen carefully to participants and gauge how self-directed they are in their discussions. We may assume that learning participants are totally self-directed since this may be a condition of their participation: why else are they here to talk about this learning? However, based upon the content or activities presented, participants may move through stages of self-direction, based on what is being talked about or what is said. Ultimately, the coach is responsible for supporting the learning needs of the participants and their collective goals. Variation in engagement may be caused by many factors, and it will be important for the coach to reflect on the whole process to consider the best moments of engagement and how these moments came about.

GEMS may also be linked with informal, incidental, and organizational learning models (Bui and Baruch, 2010; Marsick and Watkins, 2001) to give the action learning coach more tools to develop action learning through a path of sequential stages. At the gathering stage, participants are forming a team, responding to a trigger aligned with the shared goals, and defining learning strategies. To evaluate, they are viewing systems, assessing constructs, and interpreting what they discover. In the process of exploring meaning, they are creating models, examining alternatives, considering their shared values, and the lessons they are learning based on reflection and dialogue. To culminate with speculation, the participants may produce and frame alternatives guided by how effective the potential actions or responses may be to the actors in the field.


Learning is not inherently easy, pleasant, and pleasurable. The process of learning may immerse participants in frustration, confusion, anger, and tension. Action learning coaches should be aware of the possibilities of the negative feelings that participants may experience in response to action learning goals and discussions. Rogers (2002) describes the perplexity that participants may experience when they examine their experiences and actions with the intention of learning. Mezirow (1998) defines the process of a critical reflection of assumptions where specific premises are examined, and a range of feelings may result when premises are identified and challenged. Kiser (1998) explains that learners should examine dissonance in the integrative process model she describes for them to reflect on field work and service learning in communities. The action learning coach should acknowledge that some frustration and tension is a natural experience in human learning. By guiding participants to navigate through negativity, coaches may encourage participants to reach a potential outcome that may resolve this strain, present a solution to satisfy the individual learner's needs, and provide a potential course of action for the learning community.


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