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Action learning conference showcases innovation in teaching and learning

At MIT Sloan and in Chile, faculty and students are drawing lessons from hands-on work in organizations

January 9, 2015

Senior Lecturer Anjali Sastry

Senior Lecturer Anjali Sastry

Together with two Chilean universities, MIT Sloan’s Latin America office on Jan. 7 hosted a daylong conference about the benefits of action learning, an educational approach that sends student teams to work with organizations around the world. Students apply their classroom learning and share their ideas with host companies, many of which are startups in developing countries. The conference featured faculty and alumni speakers from MIT Sloan, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, and was held in Santiago, Chile on the Adolfo Ibáñez campus.

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Anjali Sastry began the conference, dubbed New Dimensions in Action Learning, with a presentation on the action learning method. She stressed that not only do students work on site with host companies, but also that they return to reflect on their experiences and present and share results from their projects with faculty and fellow students. Faculty members also work to prepare students before their trips, helping them to develop foundations in key concepts like working capital and valuation. “We want to equip students with the core fundamentals, with what they need to take action, before sending them out in the field,” said Sastry. The entire process is a loop, she said, in which students prepare, then act, then reflect on the experience.

Sastry tied students’ work in action learning projects to some of the concepts in her 2014 book, Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner, written with Kara Penn, MBA ’07. “Just because a project involved a lot of hard work does not mean it was successful,” said Sastry. But, she said, the process of post-project review and reflection can help students learn what they could have done differently and incorporate those lessons into their future work.

The day also featured presentations from deans at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez and Universidad Católica, both of whom shared details of a wide array of action learning practices initiated by their schools, many designed to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Action learning changes the professor-student relationship,” said Manola Sánchez, dean of the business school at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez. “It turns them both into active participants engaged in a discovery process.” Sánchez expanded on the theme of failure, saying that, while it “is not part of the culture in Chile,” the school is encouraging students to fail early and often to learn as much as possible—part of an effort to inspire entrepreneurial risk taking.

Ruben Mitnik and Jorge Camus, alumni of Universidad Católica and MIT Sloan, respectively, who participated in action learning projects at school and both now work in Chile, shared highlights of their experiences and the lessons they had taken with them after graduation. Mitnik recalled a professor’s support and encouragement to begin again when an experiment he had done did not go as expected. “There are some things you cannot teach in the classroom, that students must pass through themselves to be able to learn,” he said.

Camus cited the importance of a delivery deadline at the end of his action learning project, a complex airport development assignment in Ghana. “We had three weeks to show something to our clients. It wasn’t enough to just show up and give your best,” he said.

Highlights of the program included a keynote presentation by José Miguel Benavente, chief of the innovation and competitiveness division at the Inter-American Development Bank, and panels showcasing Latin American entrepreneurs who hosted action learning teams.