Outlining experiential learning processes

What academic research and three decades of providing experiential learning taught us about learning processes.

It is the work of David A. Kolb and his associate Roger Fry that still provides the central reference point in defining experiential learning processes. Kolb and Fry’s interest lay in exploring the processes associated with making sense of concrete experiences, along with the different styles of learning that may be involved. By affirming that “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience”, Kolb states that all learning is indeed experiential.

Kolb and Fry created their famous model represented in a four stage experiential learning cycle, in which the learner “touches all the bases”: Effective learning is seen when a person progresses through a cycle of four stages: of (1) having a concrete experience followed by (2) observation of and reflection on that experience which leads to (3) the formation of abstract concepts (analysis) and generalizations (conclusions) which are then (4) used to test hypothesis in future situations, resulting in new experiences.

Our 27 years of experience designing experiential learning programs have shown us the importance of considering all four stages in building learning experiences. Often times, experiential learning curriculums fail to provide equal spotlight on those stages, and rather focus on the dimensions involving concrete experience and its reflective observation. However, conceptualisation and application of the acquired insights in new situations are crucial in making learning a driver of transformation. Moreover, considering experiential learning as a cycle allows sustaining this transformation by creating an integrated process where each stage is mutually supportive of and feeding into the next

The WDHB principles for Experiential Learning Design

While Kolb’s model provides an excellent structure to visualize comprehensive and integrated learning processes, we believe it presents certain shortcomings when it comes to building actionable learning strategies. This is how we address them when designing our Learning Expeditions:

Firstly, the idea of a nice set of neat learning stages does not always equate to most people's reality, as some of these processes can occur at once. For practitioners, the challenge is to design holistic learning experiences in which the concrete experience, the reflective observation, the conceptualization and the active experimentation are not isolated but appear as part of the same path, all the while creating a structured learning flow of activity where each part contains a dedicated focus. At WDHB, we call this “the combination of immersion and emergence”: while we see the design of Learning Expeditions as the creation of a holistic experience combining all four elements of the experiential learning cycle, we distinguish between activities that focus on immersing the learners in new environments and experiences, and activities that put the emphasis on reflection and conceptualization at the individual and collective levels. It is important to provide dedicated time and space for each of these dimensions.

Secondly, as it focuses on the individual processes associated with making sense of concrete experiences Kolb's model remains "private". We at WDHB believe in the inherently collective dimension of any learning journey. This doesn’t involve only partaking in a shared experience, but rather the sharing of purpose amongst a community of learners, along with concrete tools for collaboration.

Last but not least, Kolb’s model highlights the cognitive processes that shape learning. But let’s not neglect the emotional and behavioural dimensions of learning. We strongly believe that learning engages the whole person, not just their mind. Designing experiential learning programs means designing experiences that appeal to the head, the heart and the gut: experiences that generate new insights and ideas, that produce an emotional response, and prompt new actions and initiatives.

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