Of the following two examples, I’d like to invite you to answer which is more likely to provide someone with a deeper level of learning…
For the past week, Jake’s school teacher has taught the class a subject from the curriculum. Jake listened carefully to the teacher, both asking and answering subject-related questions. At the end of the week, the teacher informed the class that there would be a test on this subject in five days time. From then till the day of the test, Jake diligently revised every night, and subsequently passed the test with flying colours.
Yesterday, Jake went to watch his first ever live professional football match. It was under floodlights with a capacity crowd and, despite his favourite team losing, it was an exhilarating contest. On the journey home, father and son talked about the game, and the next morning at school, Jake analysed the match with his friends, who had watched it on the TV. At lunchtime, Jake and his friends re-enacted the match in the play ground, although this time Jake’s favourite team won.
According to The Experiential Learning Cycle (Kolb, 1984), the second example is far more likely to generate a more profound learning effect.
“Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” – David Kolb
Applying the first example to my own experiences, I can certainly recall instances where I’ve been taught something, revised for it, passed a test on it…and then pretty much forgotten most of it by the following week. Similarly, yet perhaps more embarrassingly, there are many times when perusing a book that I’ve had to re-read a page or two due to the realisation that none of the content has actually registered. Has this happened to you too? I hope I’m not alone!
So what’s going on here? How can we pass a test on a subject but then forget much of the subject knowledge just a few days later, yet on the other hand remember some things in vivid detail for a lifetime? Why do we sometimes learn superficially, and other times deeply?
According to Kolb, for us to truly learn anything, whether in education, sport, music, the arts, business and everything else, we need to transition through a four stage process…
Stage 1: Concrete Experience
Kolb’s cycle begins with an individual, team or organisation doing something memorable. In other words, they have a profound experience. The more profound the experience, the more dramatic the ensuing emotional reaction. Visceral, multi-sensory experiences help us to connect our hearts, hands, and heads to learning.
Examples include: Watching an exciting live sports match; Observing a master performer in full flow; Being outplayed and defeated by a more skilled and experienced opponent.
Stage 2: Reflective Observation
The second stage involves stepping back from the experience and reviewing what has occurred. This requires lots of questions being asked and communication channels staying open.
Examples include: Recounting the match with someone else; Asking the master performer some questions; Documenting the emphatic defeat in a performance journal.
Stage 3: Abstract Conceptualisation
This is the process of making sense of what has happened, and involves interpreting the events and comprehending the relationships between them. To help us gain a better understanding, it’s important to compare the latest experience with previous encounters and beliefs.
Examples include: Analysing the match; Comparing our level of performance with that of the master performer; Forming some conclusions about the defeat.
Stage 4: Active Experimentation
The final stage of the learning cycle is to consider how we’re going to put what we’ve learnt into practice. Planning enables us to use our recently acquired knowledge to devise and test new beliefs and behaviours, or refine and revise existing ones.
Examples include: Re-enacting the professional match with friends; Testing out a technique which is similar to that used by the master performer; Creating a practice session that mimics the competence and intensity of the skilled opponent.
Simply put, the model suggests that deep and lasting learning occurs when we…
- Engage in an impactful experience
- Reflect on this experience
- Interpret and try to make sense of this experience
- Try out and test our new skills and abilities
In essence, Kolb believes that we only learn effectively by passing though each of these four stages. As such, no one stage of the cycle can be successful as a learning procedure on its own.
Perhaps I can now apportion some blame to the theory-based learning methods, adopted by the majority of schools, colleges, and universities within the education system, for my less than stellar academic record!
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