Using an action learning model

This is an edited version of a case study originally published in the 2017 Excellence in Professional Practice Conference Case studies of practice book.

Campbelltown Performing Arts High School (CPAHS) has implemented a highly successful whole school innovation and improvement agenda through the strategic and comprehensive implementation of action learning (AL) projects over 10 years.

CPAHS has an enrolment of 1100 students from Years 7-12, with approximately 35 per cent coming from a language background other than English across 56 language groups. The school enjoys a strong focus on Aboriginal education and culture, with 112 Aboriginal students supported through leadership and partnership programs.

The AL process began in 2006, with two teams investigating how the implementation of identified reading strategies within cross-curriculum units of work impacted on students' reading skills. The success of this iteration led to subsequent AL projects on other targeted areas for improvement, including Aboriginal education, formative assessment, the use of technology and the impact of flexible spaces on learning outcomes.

This approach to professional learning, developed in collaboration with academic partners from Western Sydney University (WSU), has built a strong culture of teachers as ‘practitioner-researchers' at a whole school level. CPAHS has consistently used AL to build teachers' understanding and capacity across more than 25 projects on a range of new and emerging pedagogies to deepen student engagement and improve learning outcomes for students. Most recently, this includes AL projects on peer and self-assessment, personalised learning, project-based learning and co-created learning. All projects are informed by extensive professional learning for participating teachers and are underpinned by rigorous and comprehensive evaluation plans.

CPAHS was awarded the 2015 New South Wales Department of Education Secretary's School Achievement Award in recognition of the success of this model.

Research-informed practice

AL is a model of collaborative professional learning that is based on the belief that, when teachers are provided with the opportunity and structures to share their expertise and critically reflect on their practice, they can identify and resolve significant learning challenges. AL is an iterative approach to professional learning that values teachers as both a source of knowledge and users of knowledge to generate new ideas and practices. The model of AL implemented at CPAHS has drawn from a range of sources (Aubusson, Ewing & Hoban, 2009; Brady, Aubusson & Dinham, 2006; Dinham, 2016) and has been refined each year following feedback from participants.

Leaders of AL teams at CPAHS have drawn from Lingard and Renshaw's assertion that teachers must take on a ‘researcherly disposition' to improve their practice and that this is further strengthened when ‘research-informed' teachers collaborate with researchers (Lingard, & Renshaw, 2009). Hence, the AL model at CPAHS has been refined for over 10 years in collaboration with academic partners from WSU, most notably Professor Wayne Sawyer. The capacity of teachers to engage in AL at CPAHS has been strengthened through professional learning, co-developed and delivered by school leaders and tertiary-based researchers.

A consistent focus on student engagement within and across AL projects at CPAHS has been influenced by Munns, Sawyer and Cole's Teachers for a Fair Go3, an action research project on student engagement among low-SES primary school students in Sydney's South West. Aligned with the project is the REAL framework (Munns, & Woodward, 2006), which offers a three-dimensional model of reflection questions for students to consider and share their thoughts and feelings about their learning at cognitive, affective and operative levels. The leadership team at CPAHS has worked in collaboration with WSU academics to develop a teacher reflection tool using the REAL framework to gain insight into teachers' engagement, progress and challenges throughout the implementation of each project. These ongoing teacher reflections provide insight into both individual teachers' perceptions as each project progresses as well as insight into teachers' perceptions within and across AL projects.

Earl and Timperley's work on evaluative thinking for successful innovation in education (Earl & Timperley, 2015) has also been a key influence on the evaluation approach used in every AL project at CPAHS, particularly over the past three years. This approach sees AL teams collecting data and analysing evidence throughout implementation and responding to the ‘twists and turns' of the innovation as it unfolds. The school leadership team has worked closely with WSU academics to develop a set of evaluation tools based on the principles of evaluative thinking which includes focus groups, surveys, work sample analysis, teacher reflections, photo voice and photo elicitation, interviews and video analysis. Teams select evaluation tools that best suit the focus of their project and draw from other data sources including pre- and post-tests, and external data.

Action learning teams

The AL teams at CPAHS consist of between six to eight participants, including two leaders. Participation is voluntary with teachers selecting an area of professional interest for their research. Approximately 75 per cent of the current staff has participated in AL projects and there are many teachers who elect to participate every year. Teams are led by pairs of teachers, often consisting of an executive teacher (Head Teacher or Deputy Principal) and an experienced classroom teacher. Each project cycle lasts for one school year, with teams typically planning in Term 1, implementing in Terms 2-3 and finalising evaluation and reporting in Term 4.

Professional learning and support is provided to team leaders by the principal and academic partners and all participants are released for four half days to work on key elements of the project throughout the year, in addition to meeting regularly for planning, to discuss evidence and to provide feedback to each other. As part of this process, teams are provided with scaffolds and support material to formulate research questions, plan for implementation, develop an evaluation framework, identify appropriate evaluation tools and write a report. They are also provided with timeframes and an online space for curation of material.

Where teams are investigating areas previously explored by other teams, they build on previous iterations of AL by accessing previous reporting findings and tools. Each team also draws on research relevant to the field of their project. The finding of AL projects are shared with all teachers via whole school professional learning, including TeachMeet style presentations, and the reports are available for all staff. Many of the school's common practices – including the extensive use of peer and self-assessment, project-based learning, and the use of flexible learning spaces – have been adopted and scaled following successful AL projects.

Impact of action learning at CPAHS

During initial planning, teams identify data sources that are fit for purpose, before triangulating them and discussing their ‘trustworthiness' as part of the evaluation and reporting process throughout implementation. Hence, the qualitative and quantitative data collected and analysed is different for each AL project. Every project, however, uses teacher REAL framework reflections to gather consistent data across teams on teachers' perceptions regarding the impact of AL on their own learning.

Typical responses from these reflections include:

‘Working as a team member, I feel less pressure; I know that different people will bring different things to the mix and I don't feel solely responsible for the success of the project. It makes me more likely to take risks as I am able to compare my outcomes with other team members and learn from these experiences …'

‘I do feel that I was given permission to make mistakes and that was a positive, liberating experience. Working within the AL team has provided me with support and the opportunity to discuss ideas prior to potentially implementing them.'

‘I saw the students change from being disinterested and believing they weren't good at anything to becoming engaged and feeling better about themselves in the classroom.'

Analysis of AL reports and the evidence sets within indicate that, at a whole school level, AL at CPAHS has:

  • Fostered a culture of innovation and evidence-informed practice;
  • Improved teacher understanding of how to plan, implement, reflect upon and evaluate their teaching practice;
  • Broadened teacher understanding of how to effectively implement a range of new and emerging pedagogies;
  • Increased teacher collaboration through cross-curriculum teams;
  • Built leadership density through a strategic approach to the leadership of teams;
  • Enhanced student agency through personalisation, authentic and sustained connections to community and co-created learning;
  • Increased student engagement across years and subjects; and
  • Improved student learning outcomes in a range of areas.

The implementation of AL has been a highly effective and transformative approach to teacher professional learning at CPAHS and beyond. This model has provided teachers with the processes, time and space to continually improve practice and to explore new and emerging pedagogies. AL projects have supported teachers to engage in collaborative research, directly related to the work of teaching within their school context, impacting significantly on both teacher and student knowledge and skills.

There is a need to continue to build the capacity of teachers to use a range of data sources for evaluation purposes, including strengthened understanding of how to engage in logic modelling during planning and implementation phases. The codification of the AL process and evaluation tools at CPAHS has recently supported 28 other schools to successfully implement AL projects to address contextual learning challenges, indicating a potential for further diffusion and scaling across the profession.


Aubusson, P., Ewing, R., & Hoban, G. (2009) Action Learning in Schools: Reframing Teachers' Professional Learning and Development. London: Routledge Education.

Brady, L., Aubusson, P., & Dinham, S. (2006). Action learning for school improvement. Educational Practice and Theory, 28 (2), pp. 27-39.

Dinham, S. (2016) Leading Learning and Teaching. Camberwell, Victoria: ACER Press.

Lingard, B., & Renshaw, P. (2009) Teaching as a research-informed and research-informing profession in A. Campbell & S. Groundwater-Smith (eds), Connecting inquiry and professional learning. London: Routledge, pp. 26-39.

Munns, G., Sawyer, W., Cole, B. (Eds.) (2013) Exemplary Teachers of Students in Poverty. London: Routledge.

Munns, G., & Woodward, H. (2006). Student engagement and student self-assessment: the REAL framework. Assessment in education: principles, policy & practice. 13(2), 193-213.

Earl, L., & Timperley, H. (2015), Evaluative thinking for successful educational innovation, OECD Education Working Papers. No. 122.

This is an edited version of a case study originally published in the 2017 Excellence in Professional Practice Conference Case studies of practice book.

This school has worked with academics from Western Sydney University to develop its action learning model.

As a school leader, what opportunities exist to build partnerships with universities and community organisations in order to make use of external expertise to support:

  • the professional development needs of staff?
  • the learning needs of students?