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Why Universities Around The World Are Implementing Action Learning

The future of our world relies on the future of higher education. As we advance as a global society, we need critical and creative thinkers to tackle the most urgent issues of our times.

But higher education is becoming more widely accessible, and it must accommodate larger cohorts and greater amounts of knowledge.

A logical response to that demand is to develop curricula that support rote teaching and learning methods. At the same time, they must also address the need for a more sophisticated intelligence that can deal with major global challenges.

How do we reconcile this conundrum?

If you’re involved in higher education, chances are you’ve heard of a relatively new concept called “action learning”.

Action learning is a problem-solving method that drives the collaboration necessary for developing effective solutions to complex inquiries. It has two major outcomes: it solves real problems, and it develops creative leaders.

On a large scale, action learning inspires critical and creative solutions to real-world problems. But it’s more nuanced than that. It also promotes collaboration between team members, and as anyone who has worked in a team environment can attest to, that’s a critical part of a company’s performance.

With such real-world success, universities all over the world have started to implement action learning in classes. The benefits are obvious:

Action learning promotes student involvement, engagement, and collaboration in real-life learning tasks. And that’s just the start.

Let’s take a look at why action learning became so popular in the business world, and consider all the ways it can improve the learning and teaching environment in universities.

What Is Action Learning?


Pioneered by scholar Reginald Revans, action learning uses a two-part method to produce creative solutions to real-world problems. Major organizations worldwide are using it as an approach to solving complex issues, and entrepreneurs recognize it as an effective method for confronting challenges and building learning-support networks.

Any business that uses action learning experiences these benefits:

●    Simplifies problems and their solutions (removes the overwhelm)

●    Improves the problem-solving process (inspires collective creation)

●    Enhances collaboration and communication (fosters better morale)

●    Provides real solutions while fostering a commitment to learning (motivates growth)

●    Encourages individual accountability for developing solutions (builds confidence)

Action learning has five components:

  1. A real and urgent problem
  2. A diverse team of people
  3. A process of critical and reflective inquiry to clarify the problem
  4. Conversion of thought into action to arrive at a possible solution
  5. An action learning coach

The third component is a major part of the method. It challenges our conventional approach to problem solving––the tendency to jump in and fix. Action learning relies on the premise that you can’t fix a problem until you know exactly what the problem is.

The difference between it and conventional problem-solving methods is that participants devote more time to refining the problem than to developing a solution. It dissects the problem from all angles, which is why a diverse team is essential to the process.

Different backgrounds, expertise, and experiences allow for several distinct perspectives and add dimension to the problem in order to clarify it. The team must reach a consensus before moving into the solution stage.

This fifth component is also a critical piece, because without action, the design loses its essence and the process squanders momentum.


“Clarity comes from engagement, not thought.”

- Marie Forleo


Action Learning: The Now of Higher Education

Action learning builds teams, encourages individual skill development, solves complex organizational problems, develops leadership, engages critical inquiry, and supports effective collaboration.

Regardless of industry or field of study, those are key skills every student needs to enter the workforce, and they’re what every enterprise requires to flourish in today’s global economy.

Indeed, one of the highlights of action learning for higher education is that it presents real problems rather than contrived learning situations. They have a global and often personal impact that students can recognize and relate to.

Action learning also positions collaboration as an intentional educative activity, rather than as a byproduct of knowledge construction or superficial pathway to pursuing information or clarification. Each student contributes their knowledge to question the problem and eventually arrive at a solution.

Group critical inquiry defines and redefines the problem and encourages perspective taking. This is a major upgrade from a unilateral approach to problem-solving common in conventional learning methods in which individuals attempt to tackle challenges autonomously. There is less emphasis on solving the actual problem than there is on how the group functions as a unit. It teaches students how to learn rather than what to learn.

Action learning supports accountability too. It’s easy for students to “hide out” in group work, eschewing tasks to more dominant team members and missing out on valuable learning opportunities. Each student actively exchanges ideas, and in the process, they confront, manage, and resolve conflict constructively and creatively. The questioning part of the process also encourages them to reflect on their limitations and strengths, which is a major component of a learner’s growth.


The Future Is In Action

Interdependent problem solving is a necessary learning exercise that contributes to the positive future of higher education. Action learning provides us with an effective method for tackling complex problems and generating solutions that have an immediate positive impact on businesses all over the world.

That’s why more and more universities around the globe are adopting action learning to prepare students to confront real-world challenges. These formal institutions are developing skilled, critical thinkers and creative problem-solvers that eventually will lead major organizations or become entrepreneurs and change agents.

Before we can get to the solution, we need to know the problem. That arises with a commitment to arm our students with the best possible mechanisms for individual and collective success.

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About the Author

Timo Kerzel is Co-Founder of TELANTO - the digital platform to engage and scale university-industry collaboration, counting on a +15 year track record in global marketing, business development and business management in various companies including SAP. He holds an Executive MBA from IESE Business School, Barcelona and his B.A. from the School of Management & Innovation (Steinbeis) in Berlin. Furthermore certified as a Design Thinking Coach from HPI in Potsdam, Timo is passionate about customer and user centric solutions, creating true value for TELANTO's “Academic Business Network” Community.

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