david a. kolb on experiential learning

david a. kolb on experiential learning

David A. Kolb’s model of experiential learning can be found in many discussions of the theory and practice of adult education, informal education and lifelong learning. We set out the model, and examine its possibilities and problems.

contents: · introduction · david a. kolb · david kolb on experiential learning · david kolb on learning styles · issues · developments – jarvis on learning · a guide to reading · links · how to cite this piece

http://www.flickr.com/photos/devilarts/2458317215/.” width=”385″ style=”float: right;” />As Stephen Brookfield (1983: 16) has commented, writers in the field of experiential learning have tended to use the term in two contrasting senses. On the one hand the term is used to describe the sort of learning undertaken by students who are given a chance to acquire and apply knowledge, skills and feelings in an immediate and relevant setting. Experiential learning thus involves a, ‘direct encounter with the phenomena being studied rather than merely thinking about the encounter, or only considering the possibility of doing something about it.’ (Borzak 1981: 9 quoted in Brookfield 1983). This sort of learning is sponsored by an institution and might be used on training programmes for professions such as social work and teaching or in field study programmes such as those for social administration or geography courses.

The second type of experiential learning is ‘education that occurs as a direct participation in the events of life’ (Houle 1980: 221). Here learning is not sponsored by some formal educational institution but by people themselves. It is learning that is achieved through reflection upon everyday experience and is the way that most of us do our learning.

Much of the literature on experiential learning, as Peter Jarvis comments (1995: 75), ‘is actually about learning from primary experience, that is learning through sense experiences’. He continues, ‘unfortunately it has tended to exclude the idea of secondary experience entirely’. Jarvis also draws attention to the different uses of the term, citing Weil and McGill’s (1989: 3) categorization of experiential learning into four ‘villages’:

Village One is concerned particularly with assessing and accrediting learning from life and work experience….

Village Two focuses on experiential learning as a basis for bringing change in the structures… of post-school education….

Village Three emphasizes experiential learning as a basis for group consciousness raising….

Village Four is concerned about personal growth and self-awareness.  

These ‘villages’ of approaches retain a focus on primary experience (and do not really problematize the notion of experience itself). Jarvis (1995: 77-80) makes the case for a concern for secondary or indirect experience (occurring through linguistic communication). 

While there have been various additions to the literature, such as the above, it is the work of David A. Kolb (1976; 1981; 1984) and his associate Roger Fry (Kolb and Fry 1975) that still provides the central reference point for discussion. Following on from Kolb’s work there has been a growing literature around experiential learning and this is indicative of greater attention to this area by practitioners – particularly in the area of higher education. David Kolb’s interest lay in exploring the processes associated with making sense of concrete experiences – and the different styles of learning that may be involved. In this he makes explicit use of the work of Piaget, Dewey and Lewin.

David A. Kolb

David A. Kolb is Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Weatheread School of Management. He joined the School in 1976. Born in 1939, Kolb received his Batchelor of Arts from Knox College in 1961, his MA from Harvard in 1964 and his PhD from Harvard in 1967. Besides his work on experiential learning, David A. Kolb is also known for his contribution to thinking around organizational behaviour (1995a; 1995b). He has an interest in the nature of individual and social change, experiential learning, career development and executive and professional education. 

David Kolb on experiential learning

David A. Kolb (with Roger Fry) created his famous model out of four elements: concrete experience, observation and reflection, the formation of abstract concepts and testing in new situations. He represented these in the famous experiential learning circle  that involves (1) concrete experience followed by (2) observation and experience followed by (3) forming abstract concepts followed by (4) testing in new situations (after Kurt Lewin). It is a model that appears time and again.

Kolb and Fry (1975) argue that the learning cycle can begin at any one of the four points – and that it should really be approached as a continuous spiral. However, it is suggested that the learning process often begins with a person carrying out a particular action and then seeing the effect of the action in this situation. Following this, the second step is to understand these effects in the particular instance so that if the same action was taken in the same circumstances it would be possible to anticipate what would follow from the action. In this pattern the third step would be understanding the general principle under which the particular instance falls.

Generalizing may involve actions over a range of circumstances to gain experience beyond the particular instance and suggest the general principle. Understanding the general principle does not imply, in this sequence, an ability to express the principle in a symbolic medium, that is, the ability to put it into words. It implies only the ability to see a connection between the actions and effects over a range of circumstances. (Coleman 1976: 52). 

An educator who has learnt in this way may well have various rules of thumb or generalizations about what to do in different situations. They will be able to say what action to take when say, there is tension between two people in a group but they will not be able to verbalize their actions in psychodynamic or sociological terms. There may thus be difficulties about the transferability of their learning to other settings and situations.

When the general principle is understood, the last step, according to David Kolb is its application through action in a new circumstance within the range of generalization. In some representations of experiential learning these steps, (or ones like them), are sometimes represented as a circular movement. In reality, if learning has taken place the process could be seen as a spiral. The action is taking place in a different set of circumstances and the learner is now able to anticipate the possible effects of the action.

Two aspects can be seen as especially noteworthy: the use of concrete, ‘here-and-now’ experience to test ideas; and use of feedback to change practices and theories (Kolb 1984: 21-22). Kolb joins these with Dewey to emphasize the developmental nature of the exercise, and with Piaget for an appreciation of cognitive development. He named his model so as to emphasize the link with Dewey, Lewin and Piaget, and to stress the role experience plays in learning. He wished to distinguish it from cognitive theories of the learning process (see Coleman 1976). 

David Kolb on learning styles

David Kolb and Roger Fry (1975: 35-6) argue that effective learning entails the possession of four different abilities (as indicated on each pole of their model): concrete experience abilities, reflective observation abilities, abstract conceptualization abilities and active experimentation abilities. Few us can approach the ‘ideal’ in this respect and tend, they suggest, to develop a strength in, or orientation to, in one of the poles of each dimension. As a result they developed a learning style inventory (Kolb 1976) which was designed to place people on a line between concrete experience and abstract conceptualization; and active experimentation and reflective observation. Using this Kolb and Fry proceeded to identify four basic learning styles. 

Kolb and Fry on learning styles (Tennant 1996)

We are looking at factors influencing learning this week. You might find this article helpful from Infed.

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