Daniel Schugurensky, Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

Questions and Answers on Adult Education

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.


What is Kolb's model of experiential education, and where does it come from?

By Richard W. Shields, Dorothy Aaron, and Shannon Wall

Experiential Learning

In 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 Piaget. We first consider the roots of his theory following which we offer a summary of it in practice.

John Dewey

            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.

In 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

            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.

Lewin’s 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.

Action 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)

Lewin’s 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

            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.

David Kolb

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.

For 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.

Kolb’s 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 Cycle.


In 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?

In 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.


Dewey, John. (1916). Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: The Free Press.

Dewey, John. (1934). Art as Experience. New York: G.P.Putnam, Capricorn Books.

Dewey, John. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Kappa Delta Pi.  

Kolb, David A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.

Lewin, Kurt. (1951). Field Theory in Social Sciences. New York: Harper & Row.

Piaget, Jean. (1951). Play, Dreams and Imitiation in Childhood. New York: W.W. Norton.  

Piaget, Jean. (1970). Genetic Epistemology. New York: Columbia University Press.  

Piaget, Jean. (1970). The Place of the Sciences of Man in the System of Sciences. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

 November 2001

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