Re-thinking Kolb: Open Learning ‘Cycles’ and the case for micro-reflections.

This a conceptual paper using a systematic literature search which considers the usefulness of Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle (Kolb, 1984) and suggests there may be better alternatives to consider in a modern society where technology and global change dictate that experiences are increasingly based around a singular event. There are any number of adaptations of this model and others of learning as a reflective cyclical experience (See Boud et al., 1985; Gibb, 1988; Atkins and Murphy, 1993). The Kolb cycle is widely promoted through educational texts and used as key underpinning learning theory when teachers complete projects, dissertations and theses. However, there is a growing body of recent literature which argues this cyclical approach may be of limited use and in some instances erroneous in its use.

Kolb’s experiential learning cycle has had its fair share of critiques: for example Webb (2004) concluded the model was unviable arguing it is a dramatic distortion of the very epistemological fundaments it references, neither did learning take place in four clearly defined stages. Forrest (2012: np) states ‘…that a number of processes can occur at once and stages can be jumped or missed out completely.’ Forrest notes that Kolb drew the model based on a research base was small with limited (western) cultural underpinnings and fails to consider the many non-experiential ways people learn. Our own research with education students (Gazdula and Atkin, 2017) also noted the limitations of the model as students on placement learned from a number of singular but significant learning events which made us question not only the usefulness of the experiential learning cycle but also its widespread use. It is likely that Kolb’s experiential learning cycle was influenced by the work of Dewey (1933) who himself was a strong proponent of reflecting on experience. However, Dewey realised that learning came not just from reflection on experiences but required some thought on future actions and reflecting forward. Time has also moved on and, while Dewey lived in an era of jobs based around increasingly repetitive industrial tasks, the de-industrialisation of countries in the western world has seen a shift towards more creative knowledge-based industries where ideas and learning might be opportunistic and singular causing a lack of opportunities for reflection and revision. The need to reflect forward might be the only reflection possible. Wheeler, (2012) calls Kolb’s model anachronistic and belonging to another time arguing, ‘It is time to develop new models to explain the processes that occur when people learn using socially rich interactive digital media.’ (p. 1).

To overcome this we considered a number of linear learning curves which overcame the critiques of Kolb (Wright, 1936; Mendez and Johnson, 2012, Jaber, 2016) before devising a conceptual model based on Otto Sharmer’s Theory U (2009) and developing it into a model of learning along a linear curve with continuous micro-reflections to provide a model of deep learning for education students in the modern era.