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
or discovery (such as
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
This distinction was first made by
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
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
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 —
— 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
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
- Pure scientists and mathematicians are in the
- Applied scientists and lawyers are in the Convergent
- 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.
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.
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