Thorny problem? Try Action Learning

Normal scientific debate tests new results and theories through attack and defence. This is the healthy process of peer review.

But a different approach is needed when results are confusing or the problem seems thorny.

Here, red10 ‘s Sarah Barber describes how Action Learning Groups create a different style of debate.

The nature of scientific debate

I learned the nature of normal scientific debate the hard way.

As a PhD student, I presented my first ever paper at a scientific conference. Having finished speaking – and feeling rather relieved to have got through it, I was faced with a barrage of challenging questions which were not designed to make me feel good!

The final question asked about the source of a figure that I had used multiple times in calculations. I just could not remember where I had got it from. What should I say?

Let’s pause the story whilst we think about styles of debate and their appropriateness in differing situations.

Testing new theories – trial by fire

Of course, I was naïve in my expectations of scientific conferences.

It is good and fitting that new scientific results or theories should be challenged as hard as possible by a community of experts and that the proponent should try to defend their work.

This is the tried and tested process of peer review as well as the basis of a doctoral defence. In this way new ideas are tested in the fire, and the body of scientific knowledge moves forward.

As a PhD student, I presented my first ever paper at a scientific conference. Having finished speaking – and feeling rather relieved to have got through it, I was faced with a barrage of challenging questions which were not designed to make me feel good!

Thorny problems and the role of Action Learning

Now consider a different situation.

Imagine a scientist has a collection of confusing results, or has a problem to solve that seems thorny.

Enlisting the help of a community of experts beyond their own research group requires a completely different style of debate. This is a situation in which Action Learning can be really helpful.

Action Learning was originally described by Reginald Revans, who drew on experience within his research group as a physicist at Cambridge. It asks people to be willing to describe their own ignorance, to share experiences and to communally reflect in order to learn.

Action Learning groups

Pedler and Abbott (2013) have described how Action Learning Groups (ALGs) operate. “Working in small groups, people tackle important challenges and learn from their attempts to improve things”.

Their conditions for success are that everyone: –

  • Owns a problem on which they are committed to act
  • Helps each other think through the issues and create options
  • Takes action and learns from the experience of taking that action

The debate within an ALG is not about attack and defence.

It is focused on supporting the individual to solve their own problem.

This means testing your understanding, summarising what you have heard, drawing from the individual approaches they have already tried and teasing out alternatives.

It is not about showcasing your own knowledge or about killing off a fledgling idea.  Dr Liz Browne of Oxford Brookes University has published a set of coaching questions  that can help ALGs to maintain their focus on supporting the individual to solve their own problems.

A Simple 4-Step ALG Facilitation Approach

  1. Describe your problem
  2. Ask everyone, in turn, to ‘test their understanding’ with questions,
     e.g. “Am I right in thinking that there are 3 main problems here, A, B and C?”
  3. Ask everyone again to hear their ideas and options. It’s important that these are helpful and not just an opportunity to show off intellectually
    e.g. “I’m wondering if it might be worth running a Y screen because it could show X and Z and then you’ve got a way through.”
  4. Summarize what you’ve heard and explain what action you’re thinking of taking
    e.g. “I’ve heard 4 excellent ideas. Two of them were about screening, one was about solubility and one was about toxicology. I like all of the ideas. I’m going to look into screening first as I can get that moving quickly whilst I do more research into the other options. Thank you everyone.”

Rather than asking each person in turn, you could use red10‘s Popcorn technique.

Returning to my first scientific conference

So how did I respond to the question I could not answer?

I slipped unknowingly into the alternative style of debate and described my own ignorance.

Peering into the auditorium I caught sight of my own small research group and said “I’m sorry, I don’t know. Perhaps one of my group can help me?”

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