How Do We Learn?   Leave a comment

John Dewey (1938) is conceivably the father of experiential learning. A central principle of his educational viewpoint was, “… amid all uncertainties there is one permanent frame of reference: namely, the organic connection between education and personal experience” (p. 25). The nature of experiential learning has a foundation which is based upon Dewey’s perception of learning. His theory has been expanded by other experiential learning theorists such as, Kurt Lewin and Jean Piaget. According to Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning theory, it is defined as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” (p. 41). ”It has been perceived as a belief of education based on what Dewey proclaimed as the “theory of experience”. Dr. James Zull has taken these theories a step further by incorporating the area of physical brain neuroscience. According to Dewey, “All learning is experiential, but all experiences are not educational”
Experiential learning is frequently misinterpreted as a method providing learners with occurrences from which they can gain knowledge. Alice Kolb (2003) discusses her observation of individuals in the “Experiential Learning Theory Biography” by stating that this concept is a “mindless recording of experience.” David Kolb structured his earlier work by Dewey describing it as “a comprehensive theory which offers the foundation for an approach to education and learning as a lifelong process and which is soundly based in intellectual traditions of philosophy and cognitive and social psychology”

Dr. Zull (2002) in his introduction to “The Art of Changing the Brain” begins by stating “Learning is about biology” (p.xiii) stating that learning is an action within the brain as well as being physical. It is altering the progression and the reducing of our neurons, as these connections are called synapses and neuronal networks, through experience. There are physical changes in the brain when learning occurs in an individual. This theory incorporates a natural relationship connecting the brain structure and learning. The brain connections change information into knowledge and the utilization use of emotions, memory and reason. The nervous system is fundamentally made up of the sensory and motor elements, while the association essentials link it to intricate networks revealing responses and repeating functions. The cerebral cortex is connected with cognition understanding and is based on the four divided regions: sensory, back-integrative, front-integrative, and motor. These four areas translate into four principles of learning: gathering, reflecting, creating, and testing. Zull describes the phases of experiential learning to be , “Put into words, the figure illustrates that concrete experiences come through the sensory cortex, reflective observation involves the integrative cortex at the back, creating new abstract concepts occurs in the frontal integrative cortex, and active testing involves the motor brain. In other words, the learning cycle arises from the structure of the brain” (p.18-19).

Two large areas in the cortex sustain association. First, there is the sensory (concrete experience) input located in the rear that is dealing with how things relate such as shape and color. These associations are essential for cognitive understanding and time. It is an important part of learning through the senses and relates to hearing, seeing, touching, and body movement. External challenges choose specific neural connections are developed into active random selections of connections. The sensory input enters the brain through old networks and is able to activate either memory or learning. The cognitive psychology term for this development is constructivism, meaning the learner develops their own knowledge on what is already known, but only in response to a challenge. This in turn supports the need for reflection/observation. The second area in the cortex is interrelated with association, the frontal region (abstraction). This theory contains the movement of meanings from the back association cortex to the front. It is the basis of mindful contemplation and preparation. The development involves the working memory, which recognizes concepts and information to resolve their significance. Pertinent facts are influenced to have an outcome of resolution. This area is accountable for conscious association and the management of memories and sensory occurrences. These functions are essential for problem-solving and imagination which is the foundation of the preparation of procedures for specific outcomes. This phase is regarded as the left-brain movement, developing meaning of experiences and reflections. They are action plans and explanations that need to be tested. It is a place of memories and reflections in logical patterns, and they release the use of language. Third, the back integrative (reflection) supports the flow of data between the sensory and association areas of the brain. In this progression, information forms into significant arrangements that are part of a meaningful image, making understanding possible for remembering words and ideas. Reflection is the examining of facts intermittently and repeatedly. This phase is internal, mainly right brain, causing association, which is important for understanding. Because the right brain is slower than the left, this takes time. Lastly, the active experimentation stage engages external action, using the motor brain. This activates speaking or the writing of new words and ideas. This phase determines how new knowledge matches our realities. Therefore, it is based on comprehending and utilizing the whole brain. Effective teaching must involve stimulation of all aspects of the learning cycle.

The heart of Kolb’s four-stage learning model is a breakdown which portrays how experience is converted through reflection into perceptions leading to the active experimentation and the choice of new knowledge. The theory presents the different stages of the cycle that are associated with distinct learning styles. Individuals differ in their chosen learning styles and identifying this as the first stage in increasing an individual’s consciousness of the alternative approaches that are possible. Kolb conceptualizes the development of action research as a spiral of action and consists of four major specific stages: plan, act, observe and reflect. This is viewed as the learning cycle or spiral where the learner moves through all the bases of feeling, reflecting, thinking, and acting in a self repeating progression that is receptive to the learning circumstances and what is being learned. He proclaimed that there are four ways individuals process information in the brain: Concrete Experience (sensory cortex), Reflective Observation (back integrative cortex), Abstract Hypothesis Conceptualisation (frontal integrative cortex) and Active Experimentation Motor cortex); in which they follow each other in a cycle. The cycle may be entered at any point, but the stages should be followed in sequential order. The learning cycle provides responses which is the basis for new actions and evaluation of the results of that action. The learning model portrays two associated ways of understanding experience the first is concrete experience (feeling) and abstract conceptualisation (thinking). Transforming experience also has two ways of comprehending the related modes, reflective observation (reflecting) and active experimentation (acting). Individual learning styles are determined by a persons preferred way of resolving these basic innate dialectics.

The core of experiential learning is thought to be when an individual learns they have an immediate concrete experience, which is followed by reflection/observation of the occurrence. The individual will then integrate these reflections into a theory called abstract conceptualisation, which flows into testing active experimentation. By investigating apprehension and comprehension it appears that it is at the center of the twofold knowledge hypothesis by means of which realism is portrayed through two distinct, but joined modes of knowing: concrete knowing and abstract knowing (Kolb, 1984). Concrete knowing is called apprehension which is an instantaneous feeling which is a subjective progression that acts as a physiological area that detects the emotional dimensions of learning. Abstract perception is referred to as comprehension, relating to language and a speculative development based in the left cerebral cortex of the brain (de Bono, 1969; Gazzaniga, 1985). Learning is a multifaceted intertwined connection of these two knowing processes. Therefore, knowledge happens in the mind when an individual connects concurrently in these two corresponding areas of knowing.

A characteristic arrangement of Kolb’s two continuums is that the east-west affiliation is called the Processing Continuum (how we move towards a task), and the north-south axis called the Perception Continuum (our emotional response, or how we think or feel about it).
These learning styles are the combination of two lines of axis (continuums) each formed between what Kolb refers to as the dialectally related modes of taking hold of an experience (acting or studying), and the transforming experience (feeling or thinking):
The word dialectally means contradictory. Kolb intended this to represent the fact that an individual cannot do both simultaneously and to a degree the impulse to want to do both creates a conflict, which is determined when being challenged with a new learning situation. We internally decide whether we wish to act or observe, and at the same time we make a choice whether to think or feel.
The effect of these two decisions creates the preferred learning style. An individual will decide how to take hold of an experience, which results in their approach. This in turn leads to recognizing a preference of how to alter the experience into something significant and functional. This will then give meaning to the emotional reaction to the experience. Therefore, a preferred learning style becomes the result of these two choice decisions.

The experiential learning style from concrete experience to the formation of abstract concepts goes from the conflicting modes of feeling to thinking. The two styles within this spiral are called diverging and assimilating. An individual in the mode of diverging is able to take an eagle’s eye view of a situation. They evaluate things from all viewpoints and are have the ability to gather facts and utilize their imagination to problem solve. This leads to the assimilating style which represents the reasonable and rationale advancement of thoughts. They are attracted to logical concepts and the formation of abstractions.

William James discusses the theoretical foundation of the dual knowledge presumption in his philosophy of radical empiricism (Hickcox; 1990; James, 1980). James’s viewpoint was established by the fundamental concept of two coequal interrelated phases of “knowledge of acquaintance” based on direct perception (apprehension) and “knowledge about” based on mediating conception (comprehension). In his own words, “Through feelings we become acquainted with things, but only by our thoughts do we know about them….” (p. 222).

Zull stated, “Reflection is searching for connections – literally!” (p.164) Reflection requires the metacognitive method of disconnection from a direct link of an experience in order to examine and think about what had occurred. This stage is a form of mental processing that it utilized to complete a function. It is important to view reflection as a key link involving concrete experience and a particular learning objective. One must analyze the connection between an experience and knowledge; have continuity of reflection before, during, and after an experience and to be able to have capability of applying the subject matter to real life personal situations. The phase of reflection should demonstrate connections between the experience of past occurrences and/or personal goals. This stage moves onto the analysis phase to understanding oneself. “Sleep researchers postulate that dreams help us make connections…We discover what is important to us, because we dream about what matters most.” (p.168). This is a period of time when our bodies are at rest, sleeping and dreaming, the back of the cortex is energetic while the front cortex has slowed down its pace. At this stage our sensory system, specifically the amygdala which screens for negative content, is in a dream state. Our brain sees, hears and records images while intense emotions are prevalent. In this “ultimate reflection” phase an individual has time to comprehend issues that need their fullest attention and locate the knowledge they are searching for.

Reflection can be an automatic or an unconscious process. For most of us, reflection is likely to be what happens when we have had time to stand back from something, as in: We don’t always learn from experiences. It is where we analyze experience, actively attempting to make sense or find the meaning in it. It can be hard to reflect when we are caught up in an activity. Standing back gives a better view or perspective on an experience or issue. This phase involves going over something, often several times, in order to get a broader view and even if it takes a few days, weeks or months. The stage of reflection can bring greater clarity, like seeing events reflected in a mirror. It is about learning and understanding on a deeper level. This includes gaining valuable insights that cannot be just taught. Reflection involves an element of drawing conclusions in order to move on, change or develop an approach.

I believe I integrate new knowledge using my sensory input of visual imagery, hearing and writing and construct internal images for the retention of new information. I retain my old knowledge and apply it accordingly, taking time for reflecting and considering where I want to go in life, what my long-term aspirations/goals are, and how my current position fits into these aspirations. I believe in learning to learn from experience. I have a tendency to reflect by taking a step back and studying all aspects of a situation. Being able to learn from experience gives me the power to control the meaning and impact of things that I do or that happen to me. It also raises my capacity to influence subsequent experiences. It puts me in charge. It does this by providing a clearer perception of the world, and a heightened sense of who I am and can be. As I think about creating a reflection plan I define my personal visions and the specific near term goals that will enable me to achieve. With this personal vision in mind, I will create a set of shorter term goals that strive to connect my daily life within my vision. For each goal in mind, I identify the specific actions that I will take. I will keep a reflective learning journal to post my learning cycle. It’s the place where I will take time out to reflect on my goals, study my progression, and then make an assessment about whether I can accomplish these goals.

The plan I have to bring reflection into my learning process so I may utilize my working memory and create knowledge is the reflective process of storytelling. I will begin to view experiences as memorable while examining them in detail, telling the story to others so dialogue is created. Then, I will reflect on the outcome to change or gain of the new knowledge through reflection. My cycle of learning and reflection completes itself when, based upon the insights gained from this phase of critical reflection, I will develop a new and improved reflection plan for life. After I succeed in this new venture… the cycle will begin again.

I learned the value of reflection in learning. As an individual reflects they are taking a concept and searching for the many ways that it can be connected to thoughts, memories and ideas in the brain. During the process of reflection, one is actually increasing the useable size of the brain. Zull professed, “The art of directing and supporting reflection is part of the art of changing the brain. It is the art of leading a student toward comprehension.” (p.164).


De Bono, E. (1969). The Mechanism of Mind. NY: Simon and Schuster
Dewey, J. (1938) Education and Experience. N.Y.: Simon and Schuster. p.25
Gazzaniga, M. (1985). The Social Brain: Discovering the Networks of the Mind. NY: Basic Books. 23
Hickcox, L. (1990). An Historical Review of Kolb’s Formulation of Experiential Learning Theory. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, University of Oregon, Corvallis.
James, W. (1980). The Principle of Psychology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston p.222
Kolb, A., & Kolb, D. A. (2003). Experiential Learning Theory Bibliography. Experience Based Learning Systems, Inc. Cleveland, OH. Retrieved June15, 2007 from Website:
Kolb, D. A. (2005). The Kolb Learning Style Inventory version 3.1: Boston, MA: Hay Resources Direct 106
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. p.41
Zull James E.(2002) The Art Of Changing The Brain (Stylus Publishing, LLC), p. xiii, 18-19,164




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