In today’s world where everything is more complex and things seem to happen much faster, we are constantly rethinking how we learn and absorb knowledge to keep up with all these changes. If we look at the basics of how we learn and prepare for life as children, we will notice that almost all learning is done through experience. We experience something, we reflect on it, we create concepts and apply those concepts to test and verify, and so on. This is the fastest and most natural way to understand and absorb knowledge.
This essential and elementary learning process has been structured by several theorists in the last decades. Among them is David Kolb, developer of the Experiential Learning Cycle. The cycle describes four phases: Concrete Experience, Observation & Reflection, Abstract Conceptualization and Active Experimentation.
Throughout life we learn differently. In educational systems, they do not teach us through experience, but through the teacher speaking, lecturing and instructing. Knowledge, in this way, is worked through intellectual and rational concepts and taught in a way that only allows us to hear and see. As this way of learning has been the educational norm for young people and adults, it seems to us that it is a good way.
Learning is more than absorbing abstract concepts
In the first place, learning is much more than absorbing abstract concepts. We live in a world where they teach rational theory and concepts without showing us the experiences that preceded them. We skip the experiential stages of the learning cycle. Maybe because we find it inefficient. But unfortunately skipping these stages of the cycle is not effective. Learning is not the process of hearing or seeing something and then reproducing at the right time. Learning something so that it can later be reapplied implies understanding.
The experiential learning process requires our analytical skills, to really understand and thereby retain knowledge longer. Reflection is an essential part of the cycle, which allows the insights to be much deeper. After an experience, reflection (in groups or individually) opens a passage to a new powerful way of thinking and learning, by allowing direct involvement.
Imagine the concept of collaboration: so used nowadays and undoubtedly essential in any area of our lives. To really learn, that is, to understand the concept of collaboration, it is not enough to see and hear a presentation about its importance. The individual needs to live collaborative experiences (and non-collaborative experiences) to feel the difference, to reflect with others about it, to create an abstract concept that can then be applied in several situations. Understanding requires all stages of the cycle.
Learning also involves skills and attitudes
Secondly, it is important to understand that learning is something that goes beyond intellectual and conceptual knowledge. Often learning something in fact also requires a change or development of skills and attitudes. Following all the stages of the cycle helps us in this process. Knowledge, in fact, is only acquired in the third phase (Abstract Conceptualization). In the other phases we develop skills and change attitudes, because we really experience something relevant.
For example, we return to the example of collaboration. In addition to understanding the knowledge and importance of the concept, we develop our skills to collaborate by living the experience: how to communicate better, how to ask for help, how to have patience and empathy. We have also changed our attitude. We grew up in school learning that we cannot collaborate: we cannot look at the role of the other, we cannot copy answers, we cannot ask the group for help. That way we will have to change our attitude if we want to work together and create new ideas, live in an environment of innovation and work more efficiently.
Experiential learning serves several “types” of learners
Finally, experiential learning serves several types of learners. Adults, like children, have different ways of learning. Some people integrate personal values into learning and enjoy knowing the principles behind what they are learning. Other people integrate their own learning experiences and are more interested in the logic behind an idea. Some people quickly connect theory with practice and like solving problems. Others always ask ‘What if?’ and like to connect concepts with concrete applications. Kolb also described these four types of learners and how the Experiential Learning Cycle helps each of us participate in the most appropriate way.