Category Archives: Trainer’s

David Kolb: Experiential Learning

As with so much else in psychology these days, the long cherished idea of learning styles is coming under deep scrutiny. The empirical basis for the idea was always weak, and now new experiments are finding null or statistically weak results.

Yet the ready association that many trainers and educators have between David Kolb’s name and the idea of learning styles is an over-simplification of his deeper thinking. David Kolb gives us a valuable model that should be better known among practising managers, who see part of their role as being about developing the capabilities of their teams.

David Kolb

David Kolb

Short Biography

David Kolb was born in 1939 and went to the private Knox college to study psychology. After receiving his BA in 1961, he went to Harvard, where he completed his MA in Social Psychology in 1964, followed by a PhD in 1967.

He took a teaching position at MIT as Assistant Professor of Organizational Psychology and Management, and left there (as Associate Professor) ten years later, to take up a chair in Organizational Behaviour at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

In 1981, Kolb and his wife, Alice, co-founded Experience Based Learning Systems (EBLS) to commercialise Kolb’s thinking on experiential learning and, in particular, his learning styles inventory.

Experiential Learning

At the heart of Kolb’s thinking about learning is his simplified model of Experiential Learning, which he co-developed with Roger Fry. This is fully documented across numerous highly-cited papers, and his major academic book, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development.

Kolb and Fry sought to synthesise the work of many earlier thinkers and researchers into how experience leads to learning. Kolb has said that he was particularly influenced by Dewey, Piaget, and Lewin. Their model of learning is most easily summarised as a cycle, although they were at pains to point out that this is just a simplificatiion. Because things are different on every iteration, Kolb prefers the metaphor of a spiral. Nonetheless, we will follow the commoner and easier to read metaphor in the illustration below.

Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle

Experiential Learning Cycle

The principal critique of this model is one Kolb is fully aware of. It oversimplifies a complex and  more messy learning process that involves other faculties, like memory, and can proceed via different routes from this cycle.

This is a fair critique. The strength of the model, however, is that it provides a helpful framework for developing workplace learning opportunities. It is very much the basis of Bernice McCarthy’s 4MAT approach to instructional design.

Learning Styles

Kolb went on to argue that we are not all equally able or motivated in the four abilities of cultivating experience, reflecting on it, generalising it, and applying our insights. Indeed, he went on to suggest that we tend to develop an orientation towards one pole of each of the two dimensions:

  • Experience – Abstraction (or Feeling and Thinking, in Jungian language, which Kolb seems to like)
  • Applying – Reflecting (or Doing/Sensing and Reflecting/Intuiting in Jungian language)

This leads to four learning styles:

Kolb Learning Styles

Kolb Learning Styles

I think the empirical evidence for this is based mostly on testing of the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory and I am not competent to assess its strength. However, it does seem clear that we all have two things: preferences and adaptability. You may find some colleagues have one or another learning style preference, but you will also find that we can all adapt and use multiple styles.

This is as it must be. Learning is a whole brain activity, and if, as James Zull suggests, different learning styles call upon different brain regions, then surely the best learning takes place when all are fully integrated.

The Experiential Learning Cycle & Regions of the Cerebral Cortex

The Experiential Learning Cycle & Regions of the Cerebral Cortex

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Reg Revans: Action Learning

Reg Revans made one of the most significant contributions to management and leadership training. His influence continues to be felt, yet his name is comparatively unknown.

Reg Revans

Brief Biography

Reg Revans’ early life placed him alongside genius. Born in 1907, he attended Florence Nightingale’s funeral at the age of three and competed in the 1928 Olympic Games. He went on to study physics at University College London (BSC) and Cambridge (PhD), later working as a post-doctoral fellow with Nobel Prizewinners including Thompson and Rutherford. He found them to be brilliant teachers; not through their instruction, but because of their willingness to listen, question, and discuss. The Times obituary reports that Revans recalled Albert Einstein saying to him:

‘If you think you understand a problem,
make sure you are not deceiving yourself.

He left academia to work, first for Essex Council (as an education officer) and then for what became the National Coal Board (as Director of education), where he started to formulate his ideas about management training. In 1955, he returned to academic life as Professor of Industrial Management at The University of Manchester. There, he developed his ideas of what became Action Learning, based on a simple principle that he held to be fundamental: the key to better performance lay not with ‘experts’ but with practitioners themselves.

Revans’ Ideas

At the heart of his thinking was a belief that practitioners learn best when working together to help each other with their problems, and then taking their answers away and implementing them in the workplace. Revans distinguished between two complementary aspects of learning:

Programmed Knowledge

Knowledge conveyed by traditional pedagogy, lectures, classes, books, videos.  This is most valuable when the body of knowledge is well established, uncontested, and largely settled

Insightful Questions

Questions asked of experiences, at the right time, and considered with care, will yield new insights. This approach to learning is best suited to arenas where personal insights are most useful, where there is no fixed body of knowledge that commands a strong consensus, or where the situation is subject to constant change.

He expressed the learning process as an equation:

Learning (L) = Programmed Knowledge (P)
+ Insightful Questions (Q)

Action Learning

Revans designed the process of Action Learning to exploit the power of insightful questions to raise awareness and prompt meaningful action. The process is well documented elsewhere but is based on small groups (5-8 members) working together to solve real problems that each member of the Action Learning Set brings to the group. Participants focus on exploring answers to simple but deep questions like:

  • What do we really want to achieve
  • What is stopping us?
  • What could we do about it?
  • Who has knowledge (P) that we could use?
  • Who has an interest in solving the problem?
  • Who has the power to get something done?

Whilst Action Learning Sets initially benefit from a skilled facilitator, their modern incarnation as high functioning mastermind groups, learning loops and other similar structures do not always require a separate facilitator. As participants get used to the process, they can manage it themselves.

Here is a short (3 mins) video of Revans speaking about his ideas.

 

In Praise of Flip Charts

A recent experience led me to think about the use of visual aids in training.  Two training companies were described as being like ‘chalk and cheese’.

Chalk and Cheese

In this case:

  • one company’s courses are scripted and PowerPoint driven, and trainers appeared to treat participants’ questions as a nuisance.  Hmm.
  • the other company’s trainers welcome interaction and dialogue, and mix PowerPoint with a range of other ways to get their message across.  That’s better!

Visual Aids

It led me to think about the term ‘visual aids’.  Aids to whom?  Some trainers seem to consider that their slides are there to help them in their role as trainers.  Perhaps they need to re-think.  Visual aids should help the learners to learn, participants to understand, and the audience to remember.  And PowerPoint and its kin can be magnificent at this – when used well.  We’ll hold that thought for another day!

Flip Charts – the trainer’s friend

I will come out of the closet: I am a real flip chart lover.  I love them as a consultant, working through ideas and solving problems; I love them as a facilitator, capturing and sharing ideas; and I love them as a trainer, to explain, clarify and illustrate learning points.

PowerPoint is linear and pre-programmed: flip charts are infinitely flexible.  So here are some of my tips and techniques for getting the most from this fabulous tool.

Flip Chart Tips and Techniques

Wings
Lots of flipcharts these days have wings – extendable arms that allow you to fasten a finished sheet to either side of the main display.  This is great for displaying participants’ work when doing a review or even for creating wide screen HD flip chart displays.

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Pre-prepare
If you want to create complex images or drawings that you are not confident to draw ‘live’ then prepare a sheet with the drawing in light pencil (a 2H lead is ideal).  It will be invisible to your audience, but clear enough for you to follow the lines and appear to draw a fabulous image free-hand.  Ruled pencil lines also allow you to write in straight lines if this is not something that comes naturally.

Better, still, practise your drawings on a whiteboard.  Do them over and over until they become second nature, then you won’t have to pre-prep your flip charts!

Laminates
A great way to great more dynamism and use more powerful images is to create full colour printed images and get them laminated.  You can then attach these to your flip chart with blue tack and build up your image more quickly and more stylishly than you could draw it.  For example, create six coloured images of hats for when you want to facilitate a discussion about Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats, or illustrate different team dynamics for when you are explaining Tuckman’s model.

StickyNote Sticky Notes
You can use the oh-so-useful sticky notes in a number of ways.  A simple trick is to use them as marker tabs to help you quickly find a pre-prepared sheet quickly.  A favourite use is in exercises where you want participants to identify, then classify items.  If they write their ideas on the notes, they can then place them on the table or grid you or they have created on the flip chart.

Fonts and colours
For large amounts of text, lower case is easier to read, as long as your writing is very clear.  But do ask yourself: ‘are large amounts of text really appropriate?’ They rarely will be.  So upper case is often clearer.  Text should be in strong colours to create good contrast, and do use lots of colour in your diagrams to make your images interesting.

Caution – do not rely on colour contrast to make distinctions that matter.  Around one man in ten has some limitation to their colour vision.  It is rarer in women.

Pens
Good flipchart pens are a must.  Most trainers (including this one) prefer chisel tip to bullet tip.  When you arrive at a training room (if you’re using their pens) or before you leave for the training venue (if you use yours) test all your pens and throw away any that are no longer at their best.  Always travel with your own set, and a back up set if you expect to rely on your own.  Three excellent brands for clarity/strength of colour, range of colour and life-span (and all are chisel tip) are:

  • Berol Flipchart Markers
  • Edding 40
  • Mr Sketch scented markers

Display
Brighten up your training room by putting flip charts up on the walls at breaks.  It creates a stimulating environment, with visual reminders all around, of what participants have been learning.

So here’s the deal

If you don’t already do so, look for more opportunities to use flip charts.  Make time to practise using them well, and use good quality pens to help you do it well.

. . . and, most important, please add your own tips to the comments at the foot of this blog, to share them with others.

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