Students with learning difficulties take in information very quickly when they experience it directly. This approach can provide context for material from academic classes, as well as stand on its own as a way to pick up some essential life skills. From its inception, we emphasised learning through direct experience as the method of choice wherever possible.
As the name suggests, experiential learning involves learning from experience. The theory was proposed by psychologist David Kolb who was influenced by the work of other theorists including John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget. According to Kolb, this type of learning can be defined as "the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combinations of grasping and transforming experience."
Experiential learning theory differs from cognitive and behavioral theories in that cognitive theories emphasize the role of mental processes while behavioral theories ignore the possible role of subjective experience in the learning process. The experiential theory proposed by Kolb takes a more holistic approach and emphasizes how experiences, including cognitions, environmental factors, and emotions influence the learning process.
An Overview of Experiential Theory
In the experiential model, Kolb described two different ways of grasping experience: Concrete Experience and Abstract Conceptualization. He also identified two ways of transforming experience: Reflective Observation and Active Experimentation. These four modes of learning are often portrayed as a cycle.
According to Kolb, concrete experience provides the information that serves as a basis for reflection. From these reflections, we assimilate the information and form abstract concepts. We then use these concepts to develop new theories about the world, which we then actively test. Through the testing of our ideas, we once again gather information through experience, cycling back to the beginning of the process. The process does not necessarily begin with experience, however. Instead, each person must choose which learning mode will work best based upon the specific situation.
For example, let's imagine that you are going to learn how to drive a car. Some people might choose to begin learning via reflection by observing other people as they drive. Another person might prefer to start more abstractly, by reading and analyzing a driving instruction book. Yet another person might decide to just jump right in and get behind the seat of a car to practice driving on a test course.
How do we decide which mode of experiential learning will work best? While situational variables are important, our own preferences play a large role. Kolb notes that people who are considered "watchers" prefer reflective observation, while those who are "doers" are more likely to engage in active experimentation. "Because of our hereditary equipment, our particular past life experiences, and the demands of our environment, we develop a preferred way of choosing," Kolb explains. These preferences also serve as the basis for Kolb's learning styles. In this learning style model, each of the four types has dominant learning abilities in two areas. For example, people with the Diverging learning style are dominant in the areas of concrete experience and reflective observation.