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The Learning Cycle

David A. Kolb (born 1939) is an American educational theorist whose interests and publications focus on experiential learning.  In his book published in 1984 entitled, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, he put forth his theory that has proven to be an effectual model for transformative learning.  We are indebted for his clarification of the key aspects of learning and summarization into a memorable way.

Perhaps you have heard or stated the phrase, “Experience is the best teacher.” Experience is one of the most powerful ways to learn.  When you fully participate in an experience you must use your mind, your eyes, nose, ears and often your fingers and mouth.  Your senses are fully engaged to reinforce lessons being observed.  Consider Kolb’s four-part model:

1. Experience: Learning results from a process of observation through some concrete experience. Many people never take the time to maximize an experience so that deeper learning can occur. For those who harvest the fruit of experience, they develop habits of observation.

2. Reflection: Observations can become transformational when they are assimilated and distilled into core concepts from which new insights and implications can be drawn. The implications must be tested for validity. Depending on one’s learning style this part of the process will involve study, dialogue, or further experimentation.  Reflection can be done in some refreshing personal way or in community.  However, it is essential to prioritize space for reflection.

3. Conclusion: Potential implications from reflection on experience must be processed through thinking and feeling. Although we all make quick decisions about experiences for good or bad, memorable or forgettable, few are given critical evaluation. After weighing the probable correctness of learning, one can experiment further.

4. Application: The learning cycle concludes one revolution when conclusions are put into action. This is an intentional process of testing to see if the experience, reflection, and conclusion resulted in a worthy new integration for living. Again, some people do this more intuitively, but for leaders committed to helping others maximize their learning this becomes a natural and reoccurring cycle.

NOTE: A sad reality more often than not is that people draw conclusions after experiences without taking the time for reflection. The result of short-circuiting this process is shallow or inaccurate conclusions.  Reflection is an essential skill every effective leader must exhibit.

How did Jesus facilitate such learning with the disciples? One incident of many is seen in Mark chapter 8 after the feeding of the 4,000.  Remember, there was a prior feeding of some 5,000 (Mark 6) so sufficient time for learning from multiple experiences had occurred.  While in the boat traveling to the other side of the lake, Jesus facilitates reflection by cautioning against the “leaven” of the Pharisees (verse 15).  The disciples apparently had not accurately reflected upon their experiences so they made false assumptions about what Jesus was asking.  Jesus then provides a laser-focused explanation, challenging their lack of observation and reflection, which inhibited sound conclusions (verses 17-21).  The goal was for increased understanding and ongoing application but it could not happen without going through the learning cycle.

How well do you steward your life experiences? What habits have you developed to prioritize reflection for deeper learning?  How well do you encourage and nurture reflection for those you lead?  A disciple is a learner and a good learner or developer of learners will engage in such experiential learning.

Next blog: Developmental Dialogue

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