Nearly 40 years after the publication of David Kolb’s 1984 book, Experiential Learning: Learning as the source of learning and development, experiential learning remains one of the most influential theories of learning in management education. A recent entry in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Business and Management outlines the background, history, and future of experiential learning in management education based on Kolb’s original formulation.
Experiential learning describes a four-phase process of learning that begins with experience. Experience serves as the raw material for the second phase of learning, reflection. During reflection, the learner understands the new experience in the context of prior experiences, which leads to greater insights and a sense of continuity in learning. The third phase is conceptualizing or thinking about experience in abstract ways. Abstraction means making connections to prior experiences, but also considering how the experience connects to ideas and concepts. The fourth phase is active experimentation where the learner considers next steps. In this fourth phase, the learner takes action, which in turn starts the cycle over again.
In the context of management education, experiential learning has inspired countless administrators, faculty, and students to adopt its principles to learning and teaching. In applied areas of learning such as training, leadership development, and employee learning, experiential learning remains the standard. Specifically, experiential learning has been used to:
- direct the design and delivery of courses
- serve as a guide to person-centered learning
- engage different approaches to learning and development
- provide a framework to consider management learning techniques such as problem-based learning, team-based learning, simulations, case studies, and other active learning strategies.
Based on foundational theories from pragmatic thinkers such as John Dewey and William James, experiential learning theory explains learning as a life-long activity. One reason that experiential learning has been so influential is because it addresses a growing discontent in management education. For example, experiential learning provides an alternative to traditional modes of learning such as lectures and content-based learning that requires memorization. Other factors that have led to its popular adoption are based on the premise that experiential learning provides a means to address how people learn differently, and because it addresses both practical and theoretical aspects of learning.
In addition, experiential learning provides the basis to integrate different assumptions associated with learning. Experiential learning theory has served as an overarching theoretical framework to study variations on experiential learning. Critical approaches, psycho-social dynamics of learning, as well as recent developments associated with neuroscience all draw on the foundational insights of experiential learning. New understanding of how people learn from experience promises to usher in new insights. In particular, we see three strong trends associated with experiential learning research and practice.
Three trends in experiential learning practice
First, there is increasing recognition that experiential learning constitutes a stance towards learning and not just a set of tools, exercises, and techniques. Oftentimes, in discussions of experiential learning, the emphasis has been on its application as a set of learning techniques. This is understandable as experiential learning advocates for an engaging approach to teaching and learning. But experiential learning offers more than just techniques and tools. As a comprehensive approach to learning, it serves as a guide on how to engage learners. This idea, that the learning cycle can guide learning, results in an emphasis on process rather than technique. This idea was the basis for our textbook, Contemporary Organizational Behavior. We introduced readers and instructors to the learning cycle as the basis for learning organizational behavior concepts. Rather than emphasize any specific techniques, we instead encourage learners to engage their experience through cases, reflection, and application.
Second, there is a growing realization that experiential learning can be applied to various situations, including self-improvement and development outside of the classroom. Kay Peterson, founder and CEO of the Institute for Experiential Learning has shown how experiential learning can be a useful tool for self-improvement and personal development. In her book, co-authored with David Kolb, How you learn is how you live, Peterson shows how attention to one’s experience provides the basis for life-long learning.
Third, research is on the verge of developing a better understanding of various factors, including the role of emotions, behaviors, and attitudes are involved in the learning process. This includes an interest in the nature of experiences that initiate and sustain the learning process over time. Emerging concepts such as learning identity, approaching learning with creativity, and emotional engagement, show promise as factors that can support the initiation of learning and sustained learning. In addition, research is showing a fundamental role for expert and emotional support in facilitating learning processes.
Nearly 40 years after its initial articulation in Kolb’s classic book, experiential learning remains on a vibrant and exciting trajectory. The recognition that learning from experience is a natural process, but one that may require cultivating and facilitating, means that learning from experience can continue to provide the basis for learning in a variety of formats for years to come.
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