What is Kolb's Learning Cycle?

David Kolb's approach to reflection takes a somewhat different approach in some ways, as it sites reflection as part of a wider set of processes in which the learner (in this case, the educator reflecting on their practice as part of their continuing professional development) seeks to understand their working processes as they move through different stages of engagement with an event, occurrence, or training session and take on relevant aspects of the new material.

Kolb's cycle derives its insight from experiential thought as regards learning processes, and to some extent it is an offspring of work done by theorists such as Lewin, Piaget, and Freire. The learning cycle proposed by Kolb is experiential in that the focus is upon the value of experience to learning. What is also distinctive about this model is that reflection forms part of a wider set of processes, rather than the model being purely concerned with reflection. To this extent, then, the experiential learning cycle as outlined by Kolb could be used in association with another, and reflection-specific, model of reflection.

What are the steps of Kolb's Learning Cycle??

This diagram indicates the main elements of Kolb's experiential learning cycle:

kolbs learning cycle

1. Concrete experience

For Kolb, any process of learning, including learning as a consequence of embarking on an instance of reflection, begins with a concrete - real - experience. Our stimulus to learn in this model derives from having experienced something, and then on the taking into consideration of the meaning and impact of that experience.

Vicarious or second-hand experience (such as reading about how to become a teacher, for example, or watching a demonstration video) is not enough to fully appreciate the situation, event, or skill being studied. Only actual live experience gives the learner the complete picture.

2. Reflective observation

The second stage, reflective observation, involves taking a step back from the experience so that it can be properly considered. Processes related to reviewing what has been done, the effectiveness of the approaches being taken, and the possibility of alterations or variations to the concrete experience already undertaken can be considered.

Kolb appreciates that for some, this is a more natural process than it might be for others. Some people are organic in their reflective abilities, whereas others have to be more formal and structured in their approach to looking back on their experiences and drawing insight for the future from them.

3. Abstract conceptualisation

For Kolb, conceptualisation means to draw inferences from our experiences and what they mean to us. We can take ideas generated as a consequence of reflecting on our experiences, and then draw conclusions from them. In the abstract conceptualisation phase of the cycle, we are prompted to make sense of our experiences, and better appreciate the relationships between them and our wider world.

This can mean further reflective thinking guided towards linking our practice with wider theoretical concepts (such as connecting live teaching events to a range of learning theories which may explain them in various ways). Insight may also be taken from colleagues, peers, from one's own previous history, and from parallel experiences. All of this can support the making of fresh meaning from the concrete experience which we have engaged with through the cycle.

4. Active experimentation

The active experimentation phase of Kolb's cycle is where the hypotheses generated in the previous element are put to the test. It may be that multiple possible alternative approaches have been provoked by the process of working through the cycle, in which case it may be appropriate to test them all in live situations. From such experimentation, fresh concrete experiences will be encountered. Learning must be enacted, not just considered in the abstract; this fresh concrete experience is vital for learning to become embedded.

It is not enough, however, merely to test alternatives or to be assured that one's previous way of working was the most appropriate to the circumstances. For a full appreciation, the cycle must be continued, as we continually re-assess the usefulness and the meaning of our experiences, and as we seek make further improvements.

Evaluation

Kolb's ideas have been influential, not least in the development of other approaches which have taken inspiration from Kolb. The learning cycle may be used also in partnership with other schemas of Kolb's, most notably the definitions of four styles of learning which he developed alongside the cycle. For Kolb, there are four kinds of learners:

  • Divergent thinkers: Divergent thinkers are able to assimilate ideas from a spectrum of sources and theoretical approaches. Divergent thinkers are sensitive, imaginative, good at brainstorming and coming up with multiple alternatives to addressing a problem or situation, as well as being good in group-working situations, and in tackling research exercises
  • Assimilators: Assimilators prefer logical, short, factual approaches, and work well with clarity and with making sense of theory and abstract concepts. Learners and reflectors who tend to being assimilators like to take time to think through the relative merits of different positions, and can synthesise material efficiently.
  • Convergent thinkers: Convergers are adept at problem-solving, and in technical operations, particularly those with real-world applications. There can be a focus on technical or technological subjects, and on experimentation as a way of exploring the world.
  • Accommodating thinkers: Accommodators respond well to active experimentation, to inspiration and to intuition rather than a logical and ordered approach. This kind of learner likes working in group environments and using the knowledge of others to support their own decision-making.

Disadvantages of Kolb's ideas include the observation that his categories and processes are a personal design and as such are asserted rather than 'proved' in any meaningful way. The experiential cycle proposed may not be a good fit for all reflective situations, and may also require articulation with another reflection-centric approach for it to be meaningful. In addition, the separation between stages in the cycle as outlined by Kolb may be artificial, and not mirror actual experiences where multiple aspects of the learning cycle may be encountered simultaneously.

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