Dr. David Kolb
Many of you may already know David Kolb‘s work with experiential learning styles. They were originally published in 1984 and put David Kolb on the map as an important educational and cognitive theorist. This year, David Kolb and his team developed a new and improved version of the learning styles, Kolb 4.0, expanding from 4 to 9 ways that people learn, as well as exploring how to expand your capability to learn outside your preferred style. Anna Collier of AFS International had the chance to sit down with Mr. Kolb and talk about his approach to learning. Look for the following interview in Volume 3, Issue 4 of the Intercultural Link Newsletter, to be published very soon!
How did you get involved in the intercultural field?
It was when I first became a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, right after completing my Ph. D. in social psychology from Harvard. I was teaching organizational psychology by lecturing to graduate students on the psychological topics I found fascinating but they were getting bored. So, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. At the same time, I was also working for the Peace Corps (an international volunteer organization based in the United States) back when they first started, running a self-assessment workshop for volunteers. Back then, the Peace Corps used psychologists to study volunteers, to see if they were fit to go overseas. The self-assessment we proposed was based on experiential learning. We ran training programs for volunteers that gave them experiences such as teaching and working in inner city neighborhoods. The volunteers were helped to reflect about how they handled these experiences, and then decide if they felt they would be successful with work like this in their prospective host country. The program had a positive result and we were successful in reducing the number of volunteers who returned early because they couldn’t handle the experience. It was then that I decided to apply the experiential learning cycle in my lecture courses. I developed exercises based on the group dynamics theory of Kirk Lewin and my work in the Peace Corps, and then applied them to my classes.
Since the original study groups were primarily U.S. Americans, have you applied your model and/or found it relevant in other cultures?
Yes, in subsequent years I used it in a number of different countries. If you go to our website, www.learningfromexperience.com, there is a section called the Research Library that has a bibliography of research papers. There are over 3000 articles published by researchers from all over the world. Many of the papers are on intercultural topics that would be of interest to many of your readers.
Which aspect of intercultural learning or communication has your work primarily focused on?
In my work with experiential learning, I noticed that people seemed to prefer and be most comfortable with different stages of the learning cycle. I coined the term “learning style” to describe these differences and developed the Learning Style Inventory, which has become a very popular tool for individuals to understand how they learn best. From my point of view, however, the most important idea is the learning cycle and the idea that it’s a process–That you become more effective at learning by managing your own learning process. This is the most powerful idea.
What do you wish more people would understand about intercultural learning?
For me, it is the idea of experiencing. I guess the big idea about experiential learning is that you have to experience to learn. Many times people don’t learn because they don’t allow themselves to experience. They have distractions and preoccupations and expectations that cause them to be trapped in their head telling themselves their own narrative. In addition they can actually create a social world that preserves their narrative. Expatriate managers, for example, often withdraw into a group of their countrymen that limits experiencing and learning about the host culture. Experiencing is a key part of the cycle of learning that has been overlooked. Some theorists have left out Experience altogether, while others confuse it with Action.
It is also important to realize the central role educators can take to help people go through the stages of the learning cycle. When transitioning from Experience to Reflection, an educator plays the role of Facilitator, for example. In the move from the Concrete realm to Reflexive, one needs to be facilitated. You need to draw people out, understand them and develop a relationship so that they feel comfortable saying and revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings. Abstraction requires a teaching and expert role, so that you can guide learners forward. The Action phase requires standards-setting and evaluating from the educator, so that you can say ‘you need to know this, and this, and this…’ The transition from Action to back to Experience needs coaching. These four educator roles are all necessary to take people through the learning cycle.
What inspired the updating to the Learning Style Inventory 4.0 this year?
It stemmed from feedback from users. Four styles didn’t adequately describe people’s styles. Some scored in the middle, so some styles were in between. It’s a result from years of experience with the instrument; we’ve given it a sharper resolution. In addition we have added a measure of learning flexibility to emphasize that learning styles are not fixed traits but dynamic states of learning that we all go through. We also changed the wording to be more understandable and user-friendly.
What would you suggest for people new to the ICL field to read as they get started?
A great article would be Using Experiential Learning Theory to Promote Student Learning and Development in Programs of Education Abroad, which I co-authored with Angela M. Passarelli. It was published in a brand new book that came out in June 2012 by Michael Vande Berg, along with Michael Paige and Kris Hemming Lou: Student Learning Abroad: What Our Students Are Learning, What They’re Not, and What We Can Do About It. Another interesting focus is “Deliberate Experiential Learning” that involves mindful management of one’s learning identity, learning relationships and deliberate practice. There is a paper on this on our website www.learningfromexperience.com, as well as papers on mindfulness and experiential learning. You can deliberately choose to learn, and educators can help by making you aware of that.
What are the hot topics in ICL these days? And who do you consider to be producing the more intriguing thoughts that in turn advance your own contributions?
Great new theories have been produced by James Zull in his books The Art of Changing the Brain (2002) and From Brain to Mind (2011). He says concrete experiences come from sensory receptors in the brain, to the pre-temporal lobe, to the frontal lobe, then into the action region of the brain as the learning cycle progresses. The Student Learning Abroad book that I mentioned also has a lot of great articles in it that I would recommend.