As a parent, teacher, or supervisor, we constantly teach. We draw from our experience and share wisdom to others where we believe there knowledge is lacking. Yet, as I age, I have come to understand, that teaching is much more than well-presented words. Words seldom spark impactful change.
Perhaps, we are too stubborn to incorporate knowledge from words. Or, perhaps, learning from simple sentences is dangerous, and our slowness is an adaptive protection. Teaching, and, of course, learning are complex. We learn in a variety of ways. An important vehicle to expansion of knowledge is experience. Yet, experience doesn’t magically lead to learning. There are processes involved.
Davis Kolb, an American educational theorist, “describes learning as the process whereby knowledge is constructed through the transformation of experience.” Heather K. Spence Laschunger RN, PhD. explains, “learning is a lifelong process resulting from continual person-environment interaction and involves feeling, perceiving, thinking and behaving” (1990, p. 985).
Whenever there is a process, we can find a model representing a theory of that process. One of the early models is experiential learning theory, attributed to Kolb.
In the early 1970’s David Kolb and Ron Fry developed the experiential learning theory. I tracked down an early publication of their theory in a book (Theories of Group Processes) published in 1975.
Often the theory is only attributed to David Kolb. I seen it repeatedly referred to as Kolb’s experiential learning theory. Experiential learning theory is defined as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience” (Eckhaus & Sheaffer, 2018).
Development of Experiential Learning Theory
As far back as Plato, there was discussion on the role of experience in learning. However, traditional learning of classroom settings and books dominated curriculum throughout history. People still learned from experience, participating in complex tasks with skilled practitioners. However, learning was provided without theoretical structure.
John Dewey (1859-1952), American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, presented in a lecture that, “there is a need of forming a theory of experience in order that education may be intelligently conducted on the basis of experience” (1938).
Kolb, following Dewey’s call, took on the challenge. Kolb explains, “the new experiential approach to education needed a sound theory of experience to guide its conduct” (2005, p. 193).
John Dewey effectively ushered in a wave of interest in the power of experience in the learning process. Jayson Seaman, Mike brown, and John Quay wrote, “the origins of experiential learning in human relations training” began in the 1940s. They continue, “the phrase itself (experiential learning) began to circulate in the 1950’s and proliferated in the 1960s and 1970s as authors published schematic models based on their involvement in therapeutic and adult education practices…” (2017).
Basic Skills Training and T-Groups
A wave of training groups originally called Basic Skills Training (BST), and later simply called known T-groups began to increase in popularity. Carl Rogers introduced some of the techniques to his group counseling.
It was in this historical environment that John Kolb developed experiential learning theory. Kolb and Fry’s presentation of experiential learning theory comprised one single chapter in a book dedicated to theories of group processes.
In a future paper, Kolb recognized the influence of “prominent 20th century scholars who gave experience a central role in their theories of human learning and development—notably John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, jean Piaget, William James, Carl Jung, Paulo Freire, Carl Rogers, and others…” (2005, p. 194).
Four Stages of Learning
Kolb and Fry propose that concrete experiences are the best way to learn. Their theory of learning describes a four-stage learning cycle:
- concrete experience (CE),
- reflective observation on that experience (RO),
- formation of abstract conceptualization based upon the reflection (AC),
- active experimentation of the new concepts (AE),
Kendra Cherry wrote, “according to Kolb, concrete experience provides information that serves as a basis for reflection. From these reflections, we assimilate the information and form abstract concepts” (2022).
Kolb and Fry explain that “the underlying insight of experimental learning is deceptively simple, namely that learning, change, and growth are best facilitated by an integrated process that begins with (1) here and now experience followed by (2) collection of data and observation about that experience.” They continue (3), “the data are then analyzed and the conclusions of the analysis are fed back to the actors in the experience for their use in the (4) modification of their behavior and choice of new experiences” (1975, p. 33-34).
Kolb wrote, “experiential learning is a process of constructing knowledge that involves creative tension among the four learning modes that are responsive to contextual demands. This process is portrayed an idealized learning cycle or spiral where the learner “touches all bases”—experiencing, reflecting, thinking and acting—in a recursive process that is responsive to learning situations and what is being learned” (2005, p. 194).
Experiential Learning Theory Compared to the Other Prominent Learning Theories
Experiential learning theory departed from the other prominent theories of the time. This learning theory emphasized the role of concrete experience in learning, in contrast from cognitive models that focused on the role of cognition over affect, and behavioral learning theories that denied the role of subjective experience in learning.
Kolb’s learning theory is a hybrid model of the behavioral and cognitive models of learning. Kolb and Fry describe their model of learning as emphasizing “that learning and change result from integration of concrete emotional experiences with cognitive processes: conceptual analysis and understanding” (1975, p. 34).
According to Kolb, it is through the cognitive process we label and relabel concrete experience, creating clear feedback from experience to modify behaviors, refining adaptations to better interact with environments.
Tension in the Learning Process
Learning is an expansion of the mind, moving beyond the comforts, challenging old thoughts, and experimenting with something new. ”Learning by its very nature is a tension and conflict filled process” (p. 35).
The the skills necessary for four stages of Kolb’s experimental learning theory naturally conflict:
- Concrete Experience (CE) vs. Reflection (AC)
- Observation (RO) vs. Active Doing (AE)
Kolb explains, “the experimental learning model depicts learning as a process of conflict, confrontation, and resolution” between these four basic ways of relating to the world (p. 37).
Individual Learning Styles
The four stages of learning are impacted by individual attitudes and abilities. We are naturally inclined to ways of thinking and learning, and develop through environmental exposures. According to our individualized skill set, we learn better from some stages while struggling to implement other stages in our process of acquiring knowledge.
Kolb and Fry explain, “as a result of our hereditary equipment, our particular past life experience and the demands of our present environment most people develop learning styles that emphasize some learning abilities over others” (p. 37).
Kolb and Fry’s experimental learning theory found its way into schools and management courses mostly through their theories on learning styles. The underlying concept is if people learn through different strengths and weakness than teacher can be more effective by identifying individual student’s particular learning styles.
Some people excel at conceptual learning, while others need concrete experience. Some learn through trial and error, while others prefer reflection.
To assist teaching through identifying individual learning styles, Kolb developed the Learning Style Inventory.
Learning Style Inventory (LSI)
LSI measures an individual’s strengths and weakness as a learner by identifying their relative emphasis on the four learning abilities: concrete experience (feeling), reflective observation (watching), abstract conceptualization (thinking), and active experimentation (doing).
The LSI is performed by having the person being evaluated rank several groupings of four words in order of importance. Each of the four words represents one of the four learning abilities. The person will perform this task and multiple word groups. Based upon the individuals rankings of the words, the LSI places the individual within one of four learning styles: the Converger, the Diverger, the Assimilator, and the Accomodator.
Kolb’s studies indicated that learning styles are well correlated with career choices.
The converger learning style is designated by high scores on abstract conceptualizations (AC) and Active Experimentation (AE). The converger’s strengths lies in the practical application of ideas. They prefer conventional problems with a single correct answer.
Kolb and fry explain that the converger’s knowledge is organized in such a way that, through hypothetical deductive reasoning, they can focus on specific problems. Divergers are “relatively unemotional, preferring to deal with things other than people” (p. 38). They excel at testing out theories or ideas in practical situations.
Key skills of the converger learning style are:
- creating new ways of thinking and doing
- experimenting with new ideas
- choosing the best solution
- setting goals
- making decisions
Divergers have the opposite strengths of the converger. They are strong with concrete experience (CE) and reflective observation (RO) skills. They “prefer concrete, people oriented learning experiences” (Spence Laschinger, 1990). Kolb describes the diverger’s key strength in their imaginative ability. They are able to “view concrete situations from many perspectives and to organize many relationships into a meaningful ‘gestalt'” (1975, p. 38).
Divergers are interested in people and tend to be imaginative and emotional. They often specialize in humanities and liberal arts.
Key skills for the diverger learning style are:
- being sensitive to peoples feelings
- being sensitive to values
- listening with an open mind
- gathering information (brainstorming)
- imagining implications of ambiguous situations
The assimilator’s dominant learning abilities are abstract conceptualization (AC) and reflective observation (RO). The assimilators greatest strength is found in their ability to create theoretical models, such as the one you are reading about now.
The assimilator “excels in inductive reasoning: in assimilating disparate observations into integrated explanations” (1975, p. 39). The assimilator “tend to prefer symbolic thoughtful learning experiences,” excelling at developing meaningful conceptualizations of concrete experiences.
The assimilators learning style is characteristic of basic sciences, mathematics, and other applied science. The assimilator learning style is most often found in research and development.
Key skills for the assimilator learning style:
- organize information
- building conceptual models
- testing theories and ideas
- designing experiments
- analyzing quantitative data
The accommodator’s strengths are on opposite side of the matrix from the assimilator. Their strengths lie in concrete experience (CE) and active experimentation (AE). The accommodators greatest strength lie in doing things, working towards goals through trial and error mini experiments. The accomodator is a risk taker, learning from failures as a means of gaining knowledge. The accomodator adapts to contextual surroundings, finding the best response under given circumstances.
Key skills for the accommodator learning style:
- Committing to objectives
- seeking and exploiting opportunities
- influencing and leading others
- being personally involved
- dealing with people
In 2005, Kolb updated his learning style grid, adding five additional learning styles, but still utilizing the same basic four learning modes. He explains, “recent theoretical and empirical work is showing that the original four learning styles—assimilating, converging, accommodating, and diverging—can be expanded to show nine distinct styles” (p. 197). The additional styles are identified as Northerner, Easterner, Southerner, and Westerner. A fifth additional style is central to all the learning modes and identified as Balancer.
Each style can be seen on the chart below in relation to its learning mode strengths.
Three Phases of Growth In the Experiential Learning Model
Kolb argues that the experiential learning theory applies to life, not just educational development. Learning is a part of human development and a critical part of childhood development. Certainly, our mode of learning impacts much broader areas than career choices and occupational strengths.
Kolb explains that experiential learning theory can be applied to life skills such as “decision-making, problem-solving, and life style in general” (1975, p. 40).
Kolb divides human growth into three broad developmental stages: acquisition, specialization, and integration.
Kolb explains that “through these three stages, growth proceeds from a state of embeddedness, defensiveness, dependency, and reaction to a state of self-actualization, independence, pro-action, and self-direction” (p. 41).
The first stage of acquisition begins at birth and continues through adolescence. During this period the child acquires basic learning abilities and cognitive structures.
Specialization occurs through formal education and career training, coupled with early experiences of adulthood in work and personal life. Kolb suggests that during “this stage, development primarily follows paths that accentuate a particular learning style” (p. 41).
Basically, the young developing adult capitalizes on strengths, while neglecting areas of weakness.
Sometime around mid-career, the pinch of specialization motivates expansion into other modes of learning. Kolb labels this period of development as integration.
Moving Towards Complexity
Kolb suggests that continued development leads to complexity during the integration phase. He explains that “complexity and integration are the hallmarks of true creativity and growth” (p. 42). Finally, he adds that at the peak of development, the four dimensions of learning merge.
Arguments against Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory
Experiential learning theory took center stage in the experiential learning movement. Kolb’s work has 10’s of thousands of citations. Many educational programs were structured utilizing Kolb’s model of learning.
However, Kolb’s theory interchangeably uses the learning process and learning dimensions which complicates validation. markedly, some researchers found that his four stages are not sequential or cyclical. Hence, some of the date utilizing Kolb’s learning dimensions may be inconsistent.
A meta-analysis on Kolb’s LSI concluded that “the LSI lacked predictive validity and therefore studies based upon it are not statistically verifiable” (2015).
A Few Final Words by Psychology Fanatic
Kolb presented a model of experiential learning in a historical era demanding a theoretical explanation for this primary means of learning. As time and science marched forward, some of Kolb’s research has been discredited. The world continues to advance. However, Kolb’s contributions to the field provided a giant step forward, during a time when theoretical models for the experiential learning process were lacking.
In conclusion, many of Kolb’s concepts remain relevant even against the flood of additional knowledge gained from neuroscience.
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Dewey, John (1938/2007). Experience And Education (Kappa Delta Pi Lecture). Free Press; Reprint edition
Eckhaus, E., & Sheaffer, Z. (2018). Happiness Enrichment and Sustainable Happiness. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 14(4), 1079-1097.
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