In May 2019, a year ago from now, I graduated as a civil engineer. In my early engineering days, I felt frustrated because I failed to understand how a pump functioned. The 2D diagrams, the terms and jargon of the black and white textbook seemed to make no sense to me. It was hard to even understand the words, let alone trying to remembering them in a sequence.
Why was I so bad at engineering? When did I stop figuring out how to learn? Was it not something we are all taught as children?
If I wasn’t taught that “correlation is not causation“, would I have been capable enough to learn it on my own? If yes, then how? One would argue, through experiences. Then, why is modern learning rote and focused on repetition until it is lodged in your brain and has nowhere to go? “A for Apple and B for Ball” has never left my mind but what I learnt across a span of four years in engineering, seems to be a blur. It wasn’t until I was ten did I realise that the “elemeno” in the ABCD song was actually the letters L, M, N & O. What really is the process of learning? How do we learn as children and does it really change as we grow? What seems to be a thought, is a complex cycle of learning aided by experiences over time. One explanation is given through the Experiential Learning Theory given by David Kolb, as follows:
This cycle represents that learning takes place through a four-stage cycle. Through this, emerges four separate learning styles that an individual may acquire. Let’s us go back to the time when we learnt how to ride a bicycle. I learnt it at 22, how about you? In most cases, we received a stimulus to want to learn to ride a bicycle. The thought may have come from watching others ride it or through a simple instruction from our parents that we are going to learn how to ride a bicycle. (Reflective Observation – RO)
Post this, we progress towards understanding the theory; interpret the answers to questions around biking.
– How does a bicycle function?
– What happens when we push the pedal?
– What are the handles for?
– What are the brakes for? (Abstract Conceptualization – AC)
To aid our experience prior to cycling, we receive practical tips and techniques from an experienced individual. (Concrete Experience – CE) With some faith and courage, we leap on the bike and have a go at it. (Active Experimentation – AE). To be precise, what Kolb really tried to explain was this: to learn is not a special province of a single specialized realm of human functioning such as cognition or perception. It involves the integrated functioning of the total being i.e. thinking, feeling, perceiving and doing. For effective learning to happen, one needs all four kinds of abilities.
This means, one must be able to engage oneself fully, openly and without biases in new experiences, situations encountered, or a reinterpretation of existing experience (CE).
One should be able to reflect upon and observe their experiences from different perspectives – gauging inconsistencies between experiences and understanding (RO).
One must be able to construct conceptual understanding that integrates their observations into logically sound theories by giving rise to new ideas or a modification of an existing abstract concept learnt through the experience (AC).
Using these theories, one must be able to make decisions and solve real life problems (AE).
What Kolb’s model does is, it gives an understanding that different individuals have their own learning styles that emerge from the combination of the successive abilities – perceiving, analysing, deciding and doing. Naturally, we favour one of the four and that is our preferred learning process. However, we often miss out an extremely significant aspect of this experiential learning process. Depending upon the situation or environment, the learner can enter the learning cycle at any point. They will best learn the new task if they practice all four modes.
Building knowledge is a transformative process, being continuously created and recreated, not an independent entity to be acquired or transmitted. Therefore, learning is the process where knowledge is created through the transformation of experiences. Human beings are empowered with cognition and perception. Experiences are the building blocks of life and unlocking these abilities using our cognition is the key to be self-learners for life.