Understanding the Learner

-This article illustrates David Kolb and Roger Fry''s theory on experiential learning.
Learning or Fun?

Modern studies of learning have focused on the processes that learners go through to learn new knowledge. Some research has focused on the developmental processes; some on cognitive development and others have been more concerned with the impact of reflection in learning.

David Kolb and Roger Fry used the studies within each of these areas to develop theories of experiential learning---the mantra of many learning programs today in university and corporate executive programs. Simply put, the focus is based on concrete life experiences that allow the learner to challenge ideas and use feedback. Today, the fundamentals of "Action Learning" programs uses this model of learning as well.

As a way to identify strengths of learners, Kolb and Fry developed a framework for understanding the "learning style" of individuals. Like many "styles" assessments, it has been challenged by several of Kolb and Fry´s contemporaries. However controversial by researchers, their model continues to be used for planning and developing learning activities for learners. The model is summarized below.

By now you may be asking yourself, "So what?" Our clients, and many of us as consultants, give a lot of lip service to meeting the unique learning needs of our clients. We have looked for convenient ways to meet those needs by looking at learning machines, audiovisual devices, video-based learning and now, the ultimate learning device - the multimedia capable computer.

What is wrong with this picture? All of these "devices" make it easy for the "learning expert" to deliver diverse learning opportunities for a variety of reasons: it´s easy for the trainer; it makes it more interesting for the masses; it´s the "hot thing;" it´s cheaper/faster; etc. All the while we sell these new devices as "...meeting the needs of the learner."

We´re concerned about understanding the culture of an organization by assessing it; social styles for understanding communications styles; skills assessments to assess specific skills, etc. But what accommodation are we REALLY making for the learner? How concerned are we really about how our clients learn?

Knowing the learning styles of our clients can help us in many facets of our business. First of all, it allows us to develop training that can be more focused, meaningful and measurable. By conducting enterprise-wide learning assessments, a picture of how the organization learns can provide good information for not only our learning team, but also our change management and performance teams. It can impact: how communication messages are created and delivered; one-to-one coaching approaches; how individual performance plans are crafted; development of succession planning; and how learning strategy for the organization is created.

If knowledge acquisition that "sticks with the learner" is our goal, whether it is ERP training or management development training, then we should be as attentive to how our client´s employees learn as we develop training using these great new delivery devices.

After all, isn´t it just as important to understand how learners process learning as it is to conduct cultural or social styles assessments?

Further Reading And References

For more information regarding learning styles, check the bibliography listed below. There are many more resources, but these keep showing up as recommended readings:

Boud, D. et al (eds.) (1985)Reflection. Turning experience into learning, London: Kogan Page. 170 pages. Good collection of readings which examine the nature of reflection. The early chapters make particular use of Dewey and Kolb.

Jarvis, P. (1987) Adult Learning in the Social Context, London: Croom Helm. 220 pages. Peter Jarvis uses Kolb''s model to explore the process of learning in context. The result is a better appreciation of context and the ability to approach memorization, contemplation, practice etc. However, he also inherits a number of problems e.g. around stages. The model is revisited and summarized in P. Jarvis (1995) Adult and Continuing Education. Theory and practice 2e, London: Routledge.

Johnson, D. W. and Johnson, F. P. (1996)Joining Together: Group theory and group skills, 6e., Boston, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon. 612 pages. Rightly popular practical groupwork guide with plenty of examples and exercises, plus some good foundational chapters. It was one of the first texts to pick up on Kolb and to link experiential learning with the work around groups by Lewin and others. Chapters on group dynamics; experiential learning; group goals and social independence; communications within groups; leadership; decision making; controversy and creativity; conflicts of interest, the uses of power; dealing with diversity; leading learning and discussion groups; leading growth and counselling groups; and team development, team training.

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall. 256 pages. Full statement and discussion of Kolb''s ideas concerning experiential learning. Chapters deal with the foundation of contemporary approaches to experiential learning; the process of experiential learning; structural foundations of the learning process; individuality in learning and the concept of learning styles; the structure of knowledge; the experiential learning theory of development; learning and development in higher education; lifelong learning and integrative development.


Gary Frazer works for Deloitte Consulting and can be contacted at gafrazer[at]dc.com.

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