3.3.1 Kolb's cyclical model of experiential learning
Stage 1: Concrete experience/planning the next learning experience
The Kolb model assumes that if experiential learning is to be fully effective, the learner must be involved in planning the learning experience. This can be done, for example, by learners setting their own objectives (action planning) or by preparing a more formal agreement (or ‘learning contract’) between a teacher (or teaching team) and a learner (or sometimes a group of learners).
Action planning might involve noting down a set of things to do, or discussing ideas with the teacher, trainer or manager. Formal learning contracts are now commonly used in courses in higher education. Many postgraduate courses include work-based learning modules, and some Scottish universities have Masters programmes where the entire curriculum and assessment are negotiated with the learner and drawn up in a formal contract.
Stage 2: Observing the actual learning experience and reflecting on what happened
According to the Kolb model, learners should be actively involved in the learning experience if they are to get the most out of it. This could involve drawing up a checklist of things that the learner should try to do, for example, actively observing what is going on, producing a record of the experience and formulating appropriate questions. Learners are encouraged to reflect on what they learned, how they learned it, why they learned it, whether the learning experience could have been more effective, and so on. Reflection might be facilitated by a teacher or trainer, or involve discussion with peers, or might be engaged in privately by the learner. Reflection can be informal (e.g. reviewing a lesson mentally during the day) or more formal (e.g. systematic logging of reflections in a personal diary following each class).
Stage 3: Forming abstract concepts/generalising from the experience
At this stage the idea is that in order to learn from an experience, it is necessary to form some general principles which can be used to guide subsequent behaviour.
Stage 4: Testing out the learning in new situations
The final stage in Kolb's model (though the concept of a cycle implies that there is no finality) occurs when tentative theories are tested out in new situations. In essence, implementing stage 4 involves importing the experience of stages 1–3 into a new stage 1.
The Kolb model provides a useful strategy that can be used to help you to think about your own learning. Consider the following questions.
How useful do you think the Kolb model might be in helping you to reflect on your teaching?
How significant is experiential learning in your professional life, compared to the contribution of formal learning acquired by, for example, reading and attendance at courses?
How relevant might this model be in helping pupils to understand and apply their own learning?
Weaknesses of Kolb's model
When evaluating the usefulness of Kolb's model, you might have noted that it assumes that in our professional lives we routinely observe and reflect on our experiences and formulate theories about what is going well or badly. In relation to classroom situations, often teachers say they simply cannot explain why a lesson or activity went well, or that they are too busy engaging in an experience to devote mental energy to observation and reflection.
You may also have observed that Kolb's view is that each of the four stages of the learning cycle demands a different kind of ability on the part of the learner. Some people find it easy to conceptualise problems but harder to act out solutions in practice. Ideally, we would wish to have equal facility in conceptual tools and practical skills. The argument can be taken further: individuals need opportunities to discover their strengths and need help to develop in all aspects of the learning cycle.
Strengths of Kolb's model
You might find the model useful in considering the process of your own continuing professional development requirements and making plans for taking these forward. For example, by definition you have a great deal of professional experience, in different aspects of your role as a teacher (stage 1). You could easily describe this experience in the form of a statement, a list or set of categories. Were you to spend time reflecting (stage 2), you could probably also begin to identify and explain aspects of your professional life which you regard as highly developed, and others where you recognise a need for development.
Some of your development needs may be so obvious (but nonetheless important) that there is no need to develop elaborate theories about what is going on and how things might be improved, but others will require more conceptualisation (stage 3) and, probably, checking out with others. Suppose your school development plan included statements about improving the ICT environment. You might conclude with no difficulty that your personal computing skills are reasonably advanced but that you need to learn about internet use. However, the matter of how ICT is used by you and pupils within the classroom is rather more problematic and needs considerable reflection and, arguably, the development of some ideas. These ideas could lead to a pilot project which you could test out with a class or group of pupils (stage 4).
Clearly the reflection stage is critical. Reflection can be a totally private activity or more public, where you articulate your thoughts, orally or in writing, for an audience of colleagues or a mentor.
You can read more about David Kolb's work, and criticisms of his theory, on the infed education website.