4 min read

Try this experiment. Ask your staff, how do people keep a bicycle upright when they ride it? You will get some interesting answers. But you’ll probably not get the scientific answer — the one that has something to do with centrifugal force and shifting the angle of the wheel in inverse proportion to the bicycle’s angle to the earth when it begins to fall. This is because we naturally understand that learning to ride a bicycle takes more than words. In fact, learning has not taken place until the learner puts the concepts into practice, until they get on the bicycle and begin riding.

One study of effective managers found the key factors were not academic achievement but competency in management, problem solving, planning, delegating, inspiring, leading change, resolving conflicts, and interpersonal communicating, all of which are people-intensive skills. In most universities today, however, students are given only a smattering of real-time workplace experience. They learn theories about management in the sterile context of the classroom–theories often based on solutions designed to answer yesterday’s questions–many of which must be unlearned because they no longer make sense in today’s business environment.

A fresh approach is needed in the educational world, one that seeks to recover the ancient practice of learning by doing. Before the industrialization of education, students experimented with possible solutions to problems, tested their solutions, pondered the results, adjusted their theories to the realities of their results, and then came back to tackle the problem again. This is the cycle of Action Learning.

The time has arrived to rethink model-T style mass-produced education, classroom-bound education. education measured by credit hours rather than the ability to produce successful solutions, education answering questions before they are asked, education consisting mainly of filling empty heads with words. An approach is needed that fuses good information with good practice and thereby prepares students for today’s challenges.

More important than learning a “body of information,” management students today need to gain the ability to adapt to real-life situations they will face in the workplace. A farmer’s seed has no effect until it is planted in the soil. In the same way, cognitive learning has no effect until it is planted in the soil of real-time experience. Leadership quality is produced in the crucible of life experience.

I’m suggesting the professor’s role may need to change from a source of information to a facilitator of processes — one who encourages the process of learning by experience. This model would change the educational program from providing answers to unasked questions into helping students discover answers to questions born from their own experience. Once action spawns questions, these questions can also direct the university as it learns more effective ways to prepare leaders. By expansively understanding today’s business context and the people with whom they will relate, students in an Action Learning project will be better prepared for management in the real world.

The Action Learning model sees learning as the product of tackling real problems in real situations. By taking the approach of Action Learning students would not be required to wait until they graduate to begin doing something real. Their education would not be hypothetical; instead of learning prior to action, they would learn through action.

Learning divorced from action can produce only a caricature of leadership. To avoid this, the student’s education needs to include the development of people skills and these can only be learned by engaging in real management. What about a system where, each year, new recruits would join an Action Management Cohort Team whose main learning activity would be a real entrepreneurial project? What if the main evidence for a successful education would be the launching of a new small business enterprise? How would the world be different if educational institutions all began to measure success by the production of workable solutions and not just by the accurate reproduction of past learning?

What might that look like?


The lead illustration was adapted from a clipart.com photo.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.