Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory
ELT provides a map of how people prefer to interact with each other and the world; what the theory considers learning situations. Each perspective is a sort of mental window or filter that is used to make sense of the learning situation and thus informs our affective, perceptual, cognitive, and behavioral responses. We hold these perspectives with varying degrees of intensity and flexibility. Deepening our understanding of both our default perspective and recognizing those of others, we can shape our conversations toward more productive outcomes and increase our individual and collective adaptive capacities.
One important ramification the concept of perspectives provides is to depersonalize interactions, particularly those that we experience as difficult. For example, rather than thinking of a conflict as between two individuals, through a model such as ELT we can recast this as a conflict between the perspectives individuals hold. The resulting shift enables a novel conversation about perspectives as being outside of us and thus much less threatening. It also helps to explain why we tend to have recurring, previously intractable conflict with specific roles, which tend to attract specific learning styles. For example, roles requiring heavy analysis are more likely to be attractive and successfully filled by someone with an assimilating preference than an accommodating one.
To get into the specifics of ELT, version 3 is a classic four-quadrant model. Each quadrant is the intersection of two nodal preferences, which are mapped to the axes radiating from the center point. As previously noted in the first part of this series, ELT is less a categorization to deterministically apply how individuals will react, as a map of how we are likely to act. It is inherent in the underlying theory that different types of situations can elicit varying preferences, and that our abilities to intentionally choose perspectives, to become more flexible, can be learned over time.
To define some of these terms; opposite position on the axes indicates a degree of inherent tension between the preferences:
- Concrete Experience values what has happened, or is happening; direct experience.
- Mental Abstraction values sense making through thinking; mental models.
- Active Experimentation values learning through taking in new information and directly trying new things; transform experience and abstractions into behavior by trying.
- Reflective Observation values learning through taking in new information and comparing it to past experiences; connect direct experience to general knowledge.
Between these nodes are learning styles:
- Diverging perspectives prefer to reflect on past experience and value generating options and ideas. People with this preference tend to ask a lot of questions like “what has worked in the past?” or “what do others think?” or “what about this?”
- Assimilating perspectives prefer to apply mental models to past experience and value comparative analysis between ideas. People with this preference tend to like to have time to think things through, often introspectively.
- Converging perspectives prefer to work toward practical outcomes through goals and explicit decisions. People with this preference tend to create structure around ambiguity and to get to a decision quickly.
- Accommodating perspectives value trying new things and figuring out corrections along the way, often by intuition or emotional feedback rather than any logical or analytical rigor.
It is critical to understand that the fitness of any specific perspective, and its corresponding strength, is entirely contextual. For example, when we are in the diverging phase of a deciding conversation, having a diverging perspective lead will be the most likely to generate the greatest number of high quality ideas. On the contrary, having a converging perspective in this phase will tend to rush to a decision, introducing risk through insufficient ideation and analysis. Understanding when any particular conversation benefits from shifting between phases, such as diverging to comparing, can be developed over time and is a hallmark of skilled facilitation. There are additional dynamics that influence the relative strength of each perspective, including the levels of organizational authority, status, or influence or each individual. Another type of dynamic will be explored in Part 3 through Kantor’s Four Player Model.
Different phases of a deciding conversation require specific focus and contributions. The various required perspectives don’t always get along particularly well as there is inherent tension between what they value. For example, the analysis an assimilating perspective prefers can delay the immediate action an accommodating perspective prefers. Both are seeking to learn and gain a mutually beneficial outcome. When a team has both clarity of shared outcome and understanding of the dynamics the perspectives bring, they can enjoy much more productive dialogue and harness the conflict toward forging better ideas together. To do so though, they need an experience to discover more about their own individual preferred perspectives, and those of their teammates.
A simple experiential exercise can be used to set the conversational context for this discovery:
- Floor space clear of chairs can be taped out with a 2×2 matrix.
- Labels for both the axes and quadrants are laid down one at a time, with a brief explanation of each, using an example such as “your task is to plan a party.”
- The group is invited to silently “walk the map” and spend a few moments with each label, and observing their responses. Once through all of them, invite everyone to go and stand in the place that feels most right to them.
- Ask for insights or for people to share why they are standing in the specific place they’ve chosen.
- Observe if there is a quadrant with less representation; probe for possible dynamics around this imbalance.
- Observe if there is an empty quadrant; probe for possible dynamics around this absence.
- Any other dynamics the group would like to explore; for example, inviting each of the quadrants to become vacant, or ask the group members to find a place they feel the team is strong and after a place they feel there are opportunities to improve.
It is remarkable, when such exercises are well-facilitated, what insights a group who has never been exposed to a model such as ELT will articulate. However, this is not always true and a prepared facilitator always has some content at the ready to help seed conversations! The following table helps to give some examples of what each perspective provides as a strength, and what an imbalance may look like. Of course, these are just a few possibilities rather than an exhaustive list. When possible it is preferable to have group members share their insights and perspectives; a facilitator may mirror those back with more precise language, though there is a degree of authenticity that only comes from the team:
|Diverging||Exceeds at generating ideas, helping create inclusive conversations by helping all voices be heard, rooted in what has happened.||Can get stuck in widening the set of ideas and options beyond what a group has time or capacity to work through. Can resist getting to action if feels there are not enough things to choose between.|
|Assimilating||Exceeds at simultaneously comparing various ideas from multiple angles. Able to find and articulate connections and conflicts between ideas.||Can get stuck in thinking through ideas without coming to a conclusion. Can resist action if feels there are not enough things to compare.|
|Converging||Exceeds at creating structure, such as timelines, decision-making agreements, plans, and documentation.||Can push too quickly for a decision without considering enough perspectives, or understanding how perspectives relate to each other.|
|Accommodating||Exceeds at getting started and generating movement. Strongly improvisational by quickly responding to feedback, often emotional/intuitive.||Impatience with not getting to action quickly. Ability to work with lack of structure can lose sight of strategic goals and impacts of short-term decisions on long-term outcomes.|
A well-balanced team will have all of these learning styles represented. Even more they will know how to shift leadership of a conversation fluidly among the perspectives to get a balanced path through a decision.
Thank you to Kay Peterson from the Experiential Learning Institute for her contributions to this section of the post!
 As of writing this post, the model is in version 4, which contains a total of nine learning styles. In addition to renaming the existing four quadrants, it reflects data that supports each nodal axis having an affiliated learning style of its own, as well as a central style that balances between the other eight. For the sake of simplicity the earlier version is intentionally provided here. More information about the fourth version can be found in David Kolb and Kay Peterson. (2017). How You Learn is How You Live: Using Nine Ways of Learning to Transform Your Life. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.