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Experiential Learning ...


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Cognitive Dissonance

Experiential Learning

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 The Experiential Learning Cycle

The ideas on this page have been adopted and adapted to all kinds of learning situation, but it should be noted that they refer to learning from experience or discovery (such as situated learning) rather than to taught (or "reception" learning, as Ausubel calls it) or rote learning.

Kolb (1984) provides one of the most useful descriptive models of the adult learning process available. The model starts with Lewin's cycle of adult learning.


This suggests that there are four stages which follow from each other: Concrete Experience is followed by Reflection on that experience on a personal basis. This may then be followed by the derivation of general rules describing the experience, or the application of known theories to it (Abstract Conceptualization), and hence to the construction of ways of modifying the next occurrence of the experience (Active Experimentation), leading in turn to the next Concrete Experience. All this may happen in a flash, or over days, weeks or months, depending on the topic, and there may be a "wheels within wheels" process at the same time.

The most direct application of the model is to use it to ensure that (pace the reservations above) teaching and tutoring activities give full value to each stage of the process. This may mean that for the tutor or mentor, a major task is to "chase" the learner round the cycle, asking questions which encourage Reflection, Conceptualization, and ways of testing the ideas. (The Concrete Experience itself may occur outside the tutorial/mentoring session).

See this page on tutorial practice.


Honey and Mumford (1982) have built a typology of Learning Styles around this sequence, identifying individual preferences for each stage (Activist, Reflector, Theorist, Pragmatist respectively), Kolb also has a test instrument (the Learning Style Inventory) but has carried it further by relating the process also to forms of knowledge.
 Learning styles mean that: 
  • At a minor level there is a need for adjustment between learner and teacher: sometimes their preferences are complementary, sometimes antagonistic, and of course sometimes collusive if they both tend to go for the same stages in the cycle.
  • At a major level, neglect of some stages can prove to be a major obstacle to learning. 

Elaborations of the Experiential Learning Cycle

Not all forms of skill and knowledge emphasize all the stages of the Cycle to the same extent, and Kolb has carried the argument further by relating topics and subject areas to the cycle in the following ways:

A group of doctors immediately grasped the significance of this distinction: their patients, they said, know their illness by direct acquaintance, whereas they know about it.

For many people, knowledge by acquaintance is the only valid form of knowledge, and they distrust "book-learning". One of the most frequent questions to social workers from parents is, "Do you have any children?". Answer "no", and your credibility is shot.

      Concrete Experience corresponds to "knowledge by acquaintance", direct practical experience (or "Apprehension" in Kolb's terms), as opposed to "knowledge about" something, which is theoretical, but perhaps more comprehensive, (hence "Comprehension") and represented by Abstract Conceptualization. This distinction was first made by Aristotle, and has been discussed by epistemologists ever since. 


      Reflective Observation
        concentrates on what the experience means to the experiencer, (it is transformed by "Intention") or its connotations, while Active Experimentation transforms the theory of Abstract Conceptualization by testing it in practice (by "Extension") and relates to its denotations.



    The denotation/connotation construct is mine rather than Kolb's, offered as a way of clarifying the model. Kolb also plays around with the spelling of "intension" (sic.).

This distinction is not easily identified by many people, and is one example of where Kolb may go over the top: he does have a tendency to elevate his model to a theory of Life, the Universe and Everything. Nevertheless, there is a simpler point here, which he does not make very clearly: Concrete Experience and Reflective Observation are essentially the private and personal parts of the cycle, whereas Abstract Conceptualization and Active Experimentation are more public and visible to others. Hence behavioral theories of learning concentrate almost exclusively on the visible Active Experimentation processes.


Forms of Knowledge and the Learning Cycle

    The four quadrants of the cycle are associated with four different forms of knowledge, in Kolb's view. Each of these forms is paired with its diagonal opposite.



Convergent and Divergent Knowledge

      This distinction was first made by
        Hudson (1967)
          in terms of styles of thinking rather than forms of knowledge: convergent knowledge brings to bear a number of facts or principles on a single topic: problems have "right" and "wrong" answers. Hudson believed convergent learners tended to be more highly valued in school, because most assessment approaches focus on convergent skills. Examples include applied maths, engineering, and some aspects of languages. It is located in the quadrant between Abstract Conceptualization and Active Experimentation.
        • Divergent knowledge on the other hand, is (very broadly) more about creativity — it is about the generation of a number of accounts of experience, such as in literature or history or art. Judgment about the quality of divergent knowledge and skills is much more difficult, because these are private areas. It is generated between Concrete Experience and Reflective Observation.

        Assimilation and Accommodation

        Hands up if you remember your Piaget! Assimilation and Accommodation are in his view two dialectically related processes (i.e. opposing principles — thesis and antithesis — between which a compromise — synthesis — has to be negotiated) which describe (roughly) different relationship between knowledge of the outside world and knowledge already held in our heads.


    Kolb's approach to integrating these Piagetian ideas with the cycle is generally less successful than his application of Hudson. The search for new rules (Abstract Conceptualization) to formalize observations (Reflective Observation) may well be an accommodative exercise, and very often trial and error learning (Active Experimentation) consists of moving from one known rule to another in the hope that one of them fits, so it is has an important element of assimilation in it. Nevertheless, the approach does help to focus attention on the relationship between the general and the particular. Assimilation includes fitting particular instances into general categories, and Accommodation is about working from the general principle to the particular application

     Personally, I would replace the term "Assimilation" with the more common-sense one of "Description" and "Accommodation" with "Prescription", in the sense of a concern for what you ought to or must do.

The Kolb Model and Subject Disciplines

Kolb and colleagues have undertaken extensive empirical work using the Learning Styles Inventory to relate different subject disciplines to the quadrants of the learning cycle and hence to different forms of knowledge: partly for reasons of space and partly for copyright reasons, you are referred to the text for the results.

      Broadly speaking, he suggests that practitioners of creative disciplines, such as the arts, are found in the Divergent quadrant.

        • Pure scientists and mathematicians are in the Assimilative quadrant
        • Applied scientists and lawyers are in the Convergent quadrant
        • Professionals who have to operate more intuitively, such as teachers, are in the Accommodative quadrant
        • There are also differences in the location of specialists within the more general disciplines

        This would suggest that different subject areas call for different learning styles, and raises the usual chicken and egg question as to whether the discipline promotes a particular learning style, or whether preferred learning style leads to adoption of a discipline, or of course, both.



    Kurt Lewin

    (1890-1947) Originally a Gestalt psychologist in Berlin, Lewin moved to the USA and kick-started theoretical work on adult learning (applied particularly to attitude change in health promotion etc.) and group dynamics. His work on life-space etc. Was broadly phenomenological in approach. Little read now because of his tortuous pseudo-mathematical style, but the grandfather of many current ideas.

    Learning Styles Inventory

    The latest version of the LSI can be downloaded or taken on-line at http://www.learningfromexperience.com (for a fee)

    Original content updated and hosted at www.learningandteaching.info/learning/

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