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David Kolb: Experiential Learning

As with so much else in psychology these days, the long cherished idea of learning styles is coming under deep scrutiny. The empirical basis for the idea was always weak, and now new experiments are finding null or statistically weak results.

Yet the ready association that many trainers and educators have between David Kolb’s name and the idea of learning styles is an over-simplification of his deeper thinking. David Kolb gives us a valuable model that should be better known among practising managers, who see part of their role as being about developing the capabilities of their teams.

David Kolb
David Kolb

Short Biography

David Kolb was born in 1939 and went to the private Knox college to study psychology. After receiving his BA in 1961, he went to Harvard, where he completed his MA in Social Psychology in 1964, followed by a PhD in 1967.

He took a teaching position at MIT as Assistant Professor of Organizational Psychology and Management, and left there (as Associate Professor) ten years later, to take up a chair in Organizational Behaviour at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

In 1981, Kolb and his wife, Alice, co-founded Experience Based Learning Systems (EBLS) to commercialise Kolb’s thinking on experiential learning and, in particular, his learning styles inventory.

Experiential Learning

At the heart of Kolb’s thinking about learning is his simplified model of Experiential Learning, which he co-developed with Roger Fry. This is fully documented across numerous highly-cited papers, and his major academic book, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development.

Kolb and Fry sought to synthesise the work of many earlier thinkers and researchers into how experience leads to learning. Kolb has said that he was particularly influenced by Dewey, Piaget, and Lewin. Their model of learning is most easily summarised as a cycle, although they were at pains to point out that this is just a simplificatiion. Because things are different on every iteration, Kolb prefers the metaphor of a spiral. Nonetheless, we will follow the commoner and easier to read metaphor in the illustration below.

Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle
Experiential Learning Cycle

The principal critique of this model is one Kolb is fully aware of. It oversimplifies a complex and  more messy learning process that involves other faculties, like memory, and can proceed via different routes from this cycle.

This is a fair critique. The strength of the model, however, is that it provides a helpful framework for developing workplace learning opportunities. It is very much the basis of Bernice McCarthy’s 4MAT approach to instructional design.

Learning Styles

Kolb went on to argue that we are not all equally able or motivated in the four abilities of cultivating experience, reflecting on it, generalising it, and applying our insights. Indeed, he went on to suggest that we tend to develop an orientation towards one pole of each of the two dimensions:

  • Experience – Abstraction (or Feeling and Thinking, in Jungian language, which Kolb seems to like)
  • Applying – Reflecting (or Doing/Sensing and Reflecting/Intuiting in Jungian language)

This leads to four learning styles:

Kolb Learning Styles
Kolb Learning Styles

I think the empirical evidence for this is based mostly on testing of the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory and I am not competent to assess its strength. However, it does seem clear that we all have two things: preferences and adaptability. You may find some colleagues have one or another learning style preference, but you will also find that we can all adapt and use multiple styles.

This is as it must be. Learning is a whole brain activity, and if, as James Zull suggests, different learning styles call upon different brain regions, then surely the best learning takes place when all are fully integrated.

The Experiential Learning Cycle & Regions of the Cerebral Cortex
The Experiential Learning Cycle & Regions of the Cerebral Cortex

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