I had a number of intelligent and creative classmates in high school. Sadly not all of them did well in a classroom setting; many preferred to go on field trips or doing experiments in a laboratory. I imagine that this is a common occurrence in most schools.
When it comes to experiential learning, different people will approach a problem in different ways. Lets consider a simple example: assembling a desk from a ready-to-assemble kit sold by furniture stores like IKEA. The kit comes with a manual and all materials and tools that are required to build the desk. Folks will tackle this project in a variety of ways: I, for instance, will first read the entire manual before touching anything else. Then I’ll open the packages one by one as stated in the instructions, and organize everything before starting the assembly. Others might prefer a more hands-on approach: ignoring the instructions, choosing to experiment with the nuts and bolts, and figuring out a way to assemble the parts. Some will devour the instruction manual, others will rely on previous experience and then there are folks who’ll look up youtube videos for demos.
That brings me to the topic of this post: Learning Styles, the various methods or approaches to learning. Learning styles, unlike personality traits, are acquired preferences that are adaptable, either at will or through changed circumstances. There has been a lot of research on the topic of how people learn from experience.
In an article published in 2005, Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory (note: it’s a 70 page long pdf) revisits the theories developed in 1984 and helps individuals identify the way they learn from experience. The model outlines two related approaches toward grasping experience: Concrete Experience and Abstract Conceptualization, as well as two related approaches toward transforming experience: Reflective Observation and Active Experimentation. According to Kolb’s model, the ideal learning process engages all four of these modes in response to situational demands. In order for learning to be effective, all four of these approaches must be incorporated. As individuals attempt to use all four approaches, however, they tend to develop strengths in one experience-grasping approach and one experience-transforming approach. The resulting learning styles are combinations of the individual’s preferred approaches.
What’s your learning style?
There are numerous tests that will measure different aspects of your learning style. My responses to two of the most popular models are shown in the charts below.
I show an indisputable preference towards logical, solitary and abstract conceptualization, and thus fall in a category called Assimilators.
Assimilators are characterized by abstract conceptualization and reflective observation. They are capable of creating theoretical models by means of inductive reasoning
In other words, in most cases I tend to have knowledge about something, i.e. theoretical and conceptual, rather than direct practical experience. This distinction, between theoretical learning v/s experimental learning, has been made since the time of Aristotle, and epistemologists have discussed it ever since.
If a car breaks down, I might be able to determine the problem, but can I fix it? nope! This can be seen as both, a strength and a weakness, but if I am frequently driving a car, it might help to take a course in basic repair and maintenance, and augment my theoretical knowledge. That way, I will be pushing myself to learn by doing, an area I typically shy away from.
In schools and places of work where most of our learning in adult life occurs, we have access to a limited set of tools and resources. I can do excellent in a library setting, others prefer classroom lectures, demos or practical experiments. Restricting one’s learning to one particular style will only serve to limit the amount one learns.
It is very uncommon for people to be good at all four (or seven) aspects of experiential learning. However, since these skills are gained over time, it might be useful to consciously force yourself to be more adept in the other quadrants of the model. That will complement your strengths, and at the same time open up new avenues of learning.
Sounds easier said than done. But being aware of a situation is half the battle won.