Writing the ‘learning series’ articles has been an insightful experience for me so far. The current article is the fourth in the series. The previous three articles focused on the following themes:
- Why life-long learning is indispensable.
- How we can use our Brain as an effective learning tool
- Different learning styles and preferences of people
Now continuing our discussion on learning, let’s shift our focus to ‘learning process’ itself in this article. Let’s learn how we learn.
To understand the ‘learning process, we need to know what triggers the learning process in the first place. As we are aware, life is full of experiences. And each experience in life throws an opportunity at us to learn something. So experience is the primary source of learning. However, experiences alone do not ensure learning. It is not sufficient just to have them. Rather, any experience has the potential to yield learning, provided we reflect on our experiences, interpret them and test our interpretations. Hence doing, reflecting, interpreting and testing are the key elements of the learning process.
American educational theorist, David A. Kolb has beautifully explained this in his experiential learning model. Kolb is currently a Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Weatherhead School of Management, Cleveland, Ohio. In his experiential learning model, Kolb introduces something called a four-stage learning cycle. This cycle defines the process by which individuals understand their experiences and modify their behaviors. The ‘cycle of learning’ is the central principle of his experiential learning theory.
The four stages in Kolb’s learning cycle are:
- Concrete Experience
- Reflective Observation
- Abstract Conceptualization
- Active Experimentation
These stages in the learning process, follow each other in a cycle. The cycle may be entered at any point, but the stages should be followed in sequence. The learning cycle therefore provides feedback, which is the basis for new action and evaluation of the consequences of that action. Therefore, learners should go through the cycle several times.
Now Let’s Learn more about the four stages:-
Stage-1: Concrete Experience: The learning cycle begins with concrete experience. Concrete experience comes from doing something in which the learner is actively involved. According to Kolb’s theory, one cannot learn by just watching or reading about something. To learn effectively, the learner must actually do something and gain concrete experience.
Let’s take the example of an individual learning Public Speaking skills. His trainer asks him to stand in front of the class and deliver a 5 minute speech. The student goes out there and delivers his first speech. This is an example of doing something as part of the learning process.
Stage-2: Reflective Observation: The next stage involves stepping back from the task involved and reviewing what has been done and experienced. At this stage, the learner asks himself questions like ‘what went well’, ‘what I could have done differently’ etc. He reflects on the experience and also seeks feedback from others.
Continuing with the earlier example, at this stage, the aforesaid student reflects on his first speech. He identifies a few areas where he faltered. He finds out that he exceeded the time allotted to him for his speech. He lost eye-contact with his audience. And moreover, he forgot his key points half-way through the presentation. He then asks his co-learners and gets additional feedback from them.
Stage-3: Abstract Conceptualization: The third stage involves interpreting the events of the task and understanding the relationships between them and making sense of what has happened. Abstract conceptualization is the formation of new theories, by the learner which explain their observation. To conceptualize is to generate a hypothesis about the meaning of one’s experiences. At this stage the learner may draw upon theory from text books, training programs, models they are familiar with.
In the same example, the student after the initial reflections then makes links between his previous experience of public speaking, and what they heard, and any theories or knowledge about public speaking they can apply. He speaks to his trainer, gets some advice on public speaking techniques. He notes down some ideas on how to prepare differently next time.
Stage-4: Active experimentation: This is the last stage and it involves applying the learnings and theories etc. in real-life situations and deciding upon a plan to improve on the task. In the active experimentation stage of the learning cycle we effectively ‘test’ the hypotheses we have adopted. Our new experiences will either support or challenge these hypotheses.
In the same example, the student, before going for his next presentation, prepares extensively. He carries his key points with him in a small note pad. He practices several times before delivering his presentation. He checks if he is able to complete his presentation in five minutes.
By now we have understood that the experiential learning theory affirms the importance of experiential activities. Learning Practitioners need to ensure that their learners go through the entire process by structuring and sequencing their curriculum as per the cycle. It is important to systematically take the learner through each stage of the cycle, ensuring that effective links are made between each stage.
Kolb’s theory is not just applicable to structured learning as part of a formal curriculum. We have the opportunity to apply this in our day-to-day life as well. Life is full of experiences. Whether at home or at work, there are countless opportunities for us to ‘kick-start’ the learning cycle by picking up a task and doing. When we pass from thinking about our experiences with the task to interpreting them we enter into the realm of ‘conceptualization’.
Hope you liked reading this article. As I continue hovering over different themes as part of the learning series, it would be great if you share your inputs on what you would like to read about ‘learning’ in my forthcoming articles.