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Experiential Learning ... on the Webby Tim Pickles [with links updated by Roger Greenaway]
This article explores the development of experiential learning
from its original proposal into some of its current refinements and applications.
Reproduced from LearningWire, a free digest from TrainingZone
|For more about diagrams and models see the page: Experiential Learning Cycles
Many of us engaged in professional learning have a broad understanding of the work of David Kolb. His highly influential book entitled 'Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development' was first published in 1984 since when his ideas have had a dramatic impact on the design and development of lifelong learning models. Of course, David Kolb's work can be traced back to that famous dictum of Confucius around 450 BC:
"Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand."
This article aims to help you explore the development of experiential learning from its original proposal into some of its current refinements and applications today, using the World Wide Web (the Internet) as a vast reference library...
A useful place to start this online exploration is David Kolb's own website. Here you need to be careful. There is another and different David Kolb, a professor of philosophy at Bates College, who is a prolific author. The man we seek is the professor of organisational behaviour at Weatherhead School of Management. David A Kolb describes himself as a "contemporary advocate of Experiential Learning". On David Kolb's professional webpage you can find information about his background, current work and most well known publications - including references to his most well-known subject - experiential learning and learning styles.
The concept of experiential learning explores the cyclical pattern of all learning from Experience through Reflection and Conceptualising to Action and on to further Experience. The Experiential Learning Cycle and its practical applications are explored by James Atherton at Learning and Teaching. Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle now forms the heart of many training and learning events. It also describes the process for recording continuous professional development, through taking time to capture, record and implement learning in our daily work. There are many adaptations and uses of the model. A fascinating one is provided on the Natural Learning website where analogy between this model of learning and organic growth in the plant and gardening worlds is well made [was at: humanoptions.com/learning.html]
David Kolb has extended his original work to explore the different ways in which we all learn. Honey and Mumford defined four styles, based loosely around the four stages of David Kolb's learning cycle: Activists, Reflectors, Theorists and Pragmatists. Perhaps the best exposition of these learning styles [now at archive.org], together with a range of fascinating illustrations is to be found at the University of New South Wales, and I would strongly recommend this page. The work on learning styles has been used and developed by many groups and institutions. A Polytechnic in Hong Kong adapted the work to provide a Learning to Learn guide [now at archive.org] for its students. Staff members at Mason College have created a directory of the main learning style instruments including a summary of their main benefits and features [still a useful reference despite several outdated links]
In Britain, the most accessible resource is the best-selling Manual of Learning Styles created by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford which includes a self-assessment instrument and advice on how to diversify your learning.
David Kolb's work has influenced the work of many in the learning, development and education fields. The National Society for Experiential Education is a membership association and networking resource promoting experience-based approaches to teaching and learning. Their site has an extensive library of further resources. The Association for Experiential Education aims to "contribute to making a more just and compassionate world by transforming education". The International Consortium for Experiential Learning organises its networking activities within four 'villages', two of which are concerned with community action and social change, and with personal growth, self awareness and group effectiveness.
A further development of these ideas has led to the notion of groups and companies transforming themselves into Learning Organisations. An impressive and highly active network of people was busy exploring all aspects of this field through the Learning-Org Dialog on Learning Organizations (1994-2004) TrainingZone, in collaboration with the European Consortium for the Learning Organisation, has provided an open conference about learning organisation matters. [More recent Learning Organisation network activity can be found via the ECLO Linkedin page]
We can explore and develop our own learning in an experiential way. The Internet offers a virtually limitless resource for extending our own knowledge as this article seeks to demonstrate. To explore some of these ideas further, look up any of the links from this article, and register for further updates with TrainingZone.
AcknowledgementThe above article ''Experiential Learning ... on the Web'' by Tim Pickles is reproduced with permission from LearningWire, a free digest to accompany TrainingZone Updates are added [in brackets] by Roger Greenaway as web addresses move or disappear.
organised, commented and introduced by Roger Greenaway.
These critiques should discourage unquestioning acceptance of David Kolb's widely quoted model - which is also widely misunderstood and widely misapplied. Much has happened since the publication of Kolb's theories of experiential learning and experiential development in 1984 in "Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development". David Kolb has himself been busy creating an ever-growing library of resources about experiential learning at Experience-based Learning Systems, Inc. But the focus of the critiques below is almost entirely focused on Kolb's seminal 1984 work.
Yes they are critiques and so at a superficial level it might seem that Kolb was way off the mark for his theory to have become the focal point of so much critical writing - only some of which is indexed below. But there are other reasons why Kolb's theory has become the source of so much criticism, one of which is the "water-cooler" effect. If you want to write or talk about experiential learning theory it is difficult to do so without gravitating towards the Kolbian water-cooler and explaining your ideas in relation to those of Kolb. As a writer, even if you do not set out to compare your ideas with those of Kolb, your peer reviewers or your supervisor or your anticipated audience will want to know the connection. And if your ideas are different to those of Kolb, then you are in some way critiquing Kolb. You might also be critiquing Heron and Miettinen and Michelson and Atherton and Illeris and Beard and many others if you are presenting ideas that are different from theirs. But you won't feel quite so much obligation or pressure to point this out - because the Kolbian water-cooler will have already enticed you to explain yourself in terms of Kolb. 30 years on, it is still Kolb's name that is on the water-cooler of experiential learning theory.
There are some exceptions, the most powerful of which is the work of Miriam Webb, which does criticise the whole foundation of Kolb's model. While some critiques argue for an adjustment or addition to Kolb's theory, Webb's critique claims to expose fundamental flaws.
Kolb's theory is praised by some writers for the way in which it draws together several different theories into one. If anyone were attempting a similar exercise 30 years later it would be a huge (and perhaps impossible) task to draw together all of the significant theoretical work in the field of experiential learning into one over-arching theory. And it might not even be a worthwhile exercise anyway. My own preference is to have a range of different perspectives available, each of which brings its own insights and its own truths. Just as we have diversity in human nature and in how people learn I think we need a diversity of theory - but not too much because it is also interesting and useful to know about similarities and connections. And this way of thinking just happens to lead back into Kolb's work because Kolb's theory does include the unity of a universal model balanced against the variety of learning style preferences contained within this model. But there are other ways of theorising this balance between unity and diversity as you will discover below.
On this page I have attempted to gather together the strands of a discussion about experiential learning theory. If you know of any more voices in this discussion - or venues (web, journals, conferences) where it is taking place please write to Roger Greenaway at email@example.com and I will add the information to this page.
And for balance you will find some key articles below this list which critique the critics!
Train the Trainer: publisher's description at www.fenman.co.uk
Claire Forrest's website: http://www.structuredlearning.com
you will find some fundamental
criticisms of David Kolb's theory ... e.g. ''In reality, these things
happening all at once.'' (Jeffs and Smith, 1999) at http://www.infed.org/foundations/f-explrn.htm
Here's a summary of the main criticisms as presented by Mark K. Smith (interestingly including an anachronistic one from Dewey!)
''A number of criticisms can be made of the Kolb model. It pays insufficient attention to the process of reflection (see Boud et al 1983); the claims made for the four different learning styles are extravagant (Jarvis 1987; Tennant 1997); the model takes very little account of different cultural experiences/conditions; the idea of stages or steps does not sit well with the reality of thinking (Dewey 1933); and the empirical support for the model is weak (Jarvis 1987; Tennant 1997). ''
P. (1987) Adult Learning in the Social Context, London: Croom Helm.
by Mark K. Smith
Kolb, The Theory of Experiential Learning and ESL
by Curtis Kelly, Heian Jogakuin College (Osaka, Japan)
Limitations of David Kolb's Theory and InventoryThe full article (plus references*) provides a useful historical overview (placing Kolb in context) with some interesting insights. But I can't quite believe that the role of experience in learning was so completely overlooked until the 1980's. Why, for example, are the writings of Dewey, Kelly and Lewin not referred to in this article?
* n.b. The reference to 'Rogers 1996' is Alan not Carl ...
Rogers, A. (1996). Teaching Adults (2nd ed.). Buckingham: Open University Press.
For another adult education perspective on Kolb's theory see Prof. Knud Illeris's The Three Dimensions of Learning (below)
archives of the outdoor research discussion group
Chris Loynes (Sept 2000) writes:
"Kolb's theory is based on research measuring the non-conscious development of psycho-motor skills. The evidence that other kinds of learning follow this pattern is weak.
Tracey Dickson (Sept 2000) writes:
"Kolb's learning cycle does not illustrate the fact that empirical (i.e. experiential) thinking based on action has limitations:quoted from Beard and Wilson (2002: 37) reporting on: Miettinen, Reijo (2000) The concept of experiential learning and John Dewey's theory of reflective thought and action, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 19 (1), January-February, pp 54-72
Abstract from Miettinen (2000):
"The conception of experiential learning is an established approach in the tradition of adult education theory. David Kolb's four-stage model of experiential learning is a fundamental presentation of the approach. In his work Experiential Learning, Kolb states that John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and Jean Piaget are the founders of the approach. The article discusses Kolb's eclectic method of constructing his model of experiential learning. It studies how Kolb introduces and uses the Lewinian tradition of action research and the work of John Dewey to substantiate his model. It is concluded that Kolb generalizes a historically very specific and unilateral mode of experience- feedback session in T-group training- into a general model of learning. Kolb's interpretation of John Dewey's ideas is compared to Dewey's concepts of reflective thought and action. It is concluded that Kolb gives an inadequate interpretation of Dewey's thought and that the very concept of immediate, concrete experience proposed by the experiential learning approach is epistemologically problematic. The theory historical approach of the article discusses both substantial questions related to experiential learning and the way concepts are appropriated, developed and used within adult education theory."Miettinen, Reijo (2000) The concept of experiential learning and John Dewey's theory of reflective thought and action, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 19 (1), January-February, pp 54-72
Further aspects of Miettinen's critique are presented within a chapter by Oxendine et al (2004). See their 'weaknesses/criticisms' (of Kolb's Experiential Learning Theory) - which is partly compensated by their section on 'strengths'. However, be warned that the critique relies on second and third hand sources and seems to make exaggerated and poorly substantiated claims: they remark on 'vast differences' with Dewey; in their view insufficient consideration of 'non-reflective experience' is a 'glaring weakness'; and, rather perversely, they consider it to be a 'blatant weakness' that experience is presented as the starting point for knowledge acquisition (they would prefer more attention being given to subjective reality). Their use of the words 'vast', 'glaring' and 'blatant' and their dependence on second and third hand sources makes their contribution to the debate seem unreliable and unoriginal. Their 'revised experiential learning cycle' attends only to some of their concerns.
Oxendine, C., Robinson, J., & Willson, G. (2004). Experiential learning. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved 16/12/13 from http://projects.coe.uga.edu/epltt/ View archived copy
• Vince, R (1998) Behind and Beyond Kolb's Learning Cycle, Journal of Management Education 22 (3) pp 304-319 Abstract
In Experiential Learning: Best Practice Handbook for Educators and Trainers Beard and Wilson (2002: 37) report that in management education Kolb's theory is "extremely influential" and "is rarely seen as problematic". But they do describe a number of issues raised by others which I have summarised here:
• Reynolds, M (1997) Learning styles: a critique, Management Learning, 28 (2) pp 115-33, Sage, London Abstract [part of the source for point 1 above]
• Holman, D, Pavlica, K and Thorpe, R (1997) Rethinking Kolb's theory of experiential learning in management education, Management Learning, Sage, London Abstract [source for all 3 points above]
Critique of David Kolb's theory from the perspective of dialogical experiential learning (in management education)The authors (Desmond and Jowitt) propose the Dialogical Experiential Learning Model (DEL) which invites "facilitators and participants to be more curious about the experience of working in a specific context, while recognising it will be subject to change". Their DEL model is presented as an 'alternative' to Kolb rather than as a direct critique, but their 11 mentions of Kolb's 1984 model in their paper combine to give their 'alternative' a substantial critical edge.
The authors consider that Kolb's 1984 model:
Billy Desmond, Angela Jowitt, (2012) "Stepping into the unknown: dialogical experiential learning", Journal of Management Development, Vol. 31 Iss: 3, pp.221 - 230 Permanent URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/02621711211208853
On the plus side:ATHERTON J S (2002) Learning and Teaching: Learning from experience [On-line]: UK
Accessed: 30th May 2017: http://doceo.co.uk/l&t/learning/experience.htm see archived copy
" This experiential learning cycle has been very influential in, for example, education and management development, although it used typically in a much simplified and even stereotypical form that neglects the depth and variation to be found in Kolb (1984). For example (following Lewin and others) Kolb saw the opposite 'poles' of the learning cycle as important dialectical tensions (e.g. that between concrete experience and abstract conceptualisation). The ways in which these dialectics are resolved or handled greatly influences the type and level of learning that ensues."
Research Group Dictionary was at:
The paper is a critique of Experiential Learning Theory and its hypothesized construct validity. A thorough examination of the intellectual and scientific roots of Experiential Learning Theory, its assumptions, and foundational references were analyzed to address three substantive questions fundamental to the theory.
The full abstract and a summary of key points are presented (with the author's permission 12 Jan 2004) on this site at http://reviewing.co.uk/experiential.learning.theory.critique.htm
The full critique (including the full abstract) is available in a PDF file at http://cc.ysu.edu/~mnwebb [at archive.org]
This research report from the Learning & Skills Research Centre (2004) examines 13 learning style models and is generally critical of learning style theory. Kolb's model does not escape criticism but it is only those criticisms that are highlighted below. For a more balanced view refer to the original report.
These are some of the weaknesses presented on page 37 of 'Should we be using learning styles?'
One of the first learning styles, based on an explicit theory. Problems about reliability, validity and the learning cycle continue to dog this model.
'Research into the relative stability of learning style… remains both confusing and confused’ (Robotham 1999: 403).
Robotham D (1999) The application of learning style theory in higher education teaching. Unpublished article, Wolverhampton Business School, Wolverhampton UK.
Learning together: Kolb’s experiential theory and its application
by Devi Akella, College of Business, Albany State University, Albany GA, USA
JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT & ORGANIZATION Volume 16, Issue 1, March 2010
Critique of reflective constructivist learning theory from a feminist perspectiveThis is part of a wider critique, not just of David Kolb's theory but of all experiential learning theory that upholds the reflective constructivist view. It is quoted from Tara Fenwick's Classifying Alternate Perspectives in Experiential Learning (1999 AERC Proceedings)
"From a feminist perspective, Michelson (1996) observes that emphasis on (critical) reflection depersonalizes the learner as an autonomous rational knowledge-making self, disembodied, rising above the dynamics and contingency of experience. The learning process of "reflection" presumes that knowledge is extracted and abstracted from experience by the processing mind. This ignores the possibility that all knowledge is constructed within power-laden social processes, that experience and knowledge are mutually determined, and that experience itself is knowledge-driven and cannot be known outside socially available meanings. Further, argues Michelson (1996), the reflective or constructivist view of development denigrates bodily and intuitive experience, advocating retreat into the loftier domains of rational thought from which 'raw' experience can be disciplined and controlled."
Critique of constructivist learning theory from a socio-cultural perspectiveThis is an extract from Jayson Seaman's article in which he challenges "longstanding assumptions about the radical autonomy of learners, about 'direct experience,' and about the centrality of independent, cognitive reflection in experiential learning".
"Constructivist perspectives (Kolb, 1984) typically define experiential learning as 'the change in an individual that results from reflection on a direct experience and results in new abstractions and applications' (Itin, 1999, p. 93)....
"A major criticism of Kolb's experiential learning cycle is that any or all of the four phases he identifies could occur simultaneously (Jeffs and Smith, 1999). Another is that the model does not sufficiently acknowledge the power of reflection on learning (Boud et al, 1985). Probably the most important criticism of the cycle is that depending on the learner, and/or the activities they are engaged in, some stages of the process can be bypassed, or repeated several times in any sequence. Way back in 1933 John Dewey remarked that reflective learning processes are highly complex and as Smith (2001) has argued, representing this complexity in such neat and precise units is simplistic and clearly problematic. There is little to stop the process being reversed or sequenced in entirely different ways, depending on learner motivation, individual differences, subject being studied and a new component Kolb probably had no reason to consider at the time - the digital tools being employed to support those learning activities.
"Besides there being very little (or mostly weak) empirical evidence to support Kolb's model (and all of its derivatives), I also argue that in a digital age, it is now increasingly obsolete. It served its purpose in the 'instructional design' period of e-learning development where 'stand alone' Computer Aided Training (CBT) content was king, but we have moved on. Social learning processes are showing greater promise than isolated learning, and we now have the tools to capitalise on the human instinct to learn collaboratively and to create, remix and share our own content. Kolb's model is anachronistic, belonging to another time. It is time to develop new models to explain the processes that occur when people learn using socially rich interactive digital media."
Wheeler S. (2012) Recycling Kolb posted on his blog: "Learning with 'e's My thoughts about learning technology and all things digital."
"Existing cyclic models might be better valued for their important historical contribution, rather than as active theories of learning in experiential education".
Seaman's conclusion follows an historical account of the development of experiential learning theory (with extracts from Kolb's own perspective on historical influences). Seaman then surveys criticism of the constructivist perspective of experiential learning from a range of different perspectives including: Challenges from within outdoor and adventure education; Methodological challenges; Epistemological challenges; Sociocultural challenges; and challenges from an ecological perspective.
Seaman argues that:
"the pattern of “experience-reflect-learn” might be considered an ideology of experiential learning rather than a philosophy or a theory of experiential learning. In its time, this framework served a useful purpose. However, given changes in knowledge, research methods, participant populations, societal trends, and educational goals, it might now be influencing research and practice in unhelpful ways."
Journal of Experiential Education (2008) Volume 31, No. 1 pp. 3–18
Learning Through Experience: Troubling Orthodoxies and Intersecting Questionsby Tara J. Fenwick
Publisher: Krieger Publishing Company (2003) view at AbeBooks
"Experiential learning is perhaps the most significant focus today for educators in the workplace, in communities, in literacy education, as well as in colleges and universities. Working from five perspectives of learning, the author examines their contributions to critiques and debates, suggested roles for adult educators, approaches to educational practice, and recent research in experiential learning. She discusses the nature of the intersection between individuals, situations, social relationships, and knowing; and asks, Where educators have an ethical role to play in experiential learning, what purposes and approaches should guide this role? For educators seeking explanations of various theoretical perspectives and current research in experiential learning, this book provides a solid introduction. For those interested in critique, the book also illustrates the oversights embedded in different experiential learning approaches. And for those who want examples, the book presents sample strategies and examples of practice."(from the book description at amazon.com)
Review of Learning Through Experience: Troubling Orthodoxies and Intersecting Questions
by Norm Friesen; July 16, 2004
Friesen's review ends with these words:
"At a point where many of these alternative positions have developed strong research traditions, and when the self-evident value of positivistic rigour has long been doubted, it would seem important to take Fenwick's advice seriously: We should stop our focus on "learning as a rational exercise" and pay much greater attention to the "fundamental dimensions of bodily, psychic, cultural, and social engagements" as revealed by a diversity of research approaches and methods."
Earlier publications by Tara Fenwick on experiential learning:
Experiential Learning and Its Critics: Preserving the Role of Experience in Management Learning and Educationby D.Christopher Kayes
"This paper considers John Dewey’s dual reformist-preservationist agenda for education in the context of current debates about the role of experience in management learning. ... By reviewing, comparing and extending critiques of Kolb’s experiential learning theory and re-conceptualizing the learning process based on post-structural analysis of psychoanalyst Jacque Lacan, the paper defines experience within the context of language and social action..."
These are extracts from the paper's abstract at: https://learningfromexperience.com/research-library/experiential-learning-and-its-critics/
Published in: Academy of Management Learning and Education, 1, 2, 137-149.
"... As an attempt to bring an integrative coherence to the broad spectrum of views, the author conducts a thorough examination of the work of the five chief exponents in the area of adult experiential learning ... : the andragogical approach of Malcolm Knowles, the experiential learning theory of David Kolb, the transformation theory of adult learning of Jack Mezirow, the Action Learning approach of Reginald Revans and the ‘reflection-in-action’ theory of Donald Schön.."
These are extracts from the paper's abstract at https://learningfromexperience.com/research-library/towards-the-essence-of-adult-experiential-learning/
Publisher: Jyväskylä, Finland: SoPHI Academic Press, 2000
You will find a more complete summary and review of Malinen's work on this page of The Harvard Educational Review
The Three Dimensions of Learning: Contemporary Learning Theory in the Tension Field between the Cognitive, the Emotional and the Socialby Knud Illeris
Publisher: Copenhagen: Roskilde University Press (2004)
Book Description (at amazon.com): The Three Dimensions of Learning is an extraordinary book offering an overview and critical examination of the most significant American and European learning theories. From them it develops a coherent overall theory covering the cognitive, the emotional and the social and societal dimensions of learning, thus addressing the current issue of competence development. One chapter discusses non-learning, learning defense, and learning resistance. With its construction of a comprehensive and contemporary theory of learning, this book has sold over 25,000 copies in Danish, Swedish, and English. Now available in North America, it will be useful to adult educators dealing with human and organizational learning and development. (amazon.com)
Professor Knud Illeris's comprehensive theory of learning includes a substantial critique of Kolb's theory of experiential learning.
View at AbeBooks
David Kolb's learning cycle has spawned many unauthorised imitations that misrepresent his theories. As you might guess from the title he has a theory of experiential development as well as a theory of experiential learning. Not bed time reading, but essential for anyone doing serious research in this area. Most readers will probably be surprised to find that there is very little about cyclical movement, even though his well known 'circle' is the central focus of his discussion of the various dynamics of his model of experiential learning. There is an important 4 page critique of David Kolb's theory in John Heron's Feelings and Personhood, in which Kolb's model is said to downplay the importance of feelings and intuition in experiential learning. Despite the range of Kolb's theorising, this generally positivistic book does not provide an adequate grounding for more holistic approaches to learning. (reviewed by Roger Greenaway)
More reviews of books about experiential learning and learning to learn
Index to some critiques of David Kolb's experiential learning theory.
More about Experiential Learning on other sites