Nowadays, new knowledge is created at an extremely rapid pace; in addition, people need not only to learn it but also to use it in practical situations. Therefore, employing efficacious learning methods is of crucial importance both in education and in organizations.
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In this paper, three learning theories will be introduced. The first of them, Kolb’s theory of experiential learning, provides a model of learning from experience, and introduces four main learning styles. Schön’s single- and double-loop learning models describe the process of considering a situation and making decisions pertaining to it, and offer a way to learn from such situations by critically assessing them. Finally, Gibbs’ theory of reflective learning provides a five-step model which can be utilized to analyze a past event and improve the outcomes of similar situations in the future. After the overview, the use of theories of personal development will be discussed, and the theories will be compared.
Overview of the Learning Theories
Kolb’s Theory of Experiential Learning
The David Kolb’s learning styles model was first published in 1984; it was created on the basis of works of theorists such as J. Dewey, K. Lewin, J. Piaget, W. James, etc., who considered experience to be crucial for the process of learning (Kolb, 2015). The main aim of the theory was to assist learners in transforming their experience into knowledge, as well as to permit for more practice-oriented education, because the traditional educational methods tended to produce college and university graduates who might have possessed a significant amount of knowledge, but often were unable to use it to solve the real-world problems (Manolis, Burns, Assudani, & Chinta, 2013; Tomkins & Ulus, 2015).
According to this model, there exist four main stages of experiential learning; the learning occurs as a cyclic process in which these four phases follow one another (Kolb, 2015; Schultz, McEwen, & Griffiths, 2016). These stages are as follows:
- Concrete experience. At this stage, an individual performs an activity or has an experience pertaining to the subject they will learn about.
- Reflective observation. At this phase, the person performs reflective operations about the concrete experience they previously had. It might also be recommended to reflect on the experiences in a systematic way so as to retain in the memory what has been thought about them for the future use.
- Abstract conceptualization. At this point, the person formulates concrete conclusions pertaining to the experience they had. It is also possible to tie these conclusions to certain theories to better categorize them.
- Active experimentation. Having formulated the conclusions, an individual can start actively implementing them in practice so as to improve the outcomes of their activity and simultaneously test the results of their learning.
It is easy to see that the fourth stage overlaps with the first one; the process of learning continues further. It is also evident that, according to this model, learning is a dynamic process; knowledge is “continuously created and recreated,” and it is not “an independent entity to be acquired or transmitted” (Kolb, 2015, p. 50).
Based on these four learning phases, Kolb (2015) speaks of four learning styles, each of which focuses mainly on two of the four phases (p. 143). These styles are:
- Accommodating (active experimentation + concrete experience): “feel and do.” Individuals whose learning style is accommodating prefer dealing with down-to-earth problems and practical tasks, relying on their instincts rather than analysis.
- Assimilating (reflective observation + abstract conceptualization): “think and watch.” These people prefer logical thinking and clarity, and are good at synthesizing information and framing it in a logical way.
- Converging (abstract conceptualization + active experimentation): “think and do.” Individuals who use this learning style are good at finding solutions to practical, technical problems.
- Diverging (concrete experience + reflective observation): “feel and watch.” Such people tend to observe rather than act, accumulate information and provide theoretical solutions.
Knowing an individual’s learning style may also permit for adapting curricula and learning activities to the peculiarities of their learning process, allowing for more efficacious achievement of knowledge (see, for instance, Schultz et al., 2016).
Schön’s Theory of Double-Loop Learning
Donald Schön was a theorist who researched the nature of learning systems. His works are related, in particular, to the learning process occurring in organizations (Smith, 2005). Together with C. Argyris, D. Schön created a model of mental maps which determine how organizations (and separate people as well) act in various situations; these maps pertain to the manners in which individuals plan, carry out, and revise their actions (Argyris & Schön, 1974). To explain this process, three key elements of the decision-making process are employed. These elements are as follows (as cited in Smith, 2005):
- Governing variables. These are the limits within which one wishes to keep the results of their actions (for instance, the amount of time or energy spent on doing something).
- Action strategies. These are the concrete plans used by people to keep the governing variables within the desired range.
- Consequences. These are the results (both intended and non-intended) of the actions that were carried out.
For the authors, learning is the continuous process that involves identifying and correcting mistakes (Argyris & Schön, 1978). They offer to differentiate between the single-loop and double-loop learning models. In the single-loop model, an entity carries out acts and then evaluates their results. If they are not satisfactory, the entity revises their strategies to find other strategies which would allow to better achieve the goals, and carries out new actions with new consequences. In this case, the governing variables are not revised.
On the other hand, the double-loop model utilizes reflection on the whole cycle employed in the single-loop model, and critically revises the governing variables themselves. Such scrutiny can lead to changes in the governing variables, which would then modify the manner in which the action strategies and the consequences are created and perceived.
Gibbs’ Theory of Reflective Learning
Another theory pertaining to the process of learning was developed by Graham Gibbs. His original research was first published in 1988, and was an enhancement for Kolb’s experiential learning cycle that was discussed above. Gibbs (1988) argues that it is important to reflect on one’s experience and activities, and that doing so may have a positive effect on one’s performance. It may prove especially useful if it is carried out to analyze situations that do not go well and require substantial improvement. Through such reflection, it is possible to find new ways to approach the situation and enhance it. In addition, reflection provides an individual with a better chance to learn from their previous experiences.
It is offered to carry out this reflection in a five-step cycle (as cited in Potter, 2015, p. 340-341):
- Description: first, it is necessary to describe in detail the situation in question.
- Feelings: next, one’s feelings and emotions which were felt during the event should be described.
- Evaluation and analysis: now, one should make an attempt to objectively assess the happening and identify the approaches that were efficacious in addressing it, as well as the ones that proved ineffective.
- Conclusions: here, it is needed to draw conclusions about the happening and consider other possible courses of actions which may be implemented instead of the ineffective approaches that were previously identified. (Sometimes this step is broken into two separate steps, Analysis and Conclusions.)
- Action plan. Now, one ought to outline a plan of actions based on the previous steps that could be implemented in similar occurrences in the future.
Following these steps, it is possible to efficaciously reflect upon a situation which took place in the past and learn from it so as to better address analogous circumstances which might arise in the future.
The Use of the Theories for Personal Development
Kolb’s Theory of Experiential Learning
This theory is useful in that it provides a model which permits for approaching learning from the point of view of employing one’s own experience; its main advantage is that it utilizes this experience in order to help learners build knowledge, allowing for “incorporation of personal change and development” in education (Manolis et al., 2013, p. 44). This theory is often utilized in college and university education for management students of undergraduate, postgraduate and executive levels, as well as for learners of positive psychology, phenomenological psychology, and neuroscience (Tomkins & Ulus, 2015, pp. 1-2).
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Noteworthy, certain researchers have doubts about the validity of the theory, and state that many inconsistent approaches were created in order to implement it (Tomkins & Ulus, 2015); however, other scholars argue that the use of the model may yield enhanced learning outcomes (D’Amore, James, & Mitchell, 2012; Manolis et al., 2013).
In addition, the theory pertaining to the learning styles can be used in a variety of disciplines (for instance, in nursing and midwifery (D’Amore et al., 2012)) in order to improve the teaching and make it more personalized. This is of crucial importance due to the fact that the traditional approach to education ignores personal differences between learners, as well as the practical aspects of education, and may produce graduates who possess vast amounts of knowledge but do not know how to use it in situations of the real world (Manolis et al., 2013).
On the contrary, the learning styles theory allows for a more personalized approach; in addition, it is possible that certain learning styles may dominate among students who have certain demographic characteristic or study particular subjects (D’Amore et al., 2012), which allows for a more effective utilization of the theory in the educational setting.
Schön’s Theory of Double-Loop Learning
The single- and double-loop learning theory created by Argyris and Schön provides a model not only for individual learning but also for learning by organizations (Synnott, 2013; Reychav, Kumi, Sabherwal, & Azuri, 2016). For instance, in companies, it often happens so that managers try to promote a product that has been unsuccessful for a long period of time. This is a result of single-loop learning/analysis; in this case, managers try to change the consequences via changing the strategies, but do not question the governing variables.
On the other hand, once managers realize that the product is unsuccessful not because of poor promotion strategies but, for instance, due to the low demand for such a product in principle, they question the governing variables (the company’s intention to sell this product) (Argyris, 1977).
It is evident that questioning the governing variables may significantly help organizations and save them from serious losses by properly utilizing their experience to learn about particular sources of loss. Therefore, the use of the double-loop learning theory can be recommended for organizations, and can be effectively implemented in a situation where there is a persistent problem.
Gibbs’ Theory of Reflective Learning
The Gibbs’ theory of reflective learning provides a model that could be utilized by individuals in order to address numerous types of situations that arise in their professional or personal life. In fact, the model provides a way to critically examine any situation that took place in the past, concretely define the positive and negative sides of it, and determine whether it has been possible to act in a better way, and if yes, then how. Of course, the theory has a number of disadvantages; for instance, it is stated to be fuzzy and conceptually opaque (Potter, 2015, p. 338). However, it is possible to compensate for these cons by simultaneously employing other models of analyzing events (Potter, 2015).
Potter (2015) provides an example of utilization of Gibbs’ theory of reflective learning in order to improve the leadership methods in an organization. The behavior of a business team was analyzed by using the Gibbs’ model, and the leader was able to formulate a solution that allowed for addressing it in a rational, carefully considered way (Potter, 2015).
Another example is provided by Lawrence (2008), an emergency care practitioner who reflected upon the care he provided for a young patient with an asthma attack. The analysis of the situation allowed him to alleviate the feeling that he had done something wrong, for it turned out that the actions were correct. In addition, the medic was able to determine what had been wrong with his equipment that broke during the care provision process, and address the problem so that the equipment would not break again in the future.
Comparison of the Theories
It is possible to see that Kolb’s theory provides a model which addresses the learning styles of people, and because of this it could improve not only personal learning outcomes but also enhance the learning in higher education; it can be utilized in the organizational setting to provide training for employees as well (Kolb, 2015).
Schön’s theory of learning (created in partnership with C. Argyris) also permits for improving individual learning, but may be even more useful for addressing organizational problems. Finally, Gibbs’ theory provides a model allowing for a reflection upon a past situation aimed at improving the outcomes of similar situations in the future; it can be used for a wide range of situations occurring in professional or personal life. It seems more appropriate for “individual use,” but managers of organizations may recommend it to the employees to improve their performance.
To sum up, it should be stressed that all the three theories address the issue of learning from experience. Kolb’s theory supplies a model of such learning, and offers to consider the four main learning styles. Schön and Argyris’ model supplies a way for organizations and individuals to more critically analyze a persistent adverse situation, improve it, and learn from the experience. Finally, Gibbs’ model of reflective learning provides a way for individuals to reflect upon past situations and enhance the results of similar situations should they occur in the future. The theories may provide a useful way to both enhance the process of learning and better address the situations taking place in the real life.
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