Thursday, August 4, 2011

The invisible fifth wheel

An elegant model of learning formulated by the educational theorist, David Kolb, views learning as a cycle consisting of four stages:

            Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle

    The first stage, concrete experience, is where the learner has an experience. In the second stage, reflective observation, she consciously reflects on that experience in detail. In the third stage, abstract conceptualization, she attempts to develop a theory and derive general rules that describe the experience. In the fourth stage, active experimentation, she plans on how to test her theory (or revised theory) in practice which, in turn, leads to the next Concrete Experience.

    Let's apply this wheel to skateboarding:

    1. Concrete Experience:  A skater tries to execute a varial heel flip and fails;
    2. Reflective observation: She takes the time to reflect on her experience, replaying the experience in her mind in a detailed way.
    3. Abstract conceptualization: she analyzes her reflections and concludes that the trick depends heavily on a precise timing of when to flick the board with one's front foot in order to make it rotate.
    4. Active Experimentation: She considers ways to improve her timing in practice.  
    5. Concrete Experience: She tries to execute a varial heel flip with modified timing and fails again...

    Hopefully the skater will continue repeating this cycle until she meets with success.

    One may enter the cycle at any stage, but the above sequence must be followed. If a person is weak in part of the cycle their efficiency at learning and improving will be reduced. Let's briefly discuss some of the symptoms of a deficiency in any given one - one can be deficient in all four - of the stages in the cycle:

    1. One lacking Reflective observation fails to recall the details of an experience and is likely to devise a theory about her experience based on too little information or a vague or distorted impression of the experience.
    2. One lacking Abstract conceptualization is inclined to rely on trial and error rather than a more effective and efficient intelligent approach.
    3. One deficient in Active experimentation consistently fails to find ways of applying theory in practice, finding it hard to translate abstract general principles into concrete and highly specific activities. As a result, she repeats the same mistakes over and over again.
    4. One deficient in Concrete Experience tends to remain an observer, intimidated by the risks involved in novel experiences. In skateboarding this may surface as a lack of commitment to attempt new tricks.

    Every skater knows that if there's a 'flat spot' on one of the wheels of their skateboard, the board travels more slowly and clumsily. The same applies to the learning wheel: if one takes a short cut through the system by bypassing any of the stages, she creates a 'flat spot' in the wheel which may dramatically slow down her rate of progress.            

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