EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING THEORY
Experiential learning theory draws on the work of prominent 20th century scholars who gave experience a central role in their theories of human learning and development—notably John Dewey,
Kurt Lewin, Jean Piaget, William James, Carl Jung, Paulo Freire, Carl Rogers and others—to develop a holistic model of the experiential learning process and a multilinear model of adult development (Kolb, 1984). The theory is built on six propositions that are shared by these scholars.
1. Learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes. To improve learning in higher education, the primary focus should be on engaging students in a process that best enhances their learning—a process that includes feedback on the effectiveness of their learning efforts. As Dewey notes, “[E]ducation must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience: . . . the process and goal of education are one and the same thing” (Dewey 1897: 79).
2. All learning is relearning. Learning is best facilitated by a process that draws out the students’
beliefs and ideas about a topic so that they can be examined, tested, and integrated with new,
more refined ideas.
3. Learning requires the resolution of conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of adaptation to the world. Conflict, differences, and disagreement are what drive the learning process. In the process of learning one is called upon to move back and forth between opposing modes of reflection and action and feeling and thinking.
4. Learning is a holistic process of adaptation to the world. Not just the result of cognition, learning involves the integrated functioning of the total person— thinking, feeling, perceiving, and behaving.
5. Learning results from synergetic transactions between the person and the environment. In Piaget’s terms, learning occurs through equilibration of the dialectic processes of assimilating new experiences into existing concepts and accommodating existing concepts to new experience.
6. Learning is the process of creating knowledge. ELT proposes a constructivist theory of learning whereby social knowledge is created and recreated in the personal knowledge of the learner. This stands in contrast to the “transmission” model on which much current educational practice is based, where preexisting fixed ideas are transmitted to the learner.
ELT defines learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation
of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience” (Kolb, 1984: 41). The ELT model portrays two dialectically related modes of grasping experience— Concrete Experience (CE) and Abstract Conceptualization (AC)—and two dialectically related modes of transforming experience—Reflective Observation (RO) and Active Experimentation (AE).
Experiential learning is a process of constructing knowledge that involves a creative tension among the four learning modes that is responsive to contextual demands. This process is portrayed as an idealized learning cycle or spiral where the learner “touches all the bases”— experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting—in a recursive process that is responsive to the learning situation and what is being learned. Immediate or concrete experiences are the basis for observations and reflections.
David A. Kolb (with Roger Fry) created his famous model out of four elements: concrete experience, observation and reflection, the formation of abstract concepts and testing in new situations. He represented these in the famous experiential learning circle that involves (1) concrete experience followed by (2) observation and experience followed by (3) forming abstract concepts followed by (4) testing in new situations (after Kurt Lewin). It is a model that appears time and again.
Kolb and Fry (1975) argue that the learning cycle can begin at any one of the four points – and that it should really be approached as a continuous spiral. However, it is suggested that the learning process often begins with a person carrying out a particular action and then seeing the effect of the action in this situation. Following this, the second step is to understand these effects in the particular instance so that if the same action was taken in the same circumstances it would be possible to anticipate what would follow from the action. In this pattern the third step would be understanding the general principle under which the particular instance falls.
David A. Kolb (born 1939) is an American educational theorist whose interests and publications focus on experiential learning, the individual and social change, career development, and executive and professional education. He is the founder and chairman ofExperience Based Learning Systems, Inc. (EBLS), and a Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.