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.
Abstract conceptualization + active experimentation
· strong in practical application of ideas
· can focus on hypo-deductive reasoning on specific problems
· has narrow interests
Concrete experience + reflective observation
· strong in imaginative ability
· good at generating ideas and seeing things from different perspectives
· interested in people
· broad cultural interests
Abstract conceptualization + reflective observation
· strong ability to create theoretical models
· excels in inductive reasoning
· concerned with abstract concepts rather than people
Concrete experience + active experimentation
· greatest strength is doing things
· more of a risk taker
· performs well when required to react to immediate circumstances
· solves problems intuitively
In developing this model Kolb and Fry have helped,
along with Witkin (1950), have helped to challenge those models of
learning that seek to reduce potential to one dimension such as
intelligence (Tennant 1997: 91). They also recognize that there are
strengths and weaknesses associated with each style (and that being
'locked into' one style can put a learner at a serious disadvantage).
However, there are a number of problems with the model.
Here I want to note six key issues that arise out the Kolb model:
It pays insufficient attention to the process of reflection (see Boud et al 1983). While David A. Kolb's scheme 'has been useful in assisting us in planning learning activities and in helping us to check simply that learners can be effectively engaged', they comment, 'it does not help... to uncover the elements of reflection itself' (ibid.: 13), see reflection.
The claims made for the four different learning styles are extravagant (Jarvis 1987; Tennant 1997). As Tennant (1997: 91) comments, even though the four learning styles neatly dovetail with the different dimensions of the experiential learning model, this doesn't necessarily validate them. David Kolb is putting forward a particular learning style. The problem here is that the experiential learning model does not apply to all situations. There are alternatives - such as information assimilation. There are also others such as memorization. Each of these may be appropriate to different situations (see Jarvis below).
The model takes very little account of different cultural experiences/conditions (Anderson 1988). The Inventory has also been used within a fairly limited range of cultures (an important consideration if we approach learning as situated i.e. affected by environments). As Anderson (1988, cited in Tennant 1996) highlights, there is a need to take account of differences in cognitive and communication styles that are culturally-based. Here we need to attend to different models of selfhood - and the extent to which these may differ from the 'western' assumptions that underpin the Kolb and Fry model.
The idea of stages or steps does not sit well with the reality of thinking. There is a problem here - that of sequence. As Dewey (1933) has said in relation to reflection a number of processes can occur at once, stages can be jumped. This way of presenting things is rather too neat and is simplistic - see reflection.
Empirical support for the model is weak (Jarvis 1987; Tennant 1997). The initial research base was small, and there have only been a limited number of studies that have sought to test or explore the model (such as Jarvis 1987). Furthermore, the learning style inventory 'has no capacity to measure the degree of integration of learning styles' (Tennant 1997: 92).
The relationship of learning processes to knowledge is problematic. As Jarvis (1987) again points out, David Kolb is able to show that learning and knowledge are intimately related. However, two problems arise here. David Kolb doesn't really explore the nature of knowledge in any depth. In chapter five of Experiential Learning he discusses the structure of knowledge from what is basically a social psychology perspective. He doesn't really connect with the rich and varied debates about the nature of knowledge that raged over the centuries within philosophy and social theory. This means that I do not think he really grasps different ways of knowing. For example, Kolb focuses on processes in the individual mind, rather than seeing learning as situated. Second, for David Kolb, learning is concerned with the production of knowledge. 'Knowledge results from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it' (Kolb 1984: 41). Here we might contrast this position with Paulo Freire. His focus is upon informed, committed action (praxis).
Given these problems we have to take some care approaching David Kolb's
vision of experiential learning. However, as Tennant (1997: 92) points
out, 'the model provides an excellent framework for planning teaching and
learning activities and it can be usefully employed as a guide for
understanding learning difficulties, vocational counselling, academic
advising and so on'.
Jarvis (1987, 1995) set out to show that there are a number of responses to the potential learning situation. He used Kolb's model with a number of different adult groups and asked them to explore it based on their own experience of learning. He was then able to develop a model of which allowed different routes. Some of these are non-learning, some non-reflective learning, and some reflective learning. To see these we need to trace out the trajectories on the diagram he produces.
reproduced from Jarvis
Presumption (boxes 1-4). This is where people interact through patterned behaviour. Saying hello etc.
Non-consideration (1-4). Here the person does not respond to a potential learning situation.
Rejection (boxes 1-3 to 7 to 9).
Pre-conscious (boxes 1-3 to 6 to either 4 or 9). This form occurs to every person as a result of having experiences in daily living that are not really thought about. Skimming across the surface.
Practice (boxes 1-3 to 5 to 8 to 6 to either 4 or 9). Traditionally this has been restricted to things like training for a manual occupation or acquiring particular physical skills. It may also refer to the acquisition of language itself.
Memorization (boxes 1-3 to 6 and possibly 8 to 6 and then either to 4 or 9)
Contemplation (boxes 1-3 to 7 to 8 to 6 to 9). Here the person considers it and makes an intellectual decision about it.
Reflective practice (boxes 1-3 (to 5) to 7 to 5 to 6 to 9). This is close to what Schön describes as relfection on and in action.
Experiential learning (boxes 1-3 to 7 to 5 to 7 to 8 to 6 to 9). The way in which pragmatic knowledge may be learned.
While this represents a useful addition to our
thinking about learning, a number of problems remain. There is still an
issue around sequence - many things may be happening at once, but Jarvis'
model falls into trap of stage thinking. As with Kolb's work there is a
limited experimental base to support it. We can also ask questions as to
whether these are different forms or routes - or can they grouped together
in a different and more compact way.
The literature around this area can be pretty dire. We have picked one or two of the better collections/explorations plus a couple 'standards'.
Boud, D. et al (eds.) (1985) Reflection. Turning experience into learning, London: Kogan Page. 170 pages. Good collection of readings which examine the nature of reflection. The early chapters make particular use of Dewey and Kolb.
Boud. D. and Miller, N. (eds.) (1997) Working with Experience: animating learning, London: Routledge. Useful collection of pieces exploring experiential learning. The editors focus on animation (not so much in the French and Italian senses as 'breathing life into' - to activate, enliven, vivify. Includes introductory and closing pieces by the editors: Brookfield on breaking dependence on experts; Smyth on socially critical educators; Heron on helping whole people learn; Tisdell on life experience and feminist theory; Harris on animating learning in teams; and Mace on writing and power.
Fraser, W. (1995) Learning From Experience. Empowerment or incorporation, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. Examines APL / APEL and asks what is lost and gained in the translation of private experience into the public sphere. Based on the experience of various courses.
Jarvis, P. (1987) Adult Learning in the Social Context, London: Croom Helm. 220 pages. Peter Jarvis uses Kolb's model to explore the process of learning in context. The result is a better appreciation of context and the ability to approach memorization, contemplation, practice etc. However, he also inherits a number of problems e.g. around stages. The model is revisited and summarized in P. Jarvis (1995) Adult and Continuing Education. Theory and practice 2e, London: Routledge.
Johnson, D. W. and Johnson, F. P. (1996) Joining Together: Group theory and group skills, 6e., Boston, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon. 612 pages. Rightly popular practical groupwork guide with plenty of examples and exercises, plus some good foundational chapters. It was one of the first texts to pick up on Kolb and to link experiential learning with the work around groups by Lewin and others. Chapters on group dynamics; experiential learning; group goals and social independence; communications within groups; leadership; decision making; controversy and creativity; conflicts of interest, the uses of power; dealing with diversity; leading learning and discussion groups; leading growth and counselling groups; and team development, team training.
Keeton, M. T. (ed.) (1976) Experiential Learning, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Ageing but still useful collection. See, in particular, Coleman's contrasting of information assimilation with experiential learning.
Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall. 256 pages. Full statement and discussion of Kolb's ideas concerning experiential learning. Chapters deal with the foundation of contemporary approaches to experiential learning; the process of experiential learning; structural foundations of the learning process; individuality in learning and the concept of learning styles; the structure of knowledge; the experiential learning theory of development; learning and development in higher education; lifelong learning and integrative development.
Mezirow, J. (1991) Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 247 + xix pages. Develops a comprehensive theory of how adults learn by making meanings of their experiences. Particular focus on perspective transformation.
Weil, S. Warner & McGill, I. (eds.) (1989) Making Sense of
Experiential Learning. Diversity in theory and practice, Milton
Keynes: Open University Pres s. The texts on experiential learning tend to
be rather atheoretical (and often precious). This text doesn't totally
escape this - but has a number of useful contributions.
Anderson, J. A. (1988) 'Cognitive styles and multicultural populations', Journal of Teacher Education, 39(1): 2-9.
Brookfield, S. D. (1983) Adult Learning, Adult Education and the Community Milton Keynes Open University Press.
Borzak, L. (ed.) (1981) Field Study. A source book for experiential learning, Beverley Hills: Sage Publications.
Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think, New York: Heath.
Houle, C. (1980) Continuing Learning in the Professions, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Jarvis, P. (1994) 'Learning', ICE301 Lifelong Learning, Unit 1(1), London: YMCA George Williams College.
Jarvis, P. (1995) Adult and Continuing Education. Theory and practice 2e, London: Routledge.
Kolb, A. and Kolb D. A. (2001) Experiential Learning Theory Bibliography 1971-2001, Boston, Ma.: McBer and Co, http://trgmcber.haygroup.com/Products/learning/bibliography.htm
Kolb, D. A. (1976) The Learning Style Inventory: Technical Manual, Boston, Ma.: McBer.
Kolb, D. A. (1981) 'Learning styles and disciplinary differences'. in A. W. Chickering (ed.) The Modern American College, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kolb, D. A. (with J. Osland and I. Rubin) (1995a) Organizational Behavior: An Experiential Approach to Human Behavior in Organizations 6e, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Kolb, D. A. (with J. Osland and I. Rubin) (1995b) The Organizational Behavior Reader 6e, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Kolb. D. A. and Fry, R. (1975) 'Toward an applied theory of experiential learning;, in C. Cooper (ed.) Theories of Group Process, London: John Wiley.
Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner, New York: Basic Books
Tennant, M. (1997) Psychology and Adult Learning 2e, London: Routledge.
Experiential learning: helpful review of sites by Tim Pickles.
Experiential Learning Theory Bibliography: Prepared by Alice Kolb and David Kolb, this is an extensive bibliography of on experiential learning theory from 1971-2001.
Page reference: Smith, M. K. (2001) 'David A. Kolb on experiential learning', the encyclopedia of informal education, http://www.infed.org/b-explrn.htm.
© Mark K. Smith
First published July 1996. Last updated: January 30, 2005