Nutshell: How do we learn? The case for learning from experience

Written by
Clare Grist Taylor, Associate Editor, Changeboard

04 Nov 2019

04 Nov 2019 • by Clare Grist Taylor, Associate Editor, Changeboard

Does David Kolb’s experiential learning model still help us think about how we learn today? 

The word ‘experience’ comes from the Latin expereri, which – strictly speaking – means to experiment, test or risk. When we think back to our formative years at school or college, we’re probably all (horribly) familiar with the idea of testing; but experiment and risk? Perhaps less so. 

But this original – and broad – definition of experience is at the heart of a model for learning that underpins the modern theory of experiential learning, pioneered since the 1970s by David A Kolb. 

We know that the question ‘How do we learn?’ has no one, simple answer. The literature is vast and complex, with even the most popular theories about learning or individual learning styles being called into question. Kolb’s model of experiential learning, however, is still widely referenced and used. 

For Kolb, knowledge is continuously gained through both personal and environmental experiences:

“Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it.” (Kolb, 1984)

He is clear, however, that while experiences provide the impetus for learning and development, they are not, on their own, enough. Here’s where that broader definition of ‘experience’ comes into play. Each experience has to be ‘grasped’ and ‘transformed’ via a four-stage, continuous process, where that experience translates into effective learning through a cycle of reflection, conceptualisation and testing:

According to Kolb, effective learning can only take place when we are:

  • actively involved in the experience;
  • able to reflect on the experience;
  • able to conceptualize the experience; and
  • able to create a plan to use the new ideas gained from the experience.

The four stages of Kolb’s model are typically represented by an integrated learning cycle in which the learner moves through these four stages:

Effective learning takes place when we move through all four stages. The cycle can be entered at any point but all stages must be followed in sequence for successful learning to take place; no one stage is effective on its own. Each stage is mutually supportive of, and feeds into, the next. 

Does Kolb’s theory work in practice?

Experiential learning has often been contrasted with academic learning, which looks to instil knowledge through more abstract, classroom-based, ‘broadcast’ techniques. Proponents of such approaches point out that we can – and often do – learn without direct experience. 

Indeed, we often learn most from observing the experiences of others. As Eleanor Roosevelt sagely noted, we often mustlearn from the mistakes of others given that we can't live long enough to make them all ourselves. Clearly, learning from direct personal experience is not the only way we can acquire knowledge. This is perhaps a little unfair to Kolb though, as learning here still involves reflecting on an experience, even if it’s not our own. 

But Kolb’s model perhaps comes into its own where learning is informed by real-world or on-the-job, vocational contexts, such as in medicine or engineering, or in the world of apprenticeships, where learning happens while – and through – working. Seen through the prism of vocational study, Kolb’s focus on experience makes more obvious sense. In these cases, it seems that, as the economist Ernst F Schumacher noted, “an ounce of practice is worth more than a ton of theory”.

Whatever the context, and despite the naysayers – there have been many – the experiential learning model remains interesting because of the more general approaches to learning it espouses. To learn experientially, we must be active participants - not passive receivers. We need to develop the skills to reflect critically on our experiences and we need the courage to experiment and make mistakes in the first place. As has been observed many times, good judgement often stems from experience but much experience tends to stem, initially at least, from bad judgement. 

Changing the balance

The focus on immersion, on reflection, critical thinking and creative problem-solving is increasingly being recognised as valuable beyond vocational subjects and contexts. Many schools and universities are embracing experiential learning and changing the balance between traditional classroom teaching and more collaborative projects and applied learning techniques. A 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report found that several key experiential factors – such as extended project work or opportunities for students to apply learning outside the classroom – contributed to postgraduate success and workplace engagement.  

Kolb is certainly a helpful counterbalance to the idea that we can learn everything we need from the safety of our armchairs. Especially when it comes to leadership, most of us have a tendency to prefer leaders with a healthy dose of experience under their belt rather than simply a lustrous academic certificate. Perhaps Yogi Berra summarised it best when he noted that, “in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is”.



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