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How action learning supports long term leadership development outcomes

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Have you ever taken a class that felt less like school, and more like fun? Chances are, your teacher asked thoughtful questions, facilitated lively discussion, and encouraged group work. Your learning felt natural, and it probably stuck.   

Your experience wasn’t mere coincidence. It was an example of action-learning.

What is action learning?

Rosa Cendros, Senior Learning Experience Designer at The Ivey Academy, says that action-learning falls under the umbrella of constructivist theories. Constructivism suggests that people learn more effectively when they can connect content with what they already know, and that each learner can - and should - make learning useful to their real problems.

In other words, action-learning is rooted in gaining knowledge through doing. Unlike more traditional teaching methods where students are often passive listeners, action-learning prioritizes communication, creativity, collaboration, and continuous improvement. The goal is to put what you’ve learned into practice, and then to examine and learn from the results.   

“It’s about learning for action, and learning from action,” Cendros says.

A brief history of action-learning

The action-learning approach to problem-solving was pioneered by British professor and management consultant, Reg Revans (1907 – 2003). Originally a doctoral student in astrophysics, Revans was inspired by the way scientists recognize their own ignorance, share experience, and work together to advance knowledge.

Revans applied his observations while working for the United Kingdom’s National Coal Board in the 1940s, discovering that managers were most effective when they tackled specific challenges together, in small groups.

Why action-learning?

“Action-learning as a pedagogy was specifically designed to solve business problems, so it’s very applicable to executive education and leadership development,” says Cendros.

The method is particularly effective at solving complex problems and developing leadership skills because it encourages people to ask questions, exchange information, and work together to find creative strategies and solutions.

By working in small groups, participants learn how to be active listeners, and to consider alternate perspectives before developing a plan. In addition, action-learning asks leaders to reflect and learn from the outcomes of any action taken.

How action-learning is used at Ivey

“For us, action-learning is about putting what you’ve learned into practice,” says Bryan Benjamin, Executive Director at They Ivey Academy. “Our goal is to give leaders tools and experiences that they can apply.”

While Ivey’s Case Study method is not the same as action-learning, both are focused on problem-solving centered around a real-world problem. “Students read the case, come in, and have an interactive conversation guided by faculty,” Benjamin explains. “So, you’re wrestling with the case, you’re learning and growing, and you’re pushing yourself and your classmates.”

Peer-learning is central to the experience, with participants working together to investigate the problem.  

Role-play is another example of learning by doing at Ivey. Whether students are acting out scenarios with their peers, or with a professional actor, the experience gives participants an opportunity to practice a variety of difficult conversations that they may face in the workplace.

“Role-play allows participants to get live feedback from the person who’s on the receiving end,” says Benjamin. “And it’s not just about what is being said, it’s about body language and how you are interacting.” 

Action-learning projects

Perhaps the most on-the-nose application of action learning practices is through Action Learning Projects. These projects are sometimes integrated into the fabric of our Leadership programs, and are a core tenet of the Advanced Impact Certificate pathways, completed through the Ivey Action Learning Studio.

In the project structure, individuals are asked to identify a need or opportunity present within their organization and through the help of coaching, reflecting with peers, and faculty insights, the individuals come up with a unique and comprehensive action plan for implementing change within their workplaces. Leaders receive the valuable learning opportunity of practicing their learning within their own context at work while receiving ongoing support through coaching when they face challenges in the implementation process.

“Tying a person’s learning outcomes directly to taking action in their organization allows them to really understand how the new skills they’ve developed can be used within their actual day-to-day work experiences, ultimately building their confidence in tackling future endeavors,” Cendros explains.

The benefits of action-learning

“We know that people learn better when they learn in community, when they are presented with agency and choice, and when the content is relevant for them,” Cendros says. Ivey’s hands-on approach creates immediate practice opportunities for theoretical learning done in the classroom, where participants benefit from a safe feedback loop that allows for long-term change.

“Having the chance to learn, practice, test, and immediately refine makes the learning stick,” adds Benjamin. Many of Ivey’s programs have follow-on coaching, he notes, allowing learners to receive ongoing feedback and support. “Learning is not a distinct event that you do throughout your career. It’s a lifelong habit that allows you to continually improve.” 



This article was written by Nicole Laidler. Nicole is a Western University graduate, BA '03, MA Journalism '04, and an award-winning journalist and content creator. To see what else she’s been writing lately visit

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About The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School

The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School is the home for executive Learning and Development (L&D) in Canada. It is Canada’s only full-service L&D house, blending Financial Times top-ranked university-based executive education with talent assessment, instructional design and strategy, and behaviour change sustainment. 

Rooted in Ivey Business School’s real-world leadership approach, The Ivey Academy is a place where professionals come to get better, to break old habits and establish new ones, to practice, to change, to obtain coaching and support, and to join a powerful peer network. Follow the Ivey Academy on LinkedInTwitterFacebook, and Instagram.