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Experience as the source of learning and development- Book Review

1 December 2006
Dr. Moria Levy

The association that typically comes to mind when studying is linked to the school period, university, or other formal courses and training. Indeed, a significant portion of our early years, starting from age six, is dedicated to such structured environments. However, the learning process persists even beyond high school and university completion. This ongoing learning occurs outside the traditional classroom, primarily through experience.

Kolb's book revolves around the concept of experience. Published in 1984, it emerged during Kolb's tenure as a professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Harvard University. The book was crafted with this perspective in mind.

Contrary to our simplistic perception, learning is a complex process. It invariably commences from an existing situation, creating a tension between the inclination to adhere to the familiar (potentially leading to fixation) and the imperative to evolve and innovate. Consequently, learning is a continuous relearning cycle, seldom commencing from a blank slate. Recognizing this is essential for educators.

The wisdom that facilitates this process can be distilled into a two-stage learning approach

  1. Evaluating existing knowledge, confronting it with reality, thereby recognizing the necessity for further learning.

  2. The actual process of acquiring new knowledge.

Learning based on experience aims to address the perpetual and ongoing tension between the existing and the novel, embracing it as an enduring and continuous phenomenon.

An analysis of the learning process reveals that learning from experience is shaped by four interrelated components

  1. Concrete Experience

  2. Active Experimentation

  3. Abstract Conceptualization

  4. Reflective Observation

Illustrations of learning grounded in these components include

  1. A concrete experience – a mother adept at soothing her crying baby.

  2. Active experimentation – a pianist honing skills through dedicated training.

  3. Abstract conceptualization – a teacher engrossed in a comparative study of curriculum development concepts.

  4. Observation coupled with reflection – a knowledge management consultant keenly observes mapping needs and subsequently implements them based on reflection.

These examples are not straightforward, as each can often be associated with multiple components. This complexity arises from the fact that these components delineate two axes, each featuring two opposing facets: concrete experience (detail-oriented) versus conceptualization (focused on generalizations and models), active experimentation (characterized by a highly engaged learner) versus observation through reflection (where the learner is inherently passive).

The learner cannot activate all four components simultaneously as they inherently contradict each other. At each stage, the learner must discern the appropriate balance and the extent to which each element is activated. Caution must be exercised to avoid the over-dominance of one component at the expense of the others.

Typically, in a specific operation, the learning style amalgamates two adjacent elements, forming a quadrant in the diagram. For instance, a mother proficient in calming her crying baby learns through active experience and concrete learning. This learning is also grounded in neurology and physiology, with the left side of the brain specializing in abstraction and symbolic representation. In contrast, the right side represents reality (i.e., experience).

In a literal context, the left side (L-MODE) is associated with using words for definition, description, and categorization into names. In contrast, the right side (R-MODE) is linked to an awareness of things with minimal reliance on words. The left side engages in thinking in terms of logically related independent ideas. In contrast, the right side adopts a holistic view, recognizing patterns and structures that encompass all details together, not necessarily through logical and complete decomposition.

As human beings, we tend to adopt a personal learning style that suits us, likely influenced by the programming of our brains based on variable rules. When selecting experiments as the foundation for learning, individuals program themselves to different levels across all four components, influencing learning, decision-making, and behavior.

  • A predisposition toward concrete experience emphasizes involvement in personal engagement with human situations, prioritizing feeling and intuition over thinking.

  • An inclination toward reflection centers on understanding the meaning of ideas and situations through careful observation and description.

  • A tendency toward abstract conceptualization prioritizes logic, ideas, and concepts, emphasizing thinking over feeling.

  • A leaning toward active experimentation emphasizes actively influencing and changing people and situations, highlighting practical applications over reflection.

The apparent connection between our chosen profession, career, occupation, tasks, and learning styles aligns with our characteristics. Kolb cites studies and conducts analyses, uncovering intriguing correlations among various occupations.

Here are some examples:

  • Marketing: A style characterized by high concrete experience and a propensity for active experimentation.

  • Engineering: Inclination towards conceptualization and a tendency for active experimentation.

  • Finance: A leaning towards conceptualization.

  • CA: Inclination towards concrete experience.

  • Research: A learning style marked by high conceptualization and observation with substantial reflection.

Skills required to fulfill roles are also associated with learning styles. Here are the skills in which individuals with strong capabilities will excel, aligned with the style of learning from experience:

Combining concrete experience – active experience:

  • Personal commitment to achieving goals.

  • Search for and identify new opportunities.

  • Influencing and leading others.

  • High personal involvement in dealing with people.

Incorporating abstract conceptualization – active experience:

  • Development of new methods of thinking and doing.

  • Experimentation with new ideas.

  • Selection of the best solution.

  • Goal setting.

  • Decision-making.

Combining concrete experience – observation while reflecting:

  • Sensitivity to people's feelings.

  • Sensitivity to values.

  • Listening with an open mind.

  • Collection of information.

  • Formulation of hypotheses regarding controversial situations.

Incorporating abstract conceptualization - observation while reflecting:

  • Organization of information.

  • Construction of conceptual models.

  • Examination of theories and ideas.

  • Design of experiments.

  • Quantitative data analysis.

The book delves into and dissects the learning style rooted in knowledge derived from concrete experience, as opposed to abstract conceptualization:

  1. Knowing from concrete experience is rooted in the present moment, contrasting with the process of abstract conceptualization that systematically analyzes the past to define the future.

  2. This form of knowledge, drawn from concrete experience based on Polanyi's insights, engages more with tacit knowledge, unlike abstract conceptualization, which deals more with what Polanyi termed articulated knowledge or open knowledge.

The conceptual style offers advantages such as analysis, criticism, and reorganization. Critiquing knowledge formed through concrete experience is challenging, while a learning style of abstract conceptualization is more understandable. Learning from concrete experience is complex yet crucial, enabling the selection and filtering of information to which attention is given, leading to the generation of new knowledge. It involves both awareness and an evaluative process, culminating in an approval process, in contrast to the conceptual audit process.

According to the author, a pivotal distinction between these styles lies in the subjective, personal nature of the capturing process in concrete experience, while conceptualization involves an objective, social process. Cantet emphasizes integration, noting that capturing concrete experience validates conceptual generalization. Kolb suggests that combining these opposing processes results in a higher, more inclusive truth. Simultaneously, concrete experience is highlighted as it forms personal knowledge crucial for preserving individual identity.

In the final chapters, the author also explores individuals' evolving nature, categorizing development into three stages: acquiring knowledge, expertise (with selection and prioritization), and integration. In infancy, knowledge is acquired, followed by developing tendencies based on specialization. Ultimately, individuals combine abilities, integrate styles, and ascend to a higher level of development.

Focusing on current circumstances suffices when assessing performance (at the first level). For evaluating learning, a broader timeframe is considered by examining similar situations. Development is characterized by adaptability to all life situations and, in some cases, even beyond.

The developmental model of learning from experience highlights several traits characterizing high levels of integrative development, referred to by the author as ego development:

  • A high level of flexibility, showcasing adeptness in self-adaptation.

  • Pursuit of unique personal development.

  • A multifaceted lifestyle involves engagement in various frameworks and multifaceted occupations within those frameworks.

  • Perfection and unity.

The essence of wholeness and unity is derived from the amalgamation of facts, values, meanings, and relevance. Individuals achieving development through experience can integrate all four learning styles inherently connected to their respective occupations. These individuals are poised to lead us toward a more distant future.

In conclusion, a few thoughts and implications arise: Kolb's book significantly reinforces the expanded lesson management model, asserting that experience must be considered alongside lessons learned. Lessons learned signify abstract conceptualization involving the construction of generalized models for the future based on the past. This is a purposeful learning activity primarily governed by the left side of the brain.

Experience, juxtaposed with lessons learned, represents knowledge derived from concrete experiences, sometimes before conscious realization. This embodies a dynamic learning activity intertwined with work processes. The value of experiences should be considered; Kolb deems them a crucial component of learning, governed by the right part of the brain. Much like our brains, structured with complementary components, insights are formed through lessons learned and experience. Both contribute reciprocally: abstract conceptual learning builds upon past instances, and concrete experience aids in validating lessons.

Concrete experiences facilitate the validation of lessons. Conversely, the recording and documentation of experience incorporate elements of abstract conceptualization. The synergy formed by combining these two aspects enables proper lesson learning, experience integration, and genuine learning, thereby enhancing organizational goal attainment.

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