The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)
Edited by Daniel Schugurensky
This site includes questions and answers on Adult Education that were written by students in the course 'Outline of Adult Education' at OISE/UT. The questions are first raised in class by the students themselves. Then they organize in teams in order to research and answer them. New entries are added regularly. This website is intended to provide information about the field to new students and to those who have a general interest in Adult Education. Anyone is welcome to submit a question and/or answer.
By Richard W. Shields, Dorothy Aaron, and Shannon Wall
his book Experiential Learning: Experience
as the Source of Learning and Development (1984), David Kolb introduces his
experiential learning theory and provides a model for its application in
schools, organizations, and virtually anywhere people are gathered together.
Kolb’s comprehensive and practical theory builds on the rich foundations of
experience-based learning provided by John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Jean
We first consider the roots of his theory following which we offer a summary of
it in practice.
John Dewey is properly acknowledged as the foremost philosopher of
democracy from the United States in the twentieth century. He sought a
conceptualization of democracy in its application into all spheres of life. For
Dewey, the true end of philosophy is the realization of social progress.
Education was of prime interest to him. Indeed, Democracy
and Education, published early in his career in 1916, was one of his
principal works. Kolb describes Dewey as “the most influential educational
theorist of the twentieth century.” (p. 5) He relies upon a later work, Experience
and Education (1938), in support of his own theory.
Experience and Education, Dewey
distinguishes between “traditional” education and the “progressive”
approach. In the traditional model of education, “the subject-matter of
education consists of bodies of information and of skills that have been worked
out in the past; therefore, the chief business of the school is to transmit them
to the new generation.” (p. 17). The traditional model is teacher-driven
rather than learner-centered. Knowledge and skills are commodities to be
delivered by the teacher to the student. The students are docile, receptive, and
obedient and the teachers are the agents of this transmission of knowledge and
skills. Dewey contrasts this approach with that of the “new education.” It
is supported by an underlying philosophy, which states “that there is an
intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and
education.” (p. 20) Dewey rejects knowledge of the past as the end
of education; rather, it is a means.
For educators, the challenge is how to use experience to educate.
Kurt Lewin is the founder of American social psychology. He is best known
for his work in the field of organizational behaviour and group dynamics and
with the development of the methodology of action research. From his studies
emerged the laboratory-training method
and T-groups. The principal concern
for Lewin was the integration of theory and practice.
research reveals that learning is maximized when there is a dialectic tension
between the immediate, concrete experience and analytic detachment. He
considered this conflict critical to organizational change and improvement.
“T-groups and the so-called laboratory method on which they were based gave
central focus to the value of subjective personal experience in learning, an
emphasis that at the time stood in sharp contrast to the ‘empty-organism’
behaviorist theories of learning and classical physical-science definitions of
knowledge acquisition as an impersonal, totally logical process based on
detached, objective observation.” (Kolb, p. 10) Subjective
experience is a vital component of experiential learning.
research and laboratory training are based on feedback
processes that Lewin borrowed from electrical engineering to describe a
“social learning and problem-solving process.” He developed his cycle
of action, which provides “a continuous process of goal-directed action
and evaluation of the consequences of that action.” (Kolb, p. 21)
experiential learning model consists of a concrete
experience, from which observations
and reflections are made, that lead to the formation
of abstract concepts and generalizations, following which comes the testing
of the implications of these concepts in new situations. The four phases are
placed in a circle equidistant from each other with the concrete experience at
the top. Each step is linked to the one that follows by an arrow with testing
leading back to experience thereby strongly affirming the continuous nature of
experiential learning. Lewin’s model is the precursor to the Kolb Cycle.
Jean Piaget provided the final piece of the puzzle for Kolb. The
distinguished Swiss developmental psychologist studied the nature of
intelligence and how it develops. In the course of his work with Alfred Binet,
the creator of the first intelligence test, Piaget became more interested in the
reasoning process used by the children performing intelligence tests rather than
whether their answers were correct or incorrect. He found that there were
age-related regularities in the reasoning processes, as well as differences in
the way children thought about things. These insights led him to undertake a
study of experience and human knowledge. Piaget devoted the next fifty years of
his life exploring these ideas.
In its simplest formulation, Piaget’s theory claims that intelligence
is shaped by experience, and that intelligence is not an innate internal
characteristic but rather a product of the interaction between the person and
his or her environment. He found that our ways of knowing change
“qualitatively in identifiable stages, moving from an enactive stage, where
knowledge is represented in concrete actions and is not separable from the
experiences that spawn it, to an ikonic stage, where knowledge is represented in
images that have an increasingly autonomous status from the experiences they
represent, to stages of concrete and formal operations.” (Kolb, p. 13). These
basic developmental processes make up Piaget’s model of Learning and Cognitive Development. According to Kolb, they
determine the basic learning processes of adults.
Kolb draws upon the contributions of Dewey, Lewin, Piaget,
and others to construct his own model of experiential education. He lists six
characteristics of experiential learning (pp. 25-38). First, learning is best
conceived as a process, and not in terms of outcomes. Second, learning is a
continuous process grounded in experience. Third, learning requires the
resolution of conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of adaptation to the
world. Fourth, learning is a holistic process. Fifth, learning involves
transactions between the person and the environment. Sixth, learning is the
process of creating knowledge.
Kolb, “Learning is the process whereby
knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” (p. 38).
The experiential way of learning involves the application of the information
received from the educator to the experiences of the learner. It does not
consist of activity generated in the classroom alone. The student does not
acquire his or her knowledge exclusively from the teacher. Rather, he or she
learns through this process of taking the new information derived in class and
testing it against his or her accustomed real-life experiences. By so doing, the
learner transforms both the information and the experience into knowledge of
some new or familiar subject or phenomenon.
model is comprised of four phases that he locates in a circle. This model has
come to be known in the literature as the Kolb
the first phase, the educator involves the learners in a concrete
experience. The experience could be a
role play, a live or video demonstration, a case study, or a testimonial.
Generally, it will not be a lecture. The learners are then asked to review the
experience from many perspectives. They ask themselves questions. What happened?
What did you observe? This second phase is referred to as reflective
observation. During the third phase of abstract
conceptualization, the learners develop theories and look at patterns.
Further questions are asked. How do you account for what you observed? What does
it mean for you? How is it significant? What conclusions can you draw? What
general principles can you derive? The fourth and final phase of this
experiential model is active
experimentation. The learners suggest ways that they can apply the
principles they have learned. How can we apply this learning? In what ways can
we use it the next time? What would we do differently?
closing, experiential learning provides a model that enables learners to draw
from their past experiences to acquire new knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes
that they can then apply in their organizational settings.
John. (1916). Democracy and Education: An
Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: The Free Press.
John. (1934). Art as Experience. New
York: G.P.Putnam, Capricorn Books.
John. (1938). Experience and Education.
New York: Kappa Delta Pi.
David A. (1984). Experiential Learning:
Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Kurt. (1951). Field Theory in Social
Sciences. New York: Harper & Row.
Jean. (1951). Play, Dreams and Imitiation
in Childhood. New York: W.W. Norton.
Jean. (1970). Genetic Epistemology.
New York: Columbia University Press.
Jean. (1970). The Place of the Sciences of
Man in the System of Sciences. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
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