As individuals, teams and organizations, we are coming up against unprecedentedly complex challenges that are pushing our old ways of learning and adapting past their limits.
When the challenges we face are less complex, and therefore more predictable, we can prepare for them reasonably well with formal education and training. The knowledge of how to solve these problems exists, and the task is simply to transfer that knowledge from the expert to the learner. Once this transfer is complete and verified through formal assessments, everyone is confident the learner is equipped to perform and they are released into the world to apply their new knowledge.
For an increasing number of roles, this is simply no longer effective. Things are moving too fast—existing skills are quickly becoming obsolete with changes in the landscape, and demands for new skills are popping up faster than ever. What’s more, those roles where skills and knowledge are reasonably stable are the first to be automated. Why program a forgetful, clumsy and increasingly expensive human when you can program a machine that never forgets and is cheaper by the day?
A holistic view of learning
We all know intuitively that even in the simpler past, most of the skills we use on a daily basis have been largely developed through experience, rather than through reading books or attending lectures. We’ll argue here that as the rate of change increases, this becomes increasingly true. More and more, we’re forced to jump in and try things without reading the manual first, as often the manual has not been written yet.
When thinking about learning our way into overcoming complex challenges, we need to zoom out and consider the full picture of the learning process. An excellent tool to help us with this is the Experiential Learning Cycle developed by David A. Kolb. Kolb built this model on the shoulders of giants like William James, John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and Jean Piaget, amongst others—it aligns to a natural pattern of learning through our everyday experiences.
It will be helpful to assemble the model piece by piece, though we’ll be concise. First, let’s start with Kolb’s definition of learning:
“Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.”
There are two dimensions to this process: 1) the creation of knowledge (or grasping of experience), and 2) the transformation of experience. According to this model, there are two ways each of these take place.
Knowledge is created in two ways: through sensing concrete experience, which produces tacit knowledge, and through theorizing with abstract concepts, which produces explicit knowledge.
Most formal learning experiences are heavily focused on explicit knowledge—this is the knowledge that can be shared through language. It is comprised of ideas, theories, equations, techniques, processes, and formulas. While explicit knowledge can be extremely useful, this model helps us become more aware of the other side of knowledge—the tacit side, sometimes called personal knowledge. This is the know-how that can only be developed through hands-on experience in the field, and cannot be captured in a book or YouTube video or lecture. It is knowledge-in-action, or we can think of it as our skills. Some estimate that up to 80% of our total knowledge is tacit.
According to Experiential Learning Theory and Kolb’s definition of learning, the driver of new knowledge creation is the transformation of experience. This also happens in two distinct ways: through reflective observation, which transforms our perception (i.e. our worldviews or mental models), and through active experimentation, which transforms our behavior. In other words, the learning process is fueled by changing the way we perceive the world, and changing the way we act in the world.
When we put these two dimensions together, we have the experiential learning cycle. This cycle represents a natural pattern of how we take in experiences through the senses, filter that sensory input through our perceptive lenses (which include our beliefs, biases, worldviews and mental models), think about the experience and connect it to existing explicit knowledge, expand that explicit knowledge through research and social interaction, make decisions based on new insights, and modify our course of action to create new experiences.
If all this is coming off as a bit too abstract, thanks for hanging in there. Kurt Lewin, considered one of the foundational scholars of Experiential Learning, once wrote: “there’s nothing so practical as a good theory.” Like any useful model, the experiential learning cycle can help us organize our thinking around what it means to learn effectively.
Most importantly, this model can help us identify where we need to invest our attention to improve how we are learning, adapting and evolving in a changing world. As we shared last week, the four quadrants of the model represent four different combinations of transforming experience and creating knowledge, and have certain skills associated with each. Kolb framed these as learning styles–we have reframed them here as the 4 AVID Learner Personas™ (with the goal of making this framework more accessible, as Kolb can come off as a bit dry and academic).
Each of us have certain strengths and preferences, as well as weakness and underdeveloped skills, when it comes to these personas. As a result of our personalities, educational and professional backgrounds, the vast majority of us have specialized in certain areas of this cycle. This specialization often leads to falling back into certain areas, where we are most confident and comfortable, instead of stepping outside of our comfort zones to push through the learning cycle.
With more awareness of our own strengths, weaknesses and patterns related to how we tend to move through the cycle, we can strategically target certain skills and habits to boost our ability to not just effectively respond to change, but to proactively work with it as we grow into new leadership roles within our teams, organizations, communities and fields.
Stay tuned for next week’s post, where we’ll take a look at the 4 traps—the places where we are likely to get stuck in the cycle, and what we can do to unstick ourselves and keep moving forward.
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