Experiential Learning Basics

As we plumb the depths and boundaries of the 21st Century, we’re discovering that those individuals who are thriving in this new century are distinguished by four pivotal characteristics:

        * Their ability to handle day-to-day responsibilities.
        * Their ability to master new tasks.
        * Their ability to create innovative solutions to complex challenges.
       * Their ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

While it’s never phrased quite this way, here at TLO we think this means that successful adults are characterized by their ability to make use of fully realized, high quality experiential learning skills; i.e., people who know how design, launch, and implement their own learning.

To fully understand what we’re suggesting, and why, you at least need a notional framework that helps you put some conceptual “meat on the bones” of the idea of experiential learning. Below, we offer three propositions that begin to describe and illustrate such a model.


The best way for us to introduce you to experiential learning is to offer three of TLO’s basic premises. We’ve developed these three from the original research David Kolb published in 1984  (i.e., Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development). We've synthesized his discoveries and insights into propositions that describe the learning steps required to change any of your existing behavioral skills. And to develop new, more effective ones.

 Proposition 1: Learning Involves Feelings, Attitudes, & Beliefs

Typically, people tend to think of learning as activity that’s aimed at helping them acquire facts and figures about a specific subject. To learn is to acquire new information. Actually, real learning, learning that improves and strengthens your ability to relate to others and navigate the worlds you’re living and working in, is more complex than simply grasping assorted facts and figures and other relevant pieces of information.

Without question, new information is an important part of learning. But, by itself, acquiring new facts and figures will never help you create the behavioral changes and/or intellectual growth you’re after. To develop new work and life capabilities, it seems we must engage our perceptions, emotions, and attitudes. Real, sustainable learning requires a form of exploration that every step of the way rests on and requires an awareness of our moment-to-moment feelings, perceptions, beliefs, and values.

Proposition 2: Real Learning Changes Your Brain, Mind, and Body 

No adult is a blank slate. None of us -- not me, not you, not anyone --  comes fresh and new to the learning of anything. Because we’re adults, we’re forced to come to our learning efforts carrying inside our brains, minds, and bodies a vast network of pre-programmed knowledge structures. Everything you know and everything you can do is hardwired into your brain, mind, and body as complex, tightly woven sets of feelings, attitudes, and behavioral patterns (See Figure 1). One way of imagining this is to picture these knowledge structures as integrated triangles of feelings, images, and neural patterns that, when woven together, enable and prompt you to produce the skilled behavioral routines you use to navigate you way through your life.


Proposition 3: Effective Learning is a Sequential, Cyclical Process.

To actually change your brain’s hardwired existing knowledge structures, you need four distinct competencies: The ability to act; the ability to observe, reflect on, and evaluate your experiences; the ability to reconceptualize, recontextualize, and reframe these experiences; and the ability to experiment with new behavior when needed. 

 You need these four competencies because fully-realized, high-quality learning is a sequential, cyclical, and repetitive four-step process. In action, it unfolds like this: 

  • First, you have life experiences that you become conscious of. 
  • Second, your awareness of these experiences provides you with memories and images that you observe and reflect on. 
  • Third, from these reflections, you pull together significant aspects of your experiences into rudimentary theories; from these you deduce new implications for action. 
  • Fourth, these hypotheses then serve as guides for your experimenting, which, in turn, takes you back to your immersion in new experiences.

Pictured, your experiential learning cycle looks like this...

                                  Figure 2                Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle   

                                  Figure 2
              Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle  

Here at TLO, the bottom line is this: If you're seriously interested in developing the fully realized, high quality experiential learning skills you'll need in this increasingly complex world, you will have to learn about your strengths and weaknesses as a learner. Then, you'll have to learn how to use this knowledge to develop your own personal experiential learning skills.

When you know how to organize your own learning efforts, your day-to-day experiences become a laboratory that you can use to consciously test and explore new ways of seeing, thinking and feeling. You can simultaneously examine, explore, and compare multiple ideas. Learning no longer is a special activity reserved for the classroom. It becomes an integral and explicit part of your work and your life.