People are different.
There is no news in the fact that differences go way beyond biology and biography. What’s fascinating is to discover more and more of the aspect in which we are different. It opens the door to finding ways to learn from one another at different levels.
One of these interesting differences is our preferences on how we learn.
Experiential learning is the process of learning through experience. It is defined as “learning through reflection on doing”. While the concept as such goes back as far as to Aristotle, it is only recently that it has been articulated as an educational approach. Beginning in the 1970s, David A. Kolb helped to develop the modern theory of experiential learning, drawing on the work of John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, C. G. Jung, and Jean Piaget.
Together with Roger Fry, David A. Kolb developed the Experiential Learning Model (ELM). The model involves four elements: concrete experience, observation of and reflection on that experience, formation of abstract concepts based upon the reflection and testing the new concepts. Together these four elements form a learning cycle.
Beyond the four stages of the learning cycle, Kolb also described four learning styles. That’s the place where individual differences kick in: people have a preference for one of the learning styles.
It means that people develop different learning habits by emphasizing one stage of the learning cycle over others. Consequently, some parts of the learning cycle won’t come naturally to them.
It’s easily explained: the four stages of the learning cycle draw on different modes. Kolb describes them as ‘dialectically related modes’. Using the word ‘dialectically‘ Kolb seeks to show that some of the modes cannot be used at the same time. Trying to do both at the same time creates an internal conflict. To resolve it we make a choice whenever we are confronted with a new learning situation. This choice is an unconscious decision between doing and watching as well as between thinking and feeling.
Grasping the experience happens on a continuum between doing and watching. Transforming the experience, on the other hand, depends on either feeling or thinking.
Taking, for example, a learner who sets off to ride the bicycle. In the “concrete experience” stage he physically experiences the bike in the “here-and-now”. He’s feeling how it is to use the bike. This concrete experience forms “the basis for observation and reflection” which gives the learner the opportunity to consider what is working or failing (reflective observation). These observations then allow thinking about ways to improve on the next attempt made at riding the bicycle (abstract conceptualization). A new attempt to ride benefits from the cyclical pattern of the previous experience, thought and reflection (active experimentation) and allows to start a new cycle.
To become most effective in experiential learning we need to develop all four modes and move beyond our preferences. Out of experience, this works best by learning with others, especially when establishing a group which combines learning styles. In such a group individuals can learn from all the others how to see, feel, think and act in their learning process.