Action Learning And Systems Thinking

Action Learning And Systems Thinking
Summary: When action learning participants begin to take action, they can use the questions below to guide their discussion in concert with GEMS or other process facilitation practices.

Action Learning/Systems Thinking: Connections

Action learning (AL) is a process of learning from experience and asking a group of people to think about a specific problem or phenomenon, to take action and then to reflect upon that action in a cycle of learning to address or respond to the issue. AL has often been used within organizations as a management approach to teamwork and collaboration.

One way to think about and describe action learning is to consider the space of AL across the eco-social levels. AL engages participants so one focus of attention is on the individual and their learning. An organizational focus would draw our attention to what is happening within a specific company or group, though this could be on small to grand scales. Additional foci for attention could be the relationships between organizations or how people function or act between different groups or communities. Systems thinking will offer tools for addressing greater, more comprehensive, spheres or spaces of interaction.

Thinking About The Functioning Of Systems

Bob Williams and his colleague Sjon van ‘t Hof (2016) created a resource for people thinking about the functioning of systems and how to act, create, and respond on interactive complex levels or spaces. At one point in the consideration of systems they offer a process to identify and focus in turn on three zones: understanding interrelationships, engaging perspectives, and reflecting boundaries (see points below). Interrelationship is a process of mapping connections and flows between people or the flow chart of actions, materials, and consequences in a specific space.

Questions: Interrelationships

  • What is the structure of the interrelationship(s) within the situation?
  • What are the processes between the components of the structure?
  • What is the nature of the interrelationship(s)?
  • What are the patterns that emerge from these interrelationships over time, with what consequences, and for whom?
  • What are the ways in which these complicated and complex dynamics can be identified and managed effectively? (p. 18)

Questions: Perspectives

  • Who or what are the key stakeholders within the situation?
  • What are the key stakes?
  • What are the different ways in which you can understand or frame the situation?
  • How are these different framings going to affect the way in which stakeholders act or expect, and thus need to be considered? (p. 19)

Questions: Boundaries

  • Which interrelationships are privileged, and which are marginalized?
  • What perspectives are privileged, and which are marginalized? With what effect on whom?
  • How can you manage the ethical, political, and practical consequences of these decisions, especially those that cause harm or have the potential to cause harm because they exclude an interrelationship or perspective? (p. 20)

The main inquiry in systems thinking is this: how do things connect with each other? (p. 9) Perspectives include who the stakeholders are in context, what their roles are, and what is the value or importance of the stakes related to their roles. Perspectives are the lenses through which we see something. To describe perspectives, we may complete the following phrase: "something to do with …"

The central question is, what are the different ways a situation can be understood? Addressing boundaries is an important strategic move for AL groups because actions can have specific consequences, depending upon where the boundaries are drawn; there are no "side effects." An important question is, what is in and what is out?

Initiating The Process Of Action Learning In Systems Thinking

To initiate the process, Williams and van ‘t Hof encourage participants to draw a rich picture of the context they are describing. By documenting, sketching, marking, and doodling, the rich picture is a rough tool to model the world and to see a bigger view of what is happening in a specific context. Messiness is encouraged at the start so that ideas can flow, and participants can consider, challenge, redraw, and remake their conceptions of the world and struggle to create a collective understanding of the AL issue at hand.

The participants of action learning processes are working across many levels to recognize and address the forces and dynamics in knowledge, practices, and how these practices came about. Yorks (2005) states, "there is reciprocity between the inner and outer worlds of learners as growing consciousness of their actions (or inactions) in various settings provides tensions that lead to exploration of their own contradictory feelings and belief systems" (Yorks and Kasl, 2002). Billett (2002) describes three planes of workplace pedagogic practices that focus on direction for applying what is learned in workplace settings to other spaces:

  1. Participation in work activities
  2. Guided learning at work
  3. Guided learning for transfer

Billet states, "this adaptability is aimed to be achieved through specific strategies (e.g., questioning dialogues and group discussion) to assist individuals to appraise the scope and limits of their knowledge and evaluate the prospects of its transfer to novel tasks and new circumstances. These strategies purposefully incorporate projective practices—attempts to consider how individuals’ current knowledge can be extended to use in other situations and circumstances" (p. 35).

Using Distancing Stances

Kris Guttierez and Shirin Vossoughi (2009) explain the process of social design experiments to think about the inclusion of English language learners or traditionally excluded cultural groups in formal education. They rely on the energy and participation of the people they are working with to form new relationships and processes to address the holistic needs of learners and their families.

They describe an organic process of how facilitators and actors in dialogue may use distancing stances so that assumptions may emerge to examine a problem or phenomenon: "this 'strangifying' role is particularly important to making visible the routine practices of work and educational spaces, bring to the surface potential contradictions between these practices and the objects or desired outcomes of activity" (p. 104). Public health would benefit from the creativity and the groundedness of their approach, since movement toward health equity and wellness needs creative thinking to address changes to improve the health of all people.


  • Billett, S. 2002. "Toward a workplace pedagogy: Guidance, participation, and engagement." Adult Education Quarterly 53 (1): 27–43.
  • Gutiérrez, K. D., and S. Vossoughi. 2009. "Lifting off the ground to return anew: Mediated praxis, transformative learning, and social design experiments." Journal of Teacher Education 61 (1–2): 100–117.
  • Williams, B., and S. van't Hof. 2016. Wicked solutions: A systems approach to complex problems.
  • Yorks, L. and E. Kasl. 2002. "Toward a Theory and Practice for Whole-Person Learning: Reconceptualizing Experience and the Role of Affect." Adult Education Quarterly 52 (2002): 176–192.
  • Yorks, L. 2005. "Adult Learning and the Generation of New Knowledge and Meaning: Creating Liberating Spaces for Fostering Adult Learning Through Practitioner-Based Collaborative Action Inquiry." Teachers College Record 107 (6): 1217–1244.