Taking Stock: Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle

PGCert blog books 1At this stage in the year, it’s time to take stock.  I need to reflect on the materials in my bibliography – I’ve read all of them at some stage, and commented on some of them, albeit quite a long time ago.  I need to think again about challenges that arose in my assessed lessons; then, in the light of those challenges, I shall see if particular books in the current  Teaching Artist Reading List might help me work out where I might have done things differently.  Essentially, I’m trying to show critical understanding of my reading, to pick out what it is that is relevant in these sources; and to ensure I’m embedding appropriate teaching and learning theories when I provide instruction to our students.  This will also enable me to justify my own practice in the particular context of library, bibliographic and research/study skills, and a historic approach to Scottish song and other tune-books.

First of all, there are three particular areas that I’d like to remind myself of: Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle; the Constructivist theoretical approach; and the ‘flipped classroom’ as outlined in the One World Schoolhouse by Salman Khan.

EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING

I found a useful e-book which has chapters on experiential learning:-

Clawson, James G. S. and Mark E. Haskins, Teaching Management (Cambridge University Press,2006) ;  Online Publication Date: February 2010

Online ISBN-13: 9780511617850
Hardback ISBN-13: 9780521869751
http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511617850.014
Book DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511617850

I’m going to focus on two particular chapters, and look at another one in a different context later:-

  • 2. Levels of Learning – one, two and three (Re Experiential Learning) /James G. S. Clawson and Mark E. Haskins, pp.26-33
  • 13. Experiential methods / By Clawson, pp.212-227
  • 14. Enhancing the conversation: audiovisual tools and techniques / Clawson and Haskins, pp.228-241

In Chapter 2, we’re introduced to three different levels of learning:- Visible Behaviour, Conscious Thought (“the things that people are aware they’re thinking but that they do not choose to reveal at Level One”); and “the Values, Assumptions, Beliefs, and Expectations (VABEs) that people hold about the way the world should be. VABEs are often “preconscious” or “semiconscious,” yet they often reveal themselves at Level One.” (p.26)

Teachers need to decide which level to aim at.  If they’re trying to effect learning at the level of conscious thought, are they also expecting the learning to evidence itself as visible behaviour, or as changes to the “VABES” their students hold? 

This reminds me of discussions held many years ago at job evaluation training, when it was asserted that lecturers influence “hearts and minds”, whereas instructors impart practical skills. I find this a rather fine distinction.  I do understand that teaching a student to interpret a Mozart piano concerto cadenza, or analyse a playscript, is a more complex process than showing them how to find a book in a catalogue or access and electronic journal.  There’s much more discernment and choice involved in the former than the latter activities.  However, if I’ve taught a student how to access and cite information, and convinced them that this is the best, most effective way and a good way to go about research in the future, then I have arguably also changed their minds.  Values?  Yes, if they understand the value of doing a good information search.  Assumptions and beliefs?  Yes, if they can appreciate that whilst Wikipedia is good, all the quality resources offered by the library represent a far wider array from which to choose, and the certainty that the authors are experts in their fields.  In other words, they no longer believe that Wikipedia and Google can meet all their study requirements.  I would argue that I’ve therefore influenced the students’ VABES albeit in a different way.

The authors argue that level 1 involves “doing” something, whilst at level 2 people may – but not necessarily – be conscious of doing it.  Sometimes they’re not conscious of doing something until level 3, and the authors also make the point that habit-forming occurs at all three levels. 

The distinction between levels does seem a little blurred, to me. However,  I do see that insight can’t come into the equation until at least level 2.

At this point, the authors refer to Kolb’s cycle.  There’s a diagram, but unfortunately the text is obscured on screen. Still, the narrative explains all. (p.28)   Kolb argues that daily life involves going through the learning cycle many times, in this order:- “Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization, and Active Experimentation.” In other words, until someone has absorbed the general principles, they can’t apply it to other situations.  The authors say that some teachers argue it’s not their place to influence their students’ values and beliefs, but they (the authors) think this final level of learning is what we should be aiming at.

I agree with this.  If I’m showing students different electronic resources, for example, then at the end of the session, I want them to leave thinking, “hey, that gave me some ideas for information-finding skills for my next assignment.”  I would be less happy if they left just with the vague impression that I had shown them some cool websites.

The authors say that to engage with people’s core beliefs, ie level 3, we should ask them directly what they believe about {whatever the subject is we’re teaching them}.  This could go up on the board as the basis for discussion.

Well, what a surprise! That is exactly what I did in my two teaching sessions where I asked students to write their little “dictionary definitions” of traditional music and nationalism in music.  It’s good to see I did something theoretically right, though my reason for doing this was (in my mind) a constructivist approach, by establishing what the students knew before I started leading the session forward. 

If you’re targeting level 1 learning, then you’re targeting behaviours, say the authors. Although they say that sometimes “cognitive analytical skills” are needed before the behavioural skills can be learned. 

Trying to relate this to teaching information skills, I imagine this would apply to showing students how to decide on the best search terms, the ones most likely to be fruitful, before they start searching for materials.  It is harder to separate out distinct steps in classes like the ones I taught about historic Scottish music.  (“How to” is different from “Let’s explore and synthesise our findings”.)

The authors say that experiential programmes (they cite active, outward-bound, team-building exercises, or in a classroom situation, learning to “listen actively”) are generally aimed at level 1, but if the experience affects students on a deeper level by, eg, confidence-building, then level 2 or 3 learning may have taken place. This fits in with my understanding that “how to” instruction is not the same as learning about the history of a genre and how to interpret scores of different eras.

In terms of the Scottish music classes, I think the students who most engaged with the exercises, probably did get the most out of them.  The minority that were restless or impatient, are unlikely to have had their “values, assumptions, beliefs and expectations” changed very much and they would only have learned at the middle level, if they were paying sufficient attention.  Or should that be, if I had managed to engage their attention sufficiently?

“Targeting L2 means attempting to change the way people think. Indeed, that seems to be where most educational effort is expended. Vast lecture halls, textbooks, problem sets, and presentation preparation are largely about augmenting or refining the students’ thought processes”, say the authors (p.31).  To me, this seems fairly obvious.  And then they go on to say that lecturers who influence their students’ VABEs (Level 3) will have the most long-lasting effect, because this will change the way students see a subject, possibly for a lifetime.  Clawson and Haskins also cite McGill and Slocum (1993) who flagged up that an individual’s openness to new ideas is an important factor. 

The paper concludes by expressing the hope that if teachers understand the different levels of learning and what is going on, unseen, in students’ minds, this should help us plan more effective teaching.  I think I can agree with this.  My only slight objection is not with the theory of different levels of learning, but that I have noticed some students are more difficult to “engage” with than others. I’m not sure this is always connected with the experiential learning cycle, but might be for totally different reasons that make the student disinclined to learn at a particular class – whether for physical reasons (health, tiredness, uncomfortable surroundings) or disinterest in the subject.  It is incumbent on the teacher to try to engage the student, but the student is not just a passive empty vessel, so must accept some responsibility.  The student who does not want to learn, is not going to learn at the higher conceptual levels.

 

 

 

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