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Ilorin Journal of Education


Ponle Gideon Adetunji (PhD)
Dean of Academic Affairs,
The Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary,
Ogbomoso, Oyo State.

This paper examines David Kolb's theory of learning styles, which is 'experienced-
based learning.' It gives the historical background to Kolb's theory and examines the
process and structure in experiential learning, individual in the learning process,
individual learning styles, the learning style inventory (LSI), characteristics of the basic
learning styles, and the structure of social knowledge. The paper concludes by
discussing the educational implications of Kolb's theory.

Writing on learning styles, Riding and Cheeman (1991) observe that "studies in
learning/cognitive styles initially developed as a result of interest in individual
differences. These issues were very much in fashion during the 1960s, enjoyed a
continuing popularity during the 1970s, but have since tended to decline" (p.194). They
go further in their observation that learning styles are once again coming into
prominence and are now being more seriously considered by the teaching and training
world (p.195).
The waning of interest was revitalized by scholars who became very much
interested in the area of learning styles in the 1980s (Entwistle, 1981, Das, 1988). But,
"learning style" seems to emerge fairly as a common term or a replacement term for
cognitive style in the 1970s. Indeed, the impression that is formulated in the usage of
these terms is that those working on learning style," take cognitive style into
consideration but would describe themselves as interested in more practical,
educational, or training applications and are thus more "action-orientated," while the
term cognitive style has been reserved for theoretical and academic descriptions.
Fischer and Fischer (1978) define style as hypothetical constructs which help
explain the teaching-learning process. It refers to a pervasive quality in the behaviour of
an individual, a quality that persists though the content may change. In every field of
endeavour, people can be identified with distinctive qualities of behaviour that are
consistent through time and carry over from situation to situation. So, it is in education,
both in teaching and in learning. Among those theorists who have seen the practical,
educational, or training application of learning styles is David A. Kolb

Historical Background to Kolbs Theory
David A. Kolb (1986) was one of the renowned educationists of the last quarter of
the twentieth century and taught at Case Western Reserve University. He was
influenced in his thinking by Piaget, Lewin, and Dewey. Writing on the "Experiential
Learning in Higher Education: The Legacy of John Dewey," Kolb (1986) observes that:
In the field of higher education, there is a growing group of educators. . . Who see
experiential education as a way to revitalize the university curriculum and to cope
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with many of the changes facing higher education today. This movement is
attributed to the educational philosophy of John Dewey (pp.4-5).
The educational philosophy of Dewey (1957) suggests that experience is the guide
in moral life. It is the work of Dewey, without doubt the most influential educational
theorist of the twentieth century, that best articulates the guiding principles for
programmes of experiential learning in higher education. In 1938, Dewey (1938) wrote
Experience and Education in an attempt to bring some understanding to the growing
conflict between "traditional" education and his "progressive" approach. In it, he outlined
the directions for change implied in his approach. He wrote:
If one attempts to formulate the philosophy of education implicit in the practices of
the new education, we may, I think, discover certain common principles. . . to
imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to
external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers,
learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill
is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital
appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most
of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed
acquaintance with a changing world. . . I take it that the fundamental unity of the
newer philosophy is found in the idea that there is an intimate and necessary
relation between the processes of actual experience and education (p. 18).
Some decades back, many of Dewey's ideas found their way into "traditional"
educational programmes, but the challenges his approaches were developed to meet,
those of coping with change and lifelong learning, have increased even more
dramatically. It is to meet these challenges that experienced educators in higher
education have addressed themselves.
Lewin (1870), the founder of American social psychology and his research on group
dynamics also influenced Kolb's theory. For instance, his work has had a profound
influence on the discipline of social psychological and on its practical counterpart, the
field of organizational behaviour. His innovative research methods and theories,
coupled with the personal charisma of his intellectual leadership, have been felt among
scholars. Although the scope of his work has been vast, ranging from leadership and
management style to mathematical contributions to social-science field theory, it is his
work on group dynamics and the methodology of action research that have had the
most far-reaching practical significance. From Lewin's and others' studies came the
laboratory training method and T-groups (T - training), one of the most potent
educational innovations of the last century. The action-research method has proved a
useful approach to planned-change interventions in small groups and large complex
organizations and community systems. Today, this methodology forms the cornerstone
of most organization development efforts.
The consistent theme in all Lewin's work is his concern for the integration of theory
and practice, stimulated if not created by his experience as a refugee in the United
States from Nazi Germany. His classic studies on authoritarian, democratic, and
Laissez faire leadership styles are his attempt to understand in a practical way the
psychological dynamics of dictatorship and democracy. His best known quotation;
There is nothing so practical as a good theory, (Lewin, 1870; p.40) symbolizes his
commitment to the integration of scientific inquiry and social problem-solving. Lewin
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and his T-group set out and designed a new approach to leadership and group
dynamics training for the Connecticut State Interracial Commission. At the end of the
day, Lewin and the group discovered that learning is best facilitated in an environment
where there is dialectic tension and conflict between immediate, concrete experience
and analytic detachment.
The next influence on Kolb is the French developmental psychologist and genetic
epistemologist, Jean Piaget. While Freud (1921) placed his emphasis on the socio-
emotional processes of development, Piaget's (1971) focus was on cognitive
development processes on the nature of intelligence and how it develops. Stated
simply, Piaget's theory describes how intelligence is shaped by experience. According
to him, intelligence is not an innate internal characteristic of the individual but arises as
a product of the interaction between the person and his or her environment He showed
in careful descriptive studies of children from childhood to adolescence that abstract
reasoning and the power to manipulate symbols arise from the infant's actions in
exploring and coping with the immediate concrete environment.
Piaget's work is further complemented by the one on cognition by Bruner. Bruner
(1978) saw in the growing knowledge of cognitive developmental processes the
scientific foundations for a theory of instruction. In Bruner's view, knowledge of cognitive
developmental stages would make it possible to design curricula in such a way that
subject matter could be taught respectably to learners at any age or stage of cognitive
development. This idea resulted into a new movement in curriculum development and
teaching which focused on the design of experience-based educational programmes
using the principles of cognitive-development theory. According to Kolb and Irwin
(1991), Dewey, Lewin, and Piaget must stand as the foremost intellectual ancestors of
experiential learning theory (p. 3).

David Kolbs Theory of Learning Styles: Experiential Learning Theory
Kolb (1984) asserts that an experiential learning theory "offers a fundamentally
different view of learning process from that of the behavioural theories of learning based
on an empirical epistemology or the more implicit theories of learning which underlie
traditional educational methods, methods that are for the most part based on a rational,
idealist epistemology." From this angle different prescriptions for the conduct of
education, proper relationships among learners, work, and other life activities, and the
creation of knowledge itself have emerged. Such perspective on learning is called
"experiential" for two reasons: First, it is tied clearly to its intellectual origins in the work
of Dewey, Lewin, and Piaget. Second, it emphasizes the central role that experience
plays in the learning process. This differentiates experiential learning theory from
rationalist and other cognitive theories of learning which tend to give primary emphasis
to acquisition, manipulation, and recall of abstract symbols and from behavioural
learning theories that deny any role for consciousness and subjective experiences in the
learning process. Experiential learning theory suggests a holistic integrative perspective
on learning that combines experience, perception, cognition, and behaviour.
Experiential learning theory assumes that ideas are not fixed and immutable
elements of thought but formed and re-formed through experience. In this perspective,
learning is described as a process whereby concepts are derived from and continuously
magnified by experience. Furthermore, learning is an emergent process whose
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outcomes represents only historical record, rather than knowledge of the future. Thus,
learning is a continuous process grounded in experience while knowledge is
continuously derived from and tested out in the experiences of the learner.
Kolb's (1981a) asserts that experiential learning is not a molecular educational
concept but rather a concept describing the central process of human adaptation to the
social and physical environment. In other words, it is a holistic concept much akin to the
Jungian theory of psychological types in that it seeks to describe the emergence of
basic life orientations as a function of dialectic tensions between basic modes of relating
to the world. To learn is not the special province of a single specialized realm of human
functioning such as cognition and perception. It involves the integrated functioning of
the total organism thinking, feeling, perceiving, and behaving. When learning is
conceived as a holistic adaptive process, it provides conceptual bridges across life
situations such as school and work,- portraying learning as a continuous, lifelong
process. Similarly, this perspective highlights the similarities among adaptive or learning
activities that are commonly called by specialized names learning, creativity, problem-
solving, decision-making, and scientific research. In addition, learning conceived
holistically includes adaptive activities that vary in their extension, thro ugh time and
Based on the characteristics of the experiential learning process, Kolb (1984)
defines learning as the process whereby knowledge is created through the
transformation of experience. Such a definition emphasizes several critical aspects of
the learning process as viewed from the experiential perspective. First, is the emphasis
on the process of adaptation and learning as opposed to content or outcomes. Second,
knowledge is more a transformation process, being continuously created and recreated,
rather than an independent entity to be acquired or transmitted, Third, learning
transforms experience in both its objective and subjective forms. Finally, to understand
learning we must understand the nature of knowledge and vice versa. Concrete
experiences, according to Kolb, is the tangible, felt qualities of the world.

A. Process and Structure in Experiential Learning
Kolb and Smith (1986) describes the process of experiential learning as a four-stage
cycle involving four adaptive learning modes concrete experience, reflective
observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. In this model,
concrete/abstract conceptualization and active experimentation/abstract
conceptualization and active experimentation /reflective observation are two distinct
dimensions in which each represent two dialectically opposite adaptive orientations.
The structural bases of the learning process lie in the transactions among these four
adaptive modes and the way in which the adaptive dialects get resolved. The
abstract/concrete On/dialectic is one of apprehension, representing two different and
opposing processes of grasping or taking hold of experience in the world - either
through reliance on conceptual interpretation and symbolic representation, (a process
Kolb calls "comprehension,") or through reliance on the tangible, felt qualities of
immediate experience (what he calls "apprehension"). The active/reflective dialectic is
one of "transformation," and this represents two opposing ways of transforming that
grasp or "figurative representation" of experience - either through internal reflection, a
process he calls "intension," or active external manipulation of the external world, which
Ilorin Journal of Education
he calls "extension." These two dimensions of learning (i.e. apprehension and
transformation) correspond directly to Piaget's (1970) figurative and operative aspects
of thought.
In the figurative aspects, perception and imitation correspond roughly to the
apprehension process, while mental imagery corresponds to the comprehension
process. For the operative aspect, there is a rough correspondence between action
and the process of extension and between intellectual operations and the intention
process. With respect to the structural perspective, Kolb argues that, knowledge results
from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it. And since these are
two dialectically opposing forms of apprehension, and similarly two opposite ways of
transforming that apprehension, the result is four different elementary forms of
knowledge: divergent, assimilative, convergent, and accommodative. According to him,
divergent knowledge is experience grasped through apprehension and transformed
through intention results. Assimilative knowledge is experience grasped through
comprehension and transformed through intention. When experience is grasped
through comprehension and transformed through extension, the result is convergent
knowledge. And, when experience is grasped by apprehension and transformed by
extension, accommodative knowledge is the result. These elementary forms of
knowledge become the building blocks for developmentally higher levels of knowing.
The central idea of Kolb's theory is that learning, and therefore knowing, requires
both a grasp or figurative representation of experience and some transformation of that
representation. The figurative grasp or operative transformation alone is not sufficient
because the simple perception of experience is not sufficient for learning and as such
something must be done with it. In the same vein, transformation alone cannot
represent learning, since there must either be something to be transformed or some
state or experience that is being acted upon.

B. Individuality in Learning
Kolb (1978) recognizes the importance of the uniqueness of an individual in the
learning process. He suggests that the learning process is not identical for all human
beings but that rather it appears that the physiological structures that govern learning
allow for the emergence of unique individual adaptive processes that tend to emphasize
some adaptive orientations over others.
Each human being has a uniqueness and individuality that are highly prized by him
or her. Therefore, theorists have to be interested not only in general laws of behaviour,
but in their specific relevance and application for each individual ease in his or her own
context, Individual styles of learning are complex and not easily reducible into simple
typologies. This is a point Kolb bears in mind in describing general patterns of
individuality in learning. He acknowledges the greatest contribution of cognitive-style
research as being the documentation of the diversity and complexity of cognitive
processes and their manifestation in behaviour.

C. Individual Learning Styles: The Learning Style Inventory
In order to access individual orientations toward learning, Kolb (1981b) created the
Learning Style Inventory (LSI). According to them, the development of this instrument
was guided by four design objectives. First, the test should be constructed in such a
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way that people would respond to it in somewhat the same way as they would to a
learning situation: that is, it should require one to resolve the opposing tensions
between abstract-concrete and active-reflective orientations. In technical terms, they
were seeking a test that was both normative, allowing comparisons between individuals
in their relative emphasis on a given learning mode such as abstract conceptualization
and "ipsative," allowing comparisons within individuals on their relative emphasis on the
four learning modes; for instance, whether they emphasized abstract conceptualization
more than the other three learning modes in their individual approach to learning.
Secondly, a self-description format was chosen for the inventory, since the notion of
possibility-processing structure relies heavily on conscious choice and decision. It was
felt that self-image descriptions might be more powerful determinants of behavioral
choices and decisions than would performance test. Thirdly, the inventory was
constructed with the hope that it would prove to be valid - that the measures of learning
styles would predict behaviour in a way that was consistent with the theory of
experiential learning. A final consideration was a practical one and this involved the fact
that the test should be brief and straightforward, so that in addition to research uses, it
could be used as a means of discussing the learning process with those tested and
giving them feedback on their own learning styles. The final form of the test is a nine-
item self-description questionnaire. In each item, the respondent is requested to rank-
order four words in a way that best describes his or her learning style. Norms for scores
on the LSI, along with reliability and validity data, were reported in detail by the authors.
These were used to discover the learning styles of the respondents.

D. Characteristics of the Basic Learning Styles
Kolb (1978) describes the characteristics of the four basic learning styles based on
both research and clinical observation of the patterns of learning style Inventory scores
which involve convergent, divergent, assimilation and accommodative learning styles.
The Convergent Learning Style
The convergent learning style relies primarily on the dominant learning abilities of
abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. The major strength of this
approach lies in problem-solving, decision-making, and the practical application of
ideas. This learning style has been called the "converger" because a person with this
style seems to do best in situations like conventional intelligence tests where there is a
single correct answer or solution to a question or problem In this learning style,
knowledge is organized in such a way that through hypothetical-deductive reasoning it
can be focused on specific problems. Convergent individuals are controlled in their
expressions of emotion; they thus prefer dealing more with technical tasks and
problems than social and interpersonal issues. Consequently, professions with technical
or scientific bases (e.g. accounting, engineering, medicine, and to a lesser degree,
management) have people with a primarily convergent learning style.
The Divergent Learning Style
The divergent learning style has on the other hand the opposite learning strengths
from convergence, emphasizing concrete experience and reflective observation. The
major strength of this orientation lies in imaginative ability and awareness of meaning
and values The primary adaptive ability of divergence is to view concrete situations from
many perspectives and as such the emphasis is adaptation by observation rather than
Ilorin Journal of Education
by action. This learning style is called "diverger," because an individual of this type
performs better in situations that call for generation of alternative ideas and implications,
such as a "brainstorming" session. Those oriented toward divergence are interested in
people and therefore tend to be imaginative and feeling-oriented. The divergent
learning style is hence associated with the personal type having introversion and feeling
as the dominant process.
Assimilation Learning Style
In assimilation, the dominant learning abilities are abstract conceptualization and
reflective observation. The greatest strength of this orientation lies in inductive
reasoning and the ability to initiate theoretical models, in assimilating disparate
observations into an integrated explanation. As in convergence, this orientation is less
focused on people and more concerned with ideas and abstract concepts, Ideas, are
however judged less in this orientation by their practical value. Here, it is more important
that the theory be logically sound and precise. The assimilative learning style is
characterized by the introverted intuitive type.
The Accommodative Learning Style
The accommodative learning style has the opposite strengths from assimilation,
emphasizing concrete experience and active experimentation. The main strength of this
orientation lies in doing things, in carrying out plans and tasks, and getting involved in
new experience. The adaptive emphasis of this orientation is on opportunity seeking,
risk taking, and action. This style is called "accommodation," because it is best suited
for those situations where one must adapt oneself to changing immediate
circumstances. In situations where theory or plans do not fit facts, those with an
accommodative style will most likely discard the plan or theory, Consequently, those
with an accommodative orientation tend to solve problems in an intuitive trial-and error
manner, relying heavily on other people for information rather than on their own analytic
ability. Individuals with accommodative learning styles are at ease with people but are
sometimes seen as impatient and pushy. Such is to be found in social professions such
as education, nursing, social work, and agricultural extension comprising people who
are heavily or primarily accommodative in their learning styles.

Experiential learning theory provides a model of a learning process that is consistent
with the structure of human cognition and the stages of human growth. It conceptualizes
the learning process in such a way that differences in individual learning styles and
corresponding learning environments can be identified. The learning model is a dialectic
one, founded on the Jungian concept of styles or types, which states that fulfillment in
adult development is accomplished by higher level integration and expression of non-
dominant modes of dealing with the world.
The theory is called "experiential learning" for two reasons. The first is historical,
tying it to its intellectual origins in the social psychology of Kurt Lewin and the sensitivity
training and laboratory education work of the 1950s and 1960s. The second reason is to
emphasize the important role that experience plays in the learning process, an
emphasis that differentiates this approach from other cognitive theories of the learning
process. The core of the model is a simple description of the learning cycle of how
experience is translated into concepts which in turn are used as guides in the choice of
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new experiences. The experiential learning model is from concrete experience to
observations and reflections, to formation of abstract concepts and generalizations, to
testing implications of concepts in new situations.
In experiential learning theory, learning is conceived as a four stage cycle.
Immediate concrete experience is the basis for observation and reflection. These
observations are assimilated into a "theory" from which new implications for action can
be deduced. These implications or hypotheses then serve as guides in acting to create
new experiences. The learner, if he is to be effective, needs four different kinds of
abilities: Concrete Experience abilities (CE), Reflective Observation abilities (RO),
Abstract Conceptualization abilities (AC), and Active Experimentation abilities (AE).
That is, he must be able to involve himself fully, openly, and without bias in new
experiences from many perspectives (RO); to create concepts that integrate his
observations into logically sound theories (AC); and to use these theories to make
decisions and solve problems (AE).
A closer examination of the four-stage learning model would suggest that learning
requires abilities that are polar opposites and that the learner, as a result, must
continually choose which set of learning abilities he or she will bring to bear in any
specific learning situation. More specifically, there are two primary dimensions to the
learning process. The first dimension represents the concrete experiencing of events at
one end and abstract conceptualization at the other. The other dimension has active
experimentation at one extreme and reflective observation at the other. Thus, in the
process of learning one moves in varying degrees from actor to observer, from specific
involvement to general analytic detachment.
Kolb's theory provides the missing link between theory and practice, between the
abstract generalization and the concrete instance, between the affective and cognitive
domains. By this theory, he demonstrates conclusively that learning is a social process
based on carefully cultivated experience which challenges every precept and concept of
what nowadays passes for "teaching." Kolb shifts the vicinity of learning away from the
exclusivity of the classroom (and its companion, the lecture) to the workplace, the
family, the community, or wherever people gather to work or play or interact. The
significance of Kolb's theory for educators is profound because, among other things, he
leads educators away from the traditional concerns of credit hours and calendar time
toward competence, working knowledge, and information truly pertinent to jobs,
families, and communities.

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