Nice Theory #2—Experiential Learning

Closely related to Nice Theory #1—Learning Styles is a principle called “experiential learning”. That sounds nice. Let’s give kids good experiences to learn from. Appealing. I like it.

One of the big names in Experiential Learning discourse is David A. Kolb. I’ll use him as my exemplar in this entry. I spared Dr. Kolb in my Learning Styles post, but he is certainly an influential candidate there as well. Kolb argues for a significant link between the two concepts.

So what is experiential learning, how does it differ from other learning, and why is it purported to be educationally desirable? Let’s begin with a few reflections on learning. What are we doing when we learn? Sometimes we learn when we just find out new stuff. I read about the Diet of Worms in 1521 a little while ago. From that reading, combined with things I already knew or believed, learned that a diet was a formal assembly, and Worms is a city in Germany. In this assembly an edict addressed Martin Luther’s charges of heresy, with Luther himself present. In this case, learning is a matter of taking in new information, arranging it to fit with things I already know (even to the point of using the language and logic that I normally take for granted) and reaching some order or structure of ideas in my mind. When I was young I learned to understand English and to walk through entirely non-self-conscious activities. As a teenager I learned to drive through a combination of reading, speaking, listening and, oddly enough, driving. We seem to learn things in different ways, and these ways are contingent on the nature of the thing learned, and our current state of learning. But in every case I can think of, experience is involved in learning. So what is this experiential learning all about?

Kolb gives a model of learning as a cyclic process.

So what does this tell us? We have experiences (oddly, this cycle appears to have a starting point), we reflect, we abstractly conceptualize and we actively experiment. Really? Look at my examples above. I do not reflectively observe myself walking. Ever. Because I’ve studies such things, I’ve done some active experimentation, abstract conceptualization and reflective observation of my use of language, but it’s hardly part of any ongoing “cycle of learning”. I use language. Mysterious things happen in my mind and I use language, expanding my repertoire, even at this ripe age, too. And as for my learning about Martin Luther, well I don’t see it in that cycle either, beyond having those concrete experiences known as reading and thinking.

Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe Kolb’s model isn’t about the kind of learning that immediately came to my mind. Maybe this cycle only applies to specially chosen experiences. If so, what the heck good does it do me as a teacher or a learner? I have no idea.

Depending on which Kolb paper you read, the cycle either refers to four distinct stages of learning (or as we’ve seen it fails on even the flimsiest of thought experiments) or it represents four learning styles (here we go again). But if the diagram shows four distinct styles, how could they form a cycle?

Now this won’t come as a surprise, but Kolb’s experiential learning theory (or, perhaps more accurately, model) has led to hundreds of research papers and theses, commercial inventories that will sort out your learning needs for a price, and programs for implementation in schools. Why? Because it’s a “nice” theory. It feels good. There is a surprisingly robust body of research suggesting that the theory is non-predictive, that the tools used to measure and implement the theory lack reliability and construct validity and that take Kolb to task for the sorts of basic, commonsense problems I’ve articulated.

Experiential Learning feels good. It’s consistent with Learning Styles Theory and a vague construal of Constructivism (coming soon) but it lacks empirical support, internal consistency and does not align to common sense. Let’s show the door to Experiential Learning Theory.


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