The Kolb Experiential Learning Model

Many great minds, beginning with Aristotle, have coined their own phrases that echo the ideal that “experience is the best teacher.”  C.S. Lewis said, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Experience: that most brutal of teachers, but you learn.  My God, do you learn.”  While all experiences are not brutal (and yet they do teach and teach well!), many of life’s and business’ teaching moments are the hard knocks.  In this series, we’ll focus on getting maximum benefit from experiential learning through the Experiential Learning Model, as developed by David Kolb.  And we’ll sprinkle in our special take on its uses for executive development today (mostly minus the hard knocks…).

Kolb’s model is a simple, four stage cycle that describes a learner’s cognitive process:

Many believe learning begins with experience, but in fact, the learner can enter the cycle at any of the four stages. Research has shown that learning is most effective when the learner completes the full cycle.  Where the learner prefers to enter the cycle depends largely on their learning style and/or environmental circumstances.   But no matter where you begin, the process and outcomes all depend on the learner’s meaning-making.  In other words, without reflection experience does not teach, without conceptualization reflection is just an exercise, and without experimentation concepts become knowledge without impact. (Sounds like my undergraduate degree. Kidding…kind of…)

Let’s Start with Experience

Experience can take many forms.  It can be a planned event, such as accepting a new, challenging role. Experience can be an environmentally initiated event, such as hearing, “I’m sorry to report that your IT infrastructure has been hacked.”  Or it can be a non-real event, like simulations or story-based events.  At Experience to Lead, we utilize a mix of story, simulation, and sometimes real events to initiate learning. In our story experiences, immersive environment and artifacts support the powerful stories that create the experience.  In our simulation experiences, sports and other team exercises from learning the basics through playing a game become the experience. And with real events, we help you bring your business challenges into experiences like Apollo or The Miracle on the Hudson.

No one can truly avoid life’s experiences.  That is, well, part of life!  But before you launch into learning through experience for deliberate development, there are three key questions you should ask yourself:

1.  Are You Willing to Engage in the Process?

Experiential learning is active. It’s a different beast than classroom learning or other passive forms of learning.  You must be engaged in all phases of the learning process.  Without personal, even emotional, engagement the learning will not stick as well.  Some of the greatest benefits of experiential learning stem from its stickiness.  Remember that time in high school or around the water cooler when you learned the disasters that can follow idle gossip?  Yeah, that was experiential learning.  And yeah, that was some sticky learning – you still remember it after all these years.

2.  Are You Open to the Outcomes that Reflection May Propose?

Experiential learning can be a lot of fun, but it can also challenge your current worldview or mental models.  Are you ready for your current way of things to be challenged?   Without an openness to change or willingness to try out ideas that present themselves, the experience may be fun, even entertaining, but it won’t garner the results for which you’re hoping.

3.  Are You Willing to Test and Try?

Now here’s the rub.  You have to do something about what your reflections have revealed.  And this is the hardest part: change.  The theories or insights that you’ve just revealed to yourself are good.  But they go no further if you don’t implement and test.  Will they continue to be good in the reality beyond a mental model?  This is where the real work occurs and you might be on your own for this part, without a catch net.  At Experience to Lead, we can help support you and your colleagues in this change process.

So, rubber meets road.  Are you up for it?

More Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning in Business

Leading through massive change and chaos: Lessons from the Battle of Gettysburg

Experiential Learning From a Historical Battle

experiential learning daily activities

Experiential Learning Training at Work

experiential learning

Business Case for Experiential Learning