Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Kolb - is it useful?

I was asked to deliver a short session on Kolb recently which made me think about his models and how useful they are in practice. As I reflected on Kolb's model it made me remember how useful a tool it is for helping think about how people learn.....but of course there is a flip side too...

As a quick recap David Kolb is an Organisational Behaviour Professor who is probably best known for his work on experiental learning. Along with Roger Fry he created a model for learning that is generally known as the Learning Cycle.
I won't go into the detail about how the model works but for me it highlights a useful way of thinking about how people learn. Other sites have described this in some detail and I particularly like this one that shows it in an interactive way.

As well as the Learning Cycle, Kolb put forward 4 learning styles with each style representing a combination of two preferred styles. Kolb came up with the terms Diverging, Assimilating, Converging and Accommodating for these styles - see below.

Why is this useful?

  • A training course is not the complete answer! I have often heard about how the model can really help design a high quality training course. Using the styles and learning cycle we can create a rich experience that caters for the diferent ways that people learn. All of that is true but for me largely misses the point. Kolb's Learning Cycle shows how people learn in a continuous cycle based on a set of experiences. A training course may provide all of these experiences.....but only at a single point in time. So you may design the most fantastic training course but once people have gone back to their 'day job' how do you help them reflect on what they learned? How do you help them experiment and think about how they will use these new skills? How do you give them a set of experiences in which they can apply and develop further these new skills?

  • Coaching: I think Kolb's model is a useful one to support you as a coach. Clearly coaching has a strong role to play to help people reflect on their experiences but a coach can also help people think about new concepts, how they may apply them etc. In fact a coach has a role to steer people around the cycle many times... (I also think that Action Learning links strongly to Kolb's model too - read more about this here, here and here)

  • Understand your audience: If the only thing the model helps you to do is to think about your audience more and to adapt your approach accordingly.....then that is a good thing. Not everyone learns the same way that you do and you are very likely to have a mix of people in your audience - how will you cater for all of those different styles?

......and the flip side?

For me there are a couple of drawbacks to the model which means that whilst useful I don't think it should be taken to literally.

  • Simplistic: The model of 4 learning styles may be a little simplistic in practice. There may be many other styles that are appropriate to specific situations eg. simply memorising something through repitition. There are many other models on learning styles. For example Honey and Mumford developed Kolb's model further to create their Activist/Reflector/Theorist/Pragmatist model.

  • Realistic: The concept of learning stages doesn't necessarily fit with reality. People may jump around the stages at different times and out of sequence.

  • Evidence: I am not aware of much empirical evidence to back up the model

  • Culture: In my own experience, understanding the culture of your audience can have a huge influence on how you design a learning intervention. Compare a UK audience to a Saudi audience and you have two completely different styles just based on cultural difference.

So, Mr Kolb I like your model and have found it useful to keep my thoughts about learning and development on the straight and narrow - thanks! But it is not something that I use in a literal sense.....but I doubt that you expected people to do that anyway.


eric said...

Thanks for this post I will look at these in detail. There is a lot of resources out there some free, some cost… The trick is to find the good resources out of the bad. Everyone needs to invest in themselves. I have just started a leadership site http://www.youreffectiveleadership.com where leaders can share tips with each other from what they have learned in their leadership.

Joseph Hogan Wilks said...

Kolb's learning style has taught us much about the methods of educating. These methods can be easily transferred from the classroom to the office. It is a shame that you do not see it applied more often.