Kolb’s Learning Cycle

It used to be thought that learning was something people did when they were at school or on a training course of some type. This philosophy was consistent with working patterns that ran unchanging from year to year and where a person with 35 years of experience really was someone with one year of experience 35 times over.

Now our work tends to be infinitely more variable and suprising.
Change and improvement is an ever-present feature of our lives, and we have grown to understand that life IS learning.
So much of our work is now concerned with accommodating changing perspectives, assimilating new information, and reaching new conclusions, and never more so than in meetings. In effective meetings, people come together with differing perspectives and partial information, and leave with a shared perspective and the insights required to support that.
We are continuously required to grow and adapt as the competitive world evolves around us.
Understanding that so much of our work is now about ‘learning’ can be very helpful, not least for the insight that research into learning provides us in practical ways to bring it about and make it more efficient.
Two of those insights concern an educationalist called David Kolb, whose observations* lead to the concepts of a ‘Learning Cycle’ (that we all need to work through a cycle of steps to arrive at learning and to sustainably install it in our thinking) and ‘Learning Styles’ (that we all have different preferences for stages within that cycle).
The diagram on the right reflects both the cycle (act > reflect > theorise > plan) and the labels given to those people whose preferences lead them to emphasise certain parts of that cycle.
Everybody still has to progress through the complete cycle, but we will tend to find that activists are prone to rushing through their reflections, analysis, and adjustments so that they can get back into the experience, while theorists are likely to spend more time modeling the possible explanations before they set out to gather a bit more real experience to validate those models.
Developing meetings to fulfil the requirements of the different styles is not as difficult as it appears. Especially since we need to complete learning cycles anyway. But the important thing is to ensure balance, particularly if you as the meeting organiser have a particularly strong bias to one of the styles yourself.
We naturally tend to see ourselves as normal and balanced, and so understanding our bias can help us adjust to better meet the needs of our group. The diagram on the left illustrates the implications that accommodating the different styles will have for your meeting:
These principles are evident in all good meeting design:
  •   They encourage rational explanations and logical arguments for people to understand the reasoning
  •   They provide opportunities for people to test out their own thinking and handle the responses that emerge
  •   They give time for people to reflect on what they have seen emerge, and to reconcile this with their thinking
  •   They encourage people to plan their next steps
These principles can be further supported by including different elements within your meetings. The following slides illustrate them in the four different areas to assist you in identifying those you might choose to bring a better balance to your meetings.
* ‘Toward an applied theory of experiential learning’, Kolb and Fry, in Theories of Group Process, Cooper (ed.), John Wiley, 1975.

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