The University of Life:
An Analysis of David Kolb’s Experienced-Based Learning System
by: Robert J. Escandon MA, C.Ht.
How one learns and acquires knowledge is an examination of human nature. The acquisition and understanding of knowledge varies from person to person. While there are proven methods that generalize the learning process so that it can be applied to most, if not all, educational theorists analyze the practices of education in order to determine what is effective and what is not. While there are various learning models for education, the Experiential Learning model offers the student a hands-on experience in the process of learning.
Educational theorist David Kolb, who holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University in Social Psychology, developed his own Experiential Learning Model based on four learning phases. Kolb is credited with popularizing experiential learning in the modern era. His four-phased approach is based on the theories of John Dewey, Jean Piaget and Kurt Lewin. Kolb’s approach to experiential learning encompasses the philosophy of adult education, which includes a more interactive learning environment rather than book-based learning because adults are found to be self-directed and bring life experience into the learning environment.  Thus, we will analyze Kolb’s learning model and the theories of John Dewey, Jean Piaget and Kurt Lewin.
Imagine trying to learn martial arts by simply reading a book. Theoretically, one can learn a lot about the art of kicking and punching by studying a how-to guide. Granted, during the reading process there is an of absorption process that happens by the individual. All of this is recorded somewhere in the mind as a reference point to be used at a later time. However, it is almost impossible to learn martial arts without actually physically doing martial arts. Nothing can prepare you for the pebble on the floor that may stunt your fighting stance, the feel of blocking a punch that may hurt your arm, the strain on your leg from kicking too high or fatigue from over exerting oneself. There comes a point when you are going to have to put foot to ground and experience the ride for yourself. David Kolb’s Experiential Learning System, based on the philosophies of John Dewey, focuses on the learning process for the individual. It focuses on how experience teaches a person. There are four phases in Kolb’s experiential learning model that consist of concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation.
The concrete experience focuses on the individual going through the physical task. In our aforementioned example, this would be walking into the dojo and experiencing how to punch and kick from the fighting stance. In this concrete experience stage, the student is actively and willingly involved in the learning process. He/she is gaining invaluable firsthand knowledge in the martial arts. Instead of reading about the process of kicking in a book, the student is learning about it from first-hand experience. Many times throughout a person’s educational career, the student enters into what is commonly called an internship or shadowing of an active professional in one’s chosen field. While shadowing is more focused on observation, an internship is usually a more hands-on experience. According to Kolb, learning is an integrated process, and experiencing the subject first-hand is essential. 
This stage is followed by reflective observation, which is essentially an analysis of the experience. What did it feel like to kick and punch? What was comfortable and what was not? What needs to be fine-tuned? For the most part, writing clear and organized papers is a requirement for academics. How one gets to write these clear and organized papers is partially through proper planning. However, there is a point when the best instructor is going to be writing the paper itself, receiving feedback and fine-tuning from that point forward. The fine-tuning is a part of Kolb’s abstract conceptualization phase. This is where new ideas are formulated. In a sense, it is an analysis of how the paper was originally composed, what worked, what didn’t work and what new methods can be applied to improve the work. The final phase in Kolb’s model is the active experimentation phase, where the accumulated experience, along with reflection and the conceptualization of improvements is applied providing a seemingly new experience for the student. The results are then taken back into the four-phase cycle, where the student actively engages the process again through thorough analysis, building on the experience until a satisfactory outcome is reached.
John Dewey, who was an American philosopher and educational reformer, believed that the educational system needed to be centralized around having direct experience on the subject matter. In his book Experience and Education Dewey criticized the education system because of its authoritarian method of delivering knowledge, rather than focusing on understanding the application of the knowledge learned. Right, good. When Dewey made these claims in 1938 the educational system followed a tired/traditional model of introducing knowledge rather than its application into real life studies. Dewey proposed that schools be integrated directly with life’s experiences, so that children and adults could apply the knowledge directly into the ever-evolving society. Kolb’s model is based on these ideas and introduces styles of learning for a person to choose what fits him/her best. Plato’s enigmatic phrase, “know thyself,” fits perfectly.
There is no way that a generalized form of study can determine how a person will learn best. Developmental psychologist and educational theorist, Jean Piaget believed that the nature of knowledge was the study of how a person acquired it, made sense of it and then how they applied it into a real world scenario. In actuality how a person learns is going to vary. The educational system may be able to present the idea of learning to an individual or group, however how this person actually attains and applies the knowledge is unique to that person. Progressive schools understand this, giving students options in how they acquire and apply the knowledge learned. Kolb created four different learning styles based on Dewey and Piaget’sideas. The styles of learning are assimilating, diverging, converging and accommodating. The accommodation learning style focuses on the learner listening to the experience of others and using their intuition rather than trusting in logical approaches, while the diverging style of learning focuses on observation rather than doing. Finally the assimilation style of learning focuses on watching and thinking while the converging style is based on doing and thinking.
The cycle of experiential learning as proposed by Kolb consists of concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation as seen in figure 1.1. We can simplify the names of each part of the phases in order to analyze the process easier.
What is happening in Kolb’s system of learning is the following; one goes through the experience, reflects upon the experience, fine-tunes to mentally improve the experience and finally we apply the improvements towards the experience itself. Kolb’s four-phase process for the most part is incomplete. In order for a student to fully grasp knowledge there needs to be a step within the process itself where knowledge is attained either by research, or gathering reference points, see figure 1.3.
All in all, there are other factors in the learning process, or shall I say, why someone is learning something that is the real fuel in their engines. From Sophocles to Aristotle, these Greek philosophers place a lot of emphasis on learning by doing. However, what is the real reason for learning something? Critics of Kolb’s system have pointed out that there is a sort of dogmatic cycle that may form within the learning process, which is both empty and without established goals. Also, the reason for learning is an important factor, and within Kolb’s system it is assumed that the learner or student has already figured this part out. For the most part, one begins with a reason for learning something. The fuel to project someone past the finish line is an element that is built upon throughout the learning process. The research component gives a student time to read what others are doing. It gives the student a comparison point to ask important questions such as; Have others done what I am doing? Can my studies be modified from a researchable or academic standpoint? What experiences have already been documented and where is my place among them?
Kolb’s four-phase system is a good beginning to the Experiential Learning process. However, by adding the research component to the system, in my opinion makes it much more complete as well as accessible to a broader audience of students and learners. The invisible factors that fuel the ability to learn something is the reason why someone is learning that thing to begin with. This is the most crucial factor within any learning model and to ignore it or assume that it is there is to ignore the reason of learning all together. It cannot be assumed that the student will keep this going for him or herself throughout the process. This reason must be examined and consistently fueled for maximum results. Being there, in the process of learning is not enough, one must know the reason why they are there and continue to build that reason the same way someone builds upon the Experiential Learning process.
 “John Dewey’s Theories of Education,” accessed July17, 2013, “http://www.marxists.org/archive/novack/works/1960/x03.htm”
 Miettinen, Reijo. “The concept of experiential learning and John Dewey’s theory of reflective thought and action.” International Journal of Lifelong Education, 19 (1), January-February, (2000): 54-72.