David Kolb (1939-)
“Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience”
David Kolb perceived experience as the core process of knowledge exchange and transformation. His unique ideas have enlightened teachers to see the importance of innovation and experience in the learning process. Kolb firmly believed that something must be created from experience to be identified as learning.
David Kolb is an American psychologist, professor, and educational theorist, famous for his work on experiential learning and individual learning styles. He developed one of the first tools for evaluating learning preferences called the Learning Style Inventory (LSI). Kolb created LSI as a tool that will help us describe our learning process (the way we learn/the way we prefer to learn) in everyday situations and specific settings.
David Kolb, under the influence of the renowned psychologists’ John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget, created the Theory of Experimental Learning. According to his belief learning occurs naturally, and experience is vital in acquiring knowledge. Kolb thought that learning occurs through the process of discovery and active involvement enabled by new experiences. His research and ideas were and still are popular among teachers and educators worldwide.
David Allen Kolb was born on December 12, 1939, in Moline, Illinois. He dedicated his life to experimental learning, learning styles, personal and social change, career growth, and managerial and professional education.
Knox College is the school where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology, philosophy, and religion. During that time, he met a professor who encouraged him to continue his graduate studies in the field of psychology. He obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard University. In 1965 he started as an assistant professor of organizational psychology and management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management, and years later he joined the faculty at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, as a professor of organizational behavior in the Weatherhead School of Management, where he still serves as an Emeritus Professor. Kolb also took the role of a management consultant in the United States, and other countries around the globe, like Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Indonesia.
For his work and contribution to experimental learning, he received many awards including four honorary degrees. He wrote a lot and authored many journal articles and book chapters on experiential learning. For his advanced research on experimental learning, he founded the organization “Experience Based Learning Systems” and became its chairman.
David Kolb’s Theory of Experiential Learning is comprised of two parts. The first part is that learning follows a four-stage cycle, where learners advance through the stages to complete a cycle, and during that process, they transform their experiences into knowledge. The second part concerns learning styles, or the intellectual processes that occur while gaining knowledge. Kolb believed that of the four stages, the two modes for seizing experience are concrete experience and abstract conceptualization, and the two modes for transforming experience are reflective observation and active experimentation. The important thing about the stages is that each stage lays the base for the one that follows.
Let’s take a closer look at Kolb’s cycles of learning:
- Concrete Experience:
Concrete experience is the first stage of Kolb’s learning cycle when the learner is actively engaged in an activity or a task to acquire new knowledge. The learner is engaged in a new, or a reinterpretation of an existing experience in a different concept.
2. Reflective Observation:
At this stage, the learner reflects on the acquired experience, and actively thinks about it. The learner reviews what happened and tries to understand and identify any inconsistencies between his/her understanding and the experience itself.
3. Abstract Conceptualization:
The third stage of the learning cycle is trying to make sense of these events, and draw conclusions from the experience. The learner goes from reflective observation to abstract conceptualization when he/she starts to categorize concepts and create conclusions about the events that happened. This includes understanding the experience and comparing it to the present interpretation of the concept.
4. Active Experimentation:
The final stage is reserved for testing. The learner is actively engaged in the task once more, but this time with another purpose, to apply his/her conclusions to the new experiences. This enables learners to make predictions, analyze tasks, and put their knowledge into practice. The active experimentation results in new concrete experiences…and the cycle begins again.
In an ideal situation, the learner goes through all four stages of the learning cycle (experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting). Kolb stresses the importance of each stage and believes that effective learning only happens if all four stages are completed.
Within the four stages, he identified four distinct learning styles:
- Diverging (a learning style occurring in the stage of concrete experience and reflective observation)
Learners assess experiences from different perspectives;
Diverging is a learning style of emotional individuals who take interest in others, and enjoy brainstorming ideas and cooperating in group assignments;
2. Assimilating (a learning style occurring in the stage of abstract conceptualization and reflective observation)
This learning style is dedicated to reasoning;
Learners review the facts and evaluate the experience as a whole, and enjoy creating experiments and working on projects;
3. Converging (a learning style occurring in the stage of abstract conceptualization and active experimentation)
This learning style stresses problem resolution as a learning method;
Learners make choices and use their ideas for new experiences, and find technical solutions in the process.
4. Accommodating (a learning style occurring in the stage of concrete experience and active experimentation)
This learning style is flexible and instinctive;
Learners use the method of trial and error to guide their experiences, choosing to find the answers for themselves;
According to Kolb, we all favor a specific learning style, due to factors like social influences and educational experiences. He also believes that as learners develop, they gradually move away from an over-dependence on one learning style towards holistic learning.
Kolb’s Theory of Experimental Learning has a huge impact on both teachers and teaching techniques. No wonder his theory has been applied in many educational contexts:
- Establish students’ preferred learning style so teachers can use teaching methods to appeal to their learners (ex. students who show strength in concrete experience would value games, role plays and group debates, while students who prefer abstract conceptualization would rather learn through reading, listening, and studying on their own);
- Face a diverse group of learners;
- Support students’ learning preferences and motivate them to engage with the content;
- Challenge students to acquire non-dominant learning styles so they can approach future learning situations with greater flexibility;
- Help students find their learning preferences and strengths, and identify the learning styles that need strengthening if they want to be successful in their field of expertise;
- Develop more suitable learning opportunities;
- Design and carry out activities in ways that enable students to engage in the manner that suits them best;
- Help students learn more efficiently by identifying and strengthening their lesser preferred learning styles through the application of the experiential learning cycle;
- Draw the capacities from each stage of the experiential learning cycle and take students through the entire process step by step;
- Identify students’ learning styles through a classroom setting observation (presentations, discussions, and collaborative activities);
- Use best teaching practices by applying a wide range of learning activities to reach all learning styles;
From the perspective of Kolb’s theory, learning is a whole process, that requires the inclusion of all stages throughout the experience. Therefore, a teacher’s lecture may be both a concrete and an abstract experience, based on how the student relates to it. So, sometimes students may perceive strong and emotional reflection as a concrete experience or performing a computer-based task as an abstract experience. There are situations where students may develop their own abstract pattern to better understand a concrete experience or assignment. Kolb introduced teachers to the importance of students’ learning styles and experiences in understanding their learning preferences. For example:
- Students using diverging learning styles collect information through observation and use their imagination to resolve issues. They appreciate receiving personal feedback, and usually are best in social sciences and liberal arts;
- Students using assimilating learning styles prefer independent exercises that they can finish without the assistance of the teacher, enjoy contemplating abstract concepts, and prefer to learn via reading, and listening to explanations rather than using a practical-based approach;
- Students using converging learning styles like to learn through workbooks or worksheets, computer-based tasks, and interactive activities and are good at solving practical problems. They are best at using theories and abstract concepts in real-life situations;
- Students using accommodating learning styles enjoy activities that allow them to be actively engaged, assignments promoting independent discoveries. They actively seek out new experiences and opportunities, rely on intuition, and aren’t afraid to take risks.
The application of Kolb’s theory in the classroom is beneficial for both students and teachers. Teachers familiar with Kolb’s four-stage learning cycle and learning styles are one step closer to finding out students’ learning preferences and introducing various teaching techniques highlighting the value of experience.