Learning styles guru David Kolb reflects on his career and contribution to the experiential learning movement. Stephanie Sparrow reports.
David Kolb admits to being inspired by many things in his life: the writings of Carl Jung; the philosophy of Confucious… and sea shells.
Kolb, who as a champion of experiential learning and learning styles has been seen as a major influence in training and development for the past 40 years, likes to spend his winters in Hawaii, where his favourite hobby is to walk on the beach, with his wife Alice, to look for shells.
“We have a great shell cabinet at home to display them,” says the author of the ground–breaking 'Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development' (Prentice Hall 1984), and the creator of the Kolb learning style inventory. “They have major significance for us in representing the spiral of life and learning.”
The link between molluscs and learning comes from the way in which both can be self-making and self-learning as they adapt to their environment. In the shell this is seen as growth around a self-referential spine, and in experiential learning the cycle is a spiral of experiencing, reflecting, thinking and acting, he says.
Kolb, who is professor of organisational behaviour in the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University in Ohio and the founder of experience based learning systems, points out that spirals have been seen as the key to the learning process and renewal in many cultures. “Many representations of the Buddha, for example, show his hair coiled in tiny spirals of insight that culminate in enlightenment,” he says.
As Kolb explains: “When a concrete experience is enriched by reflection, given meaning by thinking, and transformed by action, the new experience created becomes richer, broader, and deeper.”
Kolb first brought experiential learning to the world’s attention during his research in the late 1960s. By 1984 he was ready to publish his learning styles model, which gave rise to terms such as experiential learning theory (ELT) and Kolb’s learning style inventory (LSI).
Both sets of work have gone on to inspire others (such as Honey and Mumford’s learning styles inventory which is perhaps better known to UK audiences) and to inform organisations worldwide on how to improve their behaviour and effectiveness - because teams who know their learning styles can improve their performance. He is also regarded as inspiring the notion of the learning organisation.
Kolb is confident that these ideas remain relevant.
“ELT is important for training professionals and educators because it provides an effective framework for the design and conduct of educational experiences that is proven more effective than the traditional information transfer lecture style of education,” he says.
“ELT is also a useful framework for organisational learning, helping to integrate learning with daily work and helping organisations adapt to today’s rapidly changing circumstances.”
He is 70 this year but still enjoys learning and incorporating elements of the experiential into it too.
“Having studied experiential learning for over 40 years, my views have evolved and deepened, but not changed substantially,” he says. “In many ways I have moved forward by moving backward, studying more deeply the works of William James, for example, or Asian scholars like Confucius.”
His favourite quotations from Confucius have become synonymous with experiential learning. He refers to: “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand”, as one of the most pertinent.
Kolb is keen to point out that he didn’t create experiential learning but took the common themes of his ‘intellectual heroes' to put into a framework which could be used to address learning and education.
“I discovered it in the works of these great scholars,” he says, and has identified eight who include: William James, Kurt Lewin, Carl Rogers, Carl Jung, John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and Paulo Freire. These are psychologists and philosophers who explored learning, developing ideas such as theory and practice informing each other (Dewey) and knowledge residing in the mind of the individual such that it can be drawn out by careful questioning (Rogers).
In the year in which he celebrates a milestone birthday and the 'ruby' and 'silver' anniversaries of his work, Kolb and Alice, who is president of EBLS, are looking forward to the future and to more important research projects.
“Our current research is opening many exciting avenues of development for us”, he says. “We are looking at how learning identity, in other words seeing oneself as a learner as opposed to having a fixed identity, impacts personal learning and development,” he says. They are also looking at the critical role that learning relationships play, and the assessment of teaching roles and styles.
“These projects and the assessment of learning flexibility are all yielding promising results,” he says.
But it's not all work. He and Alice are avid hikers and walk at least six miles a day. “We also manage and play in a mixed softball league,” he adds, “which is great fun.”
For more information about David's work, visit: www.learningfromexperience.com/about-us/
David Kolb offers five top tips:
- Raising awareness of them promotes the concept of learning throughout the organisation
- Identifying learning styles can help individuals, such as managers, to understand and improve the way they make decisions
- An awareness of the learning style of oneself and others can improve interpersonal and team relationships
- Understanding the learning styles that are characteristic of different organisational functions can improve cross-functional communication
- They can be used to characterise organisational culture and identify any mis- matches which might be a barrier to success
Stephanie Sparrow has 20 years' experience in writing about HR and training issues and is passionately interested in people development. She contributes to various publications and covers education topics for The Guardian newspaper.
She was highly commended in the Watson Wyatt Excellence in HR journalism awards.