Action Learning

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An article about permaculture and Action Learning. The original article is here. Please feel free to edit and adapt this version as a discussion document.

LESSONS FROM THE CHERRY PLUM- A personal view of Permaculture, Action Learning and 'the 4 Questions'

Sometimes it seems that there are as many definitions of permaculture as there are permaculturists- this is a good and healthy thing- it’s important that permaculture is a living, evolving and changing body of thought, not a dead and static set of rules and prescriptions (in fact in one sense 'Permaculture' is anything but 'Permanent'!!!). One thing that sets permaculture apart from many other contemporary disciplines is it’s tendency to avoid the artificial divisions between 'academics' and 'doers'- Not always the norm in our fragmented culture where specialists and experts insist on separating left and right brain thinking but never get their hands dirty. In other words, permaculture isn't either 'all theory' or 'all practice', but in fact is a holistic synthesis of the two.

Good permaculture design is about developing powers of observation, deduction and problem-solving by working with nature’s patterns- ideally being intuitively alert and tuning in to the messages and energies which come from the living earth around us. In traditional cultures such wisdom and knowledge has often been communicated down through generations, learning the forms of the trees, the lie of the land, the songs of the soil, and what these all mean.... But most of us, through no fault of our own, have now forgotten the instinctively earthright ways. We live in an industrialised and commodified society where the cycles have been broken. Most of us simply don’t have ‘earthright’ ethics and skills passed on down to us by our parents and elders anymore. But if we are to once again be reconnected, sustainable ways will need to be relearned, and that isn't going to just fall out of the sky. Most of us are going to need stepping stones to help us on the way, and just as we can use hand tools to assist us when we cultivate our land, so too we can develop ‘thinking tools’ to make the job easier.

Modelled on how people actually learn from experience, The 'Action Learning Cycle’ is one useful addition to our tool-kit. Although it might sound like something that escaped from a management-training manual, in reality it’s simply a step by step cyclical process of task analysis following a pattern of Research, Plan, Act, Reflect... I suspect that most of us to some extent do this all the time anyway on a subconscious/ instinctive level and maybe don't feel a need to go through this in a formalised way or to record our thoughts. However, for people like me, who tend to have quite disorganised and cluttered mental processes, it can be helpful to use this cycle on a conscious/deliberate level from time to time.


This doesn't have to be some heavy, rigorous process- I have a small back garden, not much more than 28’ x 17’, into which I've planted a number of fruiting trees, mainly on dwarfing rootstocks. A few years ago a friend gave me a cherry plum- at the time it was about 6" high and looked pretty inoffensive in it’s pot. However, 5 years on it's about 20' tall and showing no signs of slowing down. It's a lovely tree with delicious melt in the mouth golden fruits, and in some ways it's great that it's done so well. However I think I finally have to face the fact that it's in the wrong place, and will have to cut it down. Maybe I’ll coppice it, or perhaps propagate it from it’s fruit stones or root suckers and try growing cherry plums at a more appropriate site, maybe a local forest garden project where I might have a go at training it as a fruiting hedge... A straightforward story of the average permaculture plot I’m sure, but it might be useful to see how the stages of an Action Learning Cycle could apply here.

RESEARCH; 6 or 7 years ago I read somewhere that cherry plums are quite tasty and decided I'd like to grow some in my garden.

PLAN; I spotted a place in the garden that I thought might be suitable for a cherry plum.

ACT; I planted a 6-inch tall cherry plum seedling that a friend gave me.

REFLECT; 6 years later it's 20 ft tall and still going, so it's clear that I've planted it in an inappropriate place.

So now I'm on the second round of the cycle;

RESEARCH; I've been asking questions, reading books and chatting to people about cherry plums, getting different views and opinions, gathering data about them....

PLAN; Now I'm thinking about what to do next- shall I coppice it? Grub it out? Leave it alone and just hope that it will stop growing? Shall I plant cherry plums in my forest garden? As standards, coppiced, or as a 'fedge'?

ACT; Hopefully I'll make the best decisions possible with the information I now have and the assessments I'm thus able to make.

REFLECT; Where I'll probably realise that I've got it wrong again and go back to the beginning of the cycle once more. Or maybe I’ve got it right- how can I then transfer the lessons and knowledge I’ve gained to other situations...

OK, so maybe that’s just too painfully obvious and like common sense for most readers, but how many of us DON'T actually participate in action learning cycles and just go through life making the same mistakes over and over again? If my response were to say; "Oh well, that cherry plum was a bit big for my garden. Still, I'll cut it down and put another one in the same spot and with a bit of luck it won't grow so big this time", then clearly I wouldn't have learned from my experiences... A laughable example- who'd be that daft? Yet how many of us are just like that with the things that are REALLY important, like the patterns we get into in our lives, relationships and behaviours, the negative ways of being that cause us anger, hurt and disempowerment over and over again?

Magnify this to a macro/global level, and it doesn't take much to see that we are living in a society/culture/world where we clearly DON’T experientially learn. We KNOW that greenhouse gasses, pollution, soil erosion, industrialised agriculture, car culture, militarism, consumerism, etc, are messing us up and killing us, but are we as a species observing, absorbing the lessons and amending our behaviours? Doesn't look like it from where I'm standing right now...

At the moment Action Learning and other creative and positive thinking tools aren't taught much in the schools of the world. But by ‘thinking globally but acting locally’ or ‘starting at the end of our noses’, permaculturists and other earthright world-change workers can make positive use of such techniques, particularly in community or group development settings, where meetings often have a habit of being lengthy, boring, indecisive and divisive. Focused attention to the ‘Research, Plan, Act, Reflect’ cycle can have real meaning and value when applied to questions such as; "Why is our LETS scheme failing?"; "How can we develop a safe and sustainable integrated traffic system in our town centre?"; "How can we ensure our box scheme is economically viable?"; "How do we complete a successful funding application?", "How do we plan our next permaculture course to be fully inclusive?" Equally, Action Learning can be invaluable within the context of our individual personal development, particularly when utilising the ‘Set’ model.


An ‘Action Learning Set’ (sometimes called a 'Vision Support Group') will typically consist of three to four people who agree to meet on a regular basis, say, every couple of months, to address and reflect on the common issues that concern them. Each person will take it in turns to speak, uninterrupted, for between twenty minutes to half an hour, whilst the remainder of the group will give high quality focused listening attention. In itself this is something of a rarity in our high speed, sound bite culture- good listening is a skill that needs to be learned and practised. It is important to emphasise that the purpose of this session is not so much to elicit advice or assistance from the rest of the group, as it is a way of providing a chance for the speaker to clarify their own thought processes. To work things through by literally ‘thinking out loud’, and thus finding their own ways forward.

To be successful, an Action Learning Set requires a number of ground rules, agreed in advance by all participants- these might include;

  • ‘Equal time for all participants to speak’
  • 'Give good listening attention to the person speaking'
  • ‘No interrupting’
  • ‘No judgements’
  • ‘No rescuing'- or offering to help or advise, however well meant (Remember- this is YOUR space to work out your problems and solutions!)
  • ‘Speak in the first person' (Take ownership of your statements- "I think…", "I say…", not "people think…", "People say…")
  • ‘The proceedings of the meeting will be kept confidential between participants’ (An Action Learning Set is all about trust and creating a safe space)
  • ‘The Set will meet for an agreed amount of time, to be clearly differentiated from any other events which may occur once structured Set business is concluded’ (End the session with a small ritual, eg, a handclap or ring a bell, in order to 'mark' it's closure and ensure that 'Set stuff' isn't carried over into, say, the pub socialising afterwards)

It also helps to create the right conditions- an informal atmosphere, with soft lights, no distractions, comfy furnishings (cushions on the floor?) and refreshing non-alcoholic drinks on hand can be provided anywhere- somebody's front room (or back garden) would do just fine!


Set participants might find it helpful to create a structure around which to hang their thinking. The following four questions can be useful in providing such a framework, and are often used in permaculture support sessions;

  • What is going well for me? This is an empowering way of reflecting on and celebrating our achievements so far and our capacity to do well. It is deliberately addressed first as a way of setting a positive tone, a contrast to our often deeply ingrained habit of complaining and seeing ourselves in a negative light.
  • What am I finding difficult, or could I be doing differently? Often the very act of speaking about what appear to be barriers and difficulties can result in ways forward becoming apparent, in developing new perspectives and alternative answers that reduce the difficulties that we perceive... Remember the permaculture principle that ‘The solution lies in the problem...’
  • What is my long term vision or goal? Spend some time creating a solid picture in your head of where you want to be. Developing a clear vision of our own long term aims and objectives can be one of the most important steps towards turning them into reality, whether it’s to build your own straw bale house, become a Tai Chi master, reduce your personal Ecological Footprint to zero or buy and manage from your own sustainable woodland...
  • What is my next achievable step? Moving towards realising that goal is a pathway of change, and like any journey needs to be undertaken in manageable stages. What practical steps can you take today? Enrol on that gardening evening class? Get your rusty old bike out of the shed? Join your local LETS system? In much the same way as the road signs will change as you travel from London to Glasgow, so the next phases of your personal journey (your future ‘next achievable steps’) will become apparent as their relevance arises. And remember these are YOUR next achievable steps, not anybody else's.

Using Action Learning Set methods may seem awkward, stilted and artificial at first, but with practice can be highly effective, allowing a release of emotions and ideas that we might not otherwise be used to openly expressing. Participants can be free to develop their own avenues of thought, laugh a lot, cry, be at a loss for words and make mistakes which might otherwise be 'forbidden'. Paradoxically, what might initially appear to be it's somewhat overly structured approach can unleash wild thinking, new perspectives and fresh approaches, leading to enhanced understanding, insights and creativity that we can apply to our permaculture work.

The theory and practice of Action Learning is covered in greater depth in 'The Permaculture Academy Of Britain Action Learning Manual' by Andy Langford (1997).

Thanks to Stefania Strega, Andy Langford and Janet Baraclough for their inputs and comments.

Further readingEdit

  • David Kolb, Experiential Learning, Experience As The Source Of Learning & Development, 1984, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall
  • Andy Langford, Designing Productive Meetings & Events- How To Increase Participation & Enjoyment, South Oxfordshire District Council

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