Tag Archives: Bernice McCarthy

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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Going round in circles: Problem Solving Simplicity

There are some business books I refer to again and again.  Often they are also (no coincidence) those that are recommended by many people I know as part of your essential business bookshelf.

Getting to YesFor general negotiating skills, I am yet to be persuaded that any book has overtaken ‘Getting to Yes’ by Roger Fisher and William Ury.  It is one of those books where ideas are densely packed and none are laboured.  So despite being a short book, it has more in it than many twice its size.

The lowest review on Amazon UK gives it 3 stars – saying there’s not much new in it.  A triumph for a book that is 30 years old and has therefore been imitated and borrowed from heavily over the years.  I am fairly sure it was Ury and Fisher who first introduced negotiators to the BATNA.

Not about Negotiation

However, I am not writing this Pocketblog about negotiation and you can learn more in Patrick Forsyth’s excellent Negotiator’s Pocketbook (one of my personal favourites).

Sitting among the many gems in Getting to Yes (at page 70 of my 1986 hardback edition) is the circle chart.  This is presented as a tool to help negotiators ‘invent options for mutual gain’.  I see it as one of the best generic problem solving tools – and also, by the way, as a pretty good model for the consulting process.

The Circle Chart

image

What a wonderfully simple model for problem solving this is.

  1. Problem
    We ask what is wrong and gather the facts
  2. Analysis
    We diagnose the problem, seeking to understand causation
  3. Approaches
    We generate multiple options to resolve the problem
  4. Action ideas
    We evaluate the options and develop plans

All things are connected…

‘It’s the circle of life, Simba’

The Circle Chart has always reminded me how simplicity and robustness come from a few great insights, and the model-maker’s skill is in presenting them in new and relevant ways.  In particular, this model is a close relative of another, designed for a very different purpose: Bernice McCarthy’s 4MAT method for instructional design.

Although the sequence is slightly different, the four questions that McCarthy argued that we need to answer are all here:

  1. Problem – ‘what?’
  2. Analysis – ‘why?’
  3. Approaches – ‘how?’
  4. Action ideas – ‘what if?’

So here’s the deal

The circle chart may not be the most sophisticated problem solving model available, but it covers all of the basis for me.  A great resource for managers, project teams, consultants and trainers.

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Why–What–How–What if?

Bernice McCarthyThere are lots of models for how to improve learning and, in the management training arena, The Kolb learning cycle and the work of Peter Honey and Alan Mumford on learning styles are well known. Less so is the work of American educationalist, Dr Bernice McCarthy.

McCarthy taught at all grade levels, including special education, and went on to study for her doctorate at Northwestern University. There, she developed her model to help design instructional programmes for all types of learners. She drew on research by Carl Jung, Jean Paiget, Lev Vygotsky, John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and David Kolb to create a system that moves learners through the complete learning cycle using strategies that would appeal to all learners. Her business is called About Learning.

4MAT

McCarthy developed her system to format a lesson according to how the needs of learners changes as they go around the learning cycle, so she called it the 4MAT System (get-it?). The 4MAT System began in education but she quickly spread it into adult training in the corporate and government sectors.

Relationship to other models

4MAT shares with Kolb the idea of a learning cycle with distinct modes of learning at each stage. It also recognises, as the Honey and Mumford model does, that we each learn in a number of ways and that we may have preferences for one or more styles.

The 4MAT System

The 4MAT System is based on two continua: perceiving and processing. The processing continuum ranges from reflection to action; whilst perception runs from direct experience to abstract conceptualisation.

image

Why?

We want to understand meaning and purpose, and the instructor’s role is to make connections between the material and the learners, to engage their attention.

What?

Only when we are satisfied about relevance are we ready to know ‘What?’ At this stage, the trainer provides information and satisfies our desire for facts, structure and theory.

These first two phases represent instructor-led learning.  Now the learner takes over.

How?

Once we have the knowledge, we ask ‘How?’ and we want to understand how we can apply our new insights to the real world. We focus on problems and how we can use our learning to solve them.

What if?

Finally, we want to try it out, so we ask questions like ‘What if?’ ‘What else?’ or ‘What next?’ This is when we engage in active experimentation, trial and error, pushing at the boundaries – learning by doing.

QuestionMark

Why? (again)

Good instructional design challenges learners to reflect on the outcome of their trials and ask ‘Why?’ about the results.

    • Why did it not go as I expected?
    • Why did it seem harder than it should?

This is the entry into another cycle.

So here’s the deal

The 4MAT System is helpful in designing training, planning a coaching process, and influencing.

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