Today we’re going to learn about Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. Kolb developed this in 1984, based on the works of John Dewey, which said all learning happens through experience. So this learning theory describes the four stages that learners need to go through in order for a learning experience to be maximized. We’re going to define the four stages of the experiential learning cycle, explain the process through which the learner encounters these stages, and identify those stages within different scenarios both in a classroom and outside. So here is the experiential learning cycle as Kolb developed it; you can see we’ve got four stages, and two of them grasp information, which is where a learner takes in information and learn something new. And then the other two stages are where learners transform that information and actually internalize it and put it into their own understanding with the knowledge that they already have. We’re going to go through this as though you are flying a paper airplane. So first, you would have a concrete experience. This is where you actually take a plane and you fly it, you build your plane, and then you fly it somewhere. Next, you would reflect and observe what happened during that flight. So you think about how far did it fly? Did it do any sort of twirls? Did it do what you wanted it to do? After that, and you’ve decided, yes, it was a satisfactory flight, or I think I need to learn more about paper airplanes, you might do a Google search or take a lesson in how to build paper airplanes, and you’d start building generalizations. You may even do this by learning how other people have flown their planes. And so you build generalizations and theories, such as the wings have to be folded this way in order for it to fly straighter. After you’ve built your theories and generalizations, you would actively experiment by building a new and improved paper airplane. And then you would have the opportunity once that’s built to engage in a new concrete experience by trying and flying your new plane. You could go around the cycle as many times as you’d like to try and perfect your paper airplane. So those are the four stages, and we’re going to learn how to identify them in a couple of different scenarios. This first scenario is a non-school sort of scenario, but experiential learning happens in all aspects of our lives. So let’s take a quick look here and see if we can identify the stages. So Elisa is very excited. Sam asked her to prom. The night of the prom, however, does not go well. He shows up late to pick her up, doesn’t greet her parents and complains about the music all evening, she’d not have a good time at all. Sam calls to ask Elisa out to dinner the next week, but at least the declines after talking to her friends about their happier prom experiences. Instead, she makes dinner plans with Mark who show shows up 10 minutes early to pick her up, spends the time chatting with her parents, and she’s happy she was able to enjoy an evening of conversation over dinner with him. She plans to ask Mark to the next school dance. So let’s see if we can find the concrete experience. That would actually be here where he had her first experiences with Sam – he shows up late, doesn’t greet her parents, and complains about the music. Now, how she reflects on that really makes the determination as to whether or not she engages in a follow up date with Sam. But her reflection concludes that she did not have a good time. She thinks nope, that was not fun, I did not enjoy it. She then learns a little bit more about building theories on what she thinks constitutes a happier date by talking to her friends. So that’s her abstract conceptualization. Then she actively experiments by making dinner plans with someone else to see if that leads to a different sort of experience. Now we can see here she does have a second concrete experience, a much more positive one that she was then able to reflect on in a more…in a happier way. And then she experiments once again. Now we have the four stages, but we don’t necessarily have to always have them in the same order. So she already received her abstract conceptualization when she had talked to her friends earlier.
Let’s look at one that’s in a classroom and learning about photosynthesis. We’ve got two teachers – Mr. Sully and Miss Howard. We’re going to read about Mr. Sully first and see if we can identify which stages are included here. So Mr. Sully and Miss Howard are teaching their classes about photosynthesis. Mr. Sully shares a PowerPoint with his class that explains the process and lectures to provide detail and clarity. He then gives his students a worksheet to complete. So here we have both abstract conceptualization. We can see that where he is giving them the theories in generalizations without providing them a concrete experience. He then does give them a concrete experience by filling out a worksheet. John Dewey states, all learning happens through experience, but it’s the quality of that experience that makes a difference. So you can evaluate for yourself whether or not filling out a worksheet is a valuable, high quality, concrete experience. Now let’s take a look at Miss Howard. She gives each of her students a seedling to take home and grow for two weeks after the two weeks are up, she leads the students in a discussion of how their plants are growing. When students say their plants are thriving or have died, she asks them to describe the environments in which the plants are growing. She then explains the process of photosynthesis and asks the students why their environments either helped or hindered that process. She gives each student another seedling and asks them to create a plan to improve the plant’s growth. So Miss Howard gives a concrete experience by giving them a seedling to take home and grow. She then asks them to reflect on how their plants are doing and thinking about the environment in which they’re in. She then gives them an abstract conceptualization or an opportunity to conceptualize abstractly by sharing with them the process of photosynthesis could be through a lecture. And considering how their environments may be aligned with that or did not. Then she gives them an opportunity to actively experiment by getting another seedling and asking them to create a plan to improve the plant’s growth. So we can see here that both of the teachers gave students learning opportunities and learning experiences, but definitely do so in a fashion that really changes the learning experience for the students. There we have the four stages, how students go through them, and how to identify them. As you’re creating your own lesson plans or learning experiences for others, consider how you might enhance those learning experiences by including all four stages of the experiential learning cycle.
University of Arkansas, USA
Dr. Catherine W. Shoulders is an associate professor of Agricultural Education at the University of Arkansas.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.