Posted on

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

You might enjoy these Management Pocketbooks

Share this:
Posted on

Why–What–How–What if?

Bernice McCarthyThere are lots of models for how to improve learning and, in the management training arena, The Kolb learning cycle and the work of Peter Honey and Alan Mumford on learning styles are well known. Less so is the work of American educationalist, Dr Bernice McCarthy.

McCarthy taught at all grade levels, including special education, and went on to study for her doctorate at Northwestern University. There, she developed her model to help design instructional programmes for all types of learners. She drew on research by Carl Jung, Jean Paiget, Lev Vygotsky, John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and David Kolb to create a system that moves learners through the complete learning cycle using strategies that would appeal to all learners. Her business is called About Learning.

4MAT

McCarthy developed her system to format a lesson according to how the needs of learners changes as they go around the learning cycle, so she called it the 4MAT System (get-it?). The 4MAT System began in education but she quickly spread it into adult training in the corporate and government sectors.

Relationship to other models

4MAT shares with Kolb the idea of a learning cycle with distinct modes of learning at each stage. It also recognises, as the Honey and Mumford model does, that we each learn in a number of ways and that we may have preferences for one or more styles.

The 4MAT System

The 4MAT System is based on two continua: perceiving and processing. The processing continuum ranges from reflection to action; whilst perception runs from direct experience to abstract conceptualisation.

image

Why?

We want to understand meaning and purpose, and the instructor’s role is to make connections between the material and the learners, to engage their attention.

What?

Only when we are satisfied about relevance are we ready to know ‘What?’ At this stage, the trainer provides information and satisfies our desire for facts, structure and theory.

These first two phases represent instructor-led learning.  Now the learner takes over.

How?

Once we have the knowledge, we ask ‘How?’ and we want to understand how we can apply our new insights to the real world. We focus on problems and how we can use our learning to solve them.

What if?

Finally, we want to try it out, so we ask questions like ‘What if?’ ‘What else?’ or ‘What next?’ This is when we engage in active experimentation, trial and error, pushing at the boundaries – learning by doing.

QuestionMark

Why? (again)

Good instructional design challenges learners to reflect on the outcome of their trials and ask ‘Why?’ about the results.

    • Why did it not go as I expected?
    • Why did it seem harder than it should?

This is the entry into another cycle.

So here’s the deal

The 4MAT System is helpful in designing training, planning a coaching process, and influencing.

Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy

Share this:
Posted on

Does Management Performance Increase Profits?

The correlation between management performance and organisational performance is taken as an article of faith in many quarters – not least in the training and development industry.

Management Pocketbooks has a vested interest here, too.  If Pocketbook readers did not believe that reading the books and learning about management would improve their management skills and that this would improve their organisation’s performance, then Pocketbooks would become redundant.

Investors in People

Another organisation with a vested interest is the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES).  This is a non-departmental public body (NDPB) that describes its mission as being to ‘raise skill levels and drive investment, enterprise, jobs and growth.’

One of the tools they have to achieve this is the Investors in People (IiP) standard.  This is designed to improve business performance – but does it?  Like most external standards, achieving IiP accreditation is a costly and time-consuming process.

Research Evidence

Prof Mike Bourne
Prof Mike Bourne (LinkedIn)

So IiP commissioned Cranfield University Researcher Professor Mike Bourne to discover whether IiP accreditation really does return a value to businesses that invest.

To do this, Professor Bourne and his team considered two questions:

.

.

  1. The relationship between IiP accreditation and management performance
  2. The relationship between IiP accreditation and business performance

What the team found was this:

  1. IiP improves managerial performance
  2. IiP improves the financial performance of the sponsoring firm

You can review all of the evidence in the January 2010 paper, ‘Investors in People, Managerial Capabilities and Performance’ by Professor Mike Bourne and Dr Monica Franco-Santos.  Note that this academic paper is published by Cranfield University, and not in a peer-reviewed academic journal.  So too is an earlier – far more technical paper – ‘The Impact of Investors in People on People Management Practices and Firm Performance’ (2008).

image

The figure illustrates the relationships that Professor Bourne’s team report.  Notice that their research seems to show that managerial capabilities and performance do indeed drive reported performance – as measured by profits recorded in Companies House data.

So here’s the deal

One must always be sceptical about research that supports the agenda of the sponsoring organisation (IiP in this case) and where the results are not published in peer reviewed journals.  And I have not taken the time to thoroughly assess the research methodology, nor review the extensive statistical analysis.  The researchers are clear in their reports that, while they assessed IiP, it is simply one example of a ‘commitment based HR policy’.

This is to say that their research evidence shows that systematically committing to your staff improves their capabilities and performance and that these lead to measurable financial improvements in performance.

Kirkpatrick Level 4

Last week’s Pocketblog talked about Kirkpatrick’s four levels of learning.  Trainers have become adept at measuring and demonstrating levels 1 and 2: How do participants react, and what do they learn?  However, the value of training is in levels 3 and 4: How does training affect behaviour and what results can the organisation measure?

Professor Bourne’s work has shown that the linkage from level 2 to level 3 to level 4 is a genuine one, which he and his team have validated statistically.

image

This just leaves one problem:
Most trainers stop at Level 1: ‘Happy Sheets’.

Some Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy

Share this:
Posted on

In Praise of Flip Charts

A recent experience led me to think about the use of visual aids in training.  Two training companies were described as being like ‘chalk and cheese’.

Chalk and Cheese

In this case:

  • one company’s courses are scripted and PowerPoint driven, and trainers appeared to treat participants’ questions as a nuisance.  Hmm.
  • the other company’s trainers welcome interaction and dialogue, and mix PowerPoint with a range of other ways to get their message across.  That’s better!

Visual Aids

It led me to think about the term ‘visual aids’.  Aids to whom?  Some trainers seem to consider that their slides are there to help them in their role as trainers.  Perhaps they need to re-think.  Visual aids should help the learners to learn, participants to understand, and the audience to remember.  And PowerPoint and its kin can be magnificent at this – when used well.  We’ll hold that thought for another day!

Flip Charts – the trainer’s friend

I will come out of the closet: I am a real flip chart lover.  I love them as a consultant, working through ideas and solving problems; I love them as a facilitator, capturing and sharing ideas; and I love them as a trainer, to explain, clarify and illustrate learning points.

PowerPoint is linear and pre-programmed: flip charts are infinitely flexible.  So here are some of my tips and techniques for getting the most from this fabulous tool.

Flip Chart Tips and Techniques

Wings
Lots of flipcharts these days have wings – extendable arms that allow you to fasten a finished sheet to either side of the main display.  This is great for displaying participants’ work when doing a review or even for creating wide screen HD flip chart displays.

.

Pre-prepare
If you want to create complex images or drawings that you are not confident to draw ‘live’ then prepare a sheet with the drawing in light pencil (a 2H lead is ideal).  It will be invisible to your audience, but clear enough for you to follow the lines and appear to draw a fabulous image free-hand.  Ruled pencil lines also allow you to write in straight lines if this is not something that comes naturally.

Better, still, practise your drawings on a whiteboard.  Do them over and over until they become second nature, then you won’t have to pre-prep your flip charts!

Laminates
A great way to great more dynamism and use more powerful images is to create full colour printed images and get them laminated.  You can then attach these to your flip chart with blue tack and build up your image more quickly and more stylishly than you could draw it.  For example, create six coloured images of hats for when you want to facilitate a discussion about Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats, or illustrate different team dynamics for when you are explaining Tuckman’s model.

StickyNote Sticky Notes
You can use the oh-so-useful sticky notes in a number of ways.  A simple trick is to use them as marker tabs to help you quickly find a pre-prepared sheet quickly.  A favourite use is in exercises where you want participants to identify, then classify items.  If they write their ideas on the notes, they can then place them on the table or grid you or they have created on the flip chart.

Fonts and colours
For large amounts of text, lower case is easier to read, as long as your writing is very clear.  But do ask yourself: ‘are large amounts of text really appropriate?’ They rarely will be.  So upper case is often clearer.  Text should be in strong colours to create good contrast, and do use lots of colour in your diagrams to make your images interesting.

Caution – do not rely on colour contrast to make distinctions that matter.  Around one man in ten has some limitation to their colour vision.  It is rarer in women.

Pens
Good flipchart pens are a must.  Most trainers (including this one) prefer chisel tip to bullet tip.  When you arrive at a training room (if you’re using their pens) or before you leave for the training venue (if you use yours) test all your pens and throw away any that are no longer at their best.  Always travel with your own set, and a back up set if you expect to rely on your own.  Three excellent brands for clarity/strength of colour, range of colour and life-span (and all are chisel tip) are:

  • Berol Flipchart Markers
  • Edding 40
  • Mr Sketch scented markers

Display
Brighten up your training room by putting flip charts up on the walls at breaks.  It creates a stimulating environment, with visual reminders all around, of what participants have been learning.

So here’s the deal

If you don’t already do so, look for more opportunities to use flip charts.  Make time to practise using them well, and use good quality pens to help you do it well.

. . . and, most important, please add your own tips to the comments at the foot of this blog, to share them with others.

Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy

Share this: