I hear and I forget,
I see and I remember,
I do and I understand.
- Confucius c. 450BC

Experiential learning theory
emerges from the philosophies of Confucius, Aristotle, John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Kurt Lewin, and Paulo Freire.1 In his tome Experience and Education, Dewey writes “experience plus reflection equals learning” (Dewey). Educators refer to this as “learning by doing.” While it is easy to abbreviate experiential learning with Dewey’s notion, the process is quite layered. In 1984, David Kolb’s seminal work, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, helped to synthesize a framework for experiential learning, which he calls “a holistic integrative perspective on learning that combines experience, perception, cognition and behavior” (Kolb, 21). He also offers a succinct definition of learning: “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 38). We refer mostly to Kolb’s work in this writing2.

Kolb noticed similarities in thinking of John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Freire through which he observed what he called “propositions” or characteristics of experiential learning.

Propositions of Experiential Learning

  • Learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes.

In learning, experience brings change through which ideas are formed and re-formed. He nods to cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner’s phrase, “Knowing is a process, not a product.”

  • Learning is a continuous process grounded in experience.

With this idea, there is a tension between expectation and experience. We manage the world with an expectation of how it is organized and run; yet, it is the failure of that expectation and our response to that disorientation that leads to learning. As Kolb puts it, “learning is relearning.”

  • The process of learning requires the resolution of conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of adaptation to the world.

Each of us holds oppositional ways of understand the world, for example, concrete thinking vs. abstract thinking. It is in the resolution of those opposites that learning occurs. We’ll discuss this further in the Kolb’s chart below.

  • Learning is a holistic process of adaptation to the world.

Learning involves thinking, feeling, perceiving, and behaving. Thus, it transcends behaviorism and also constructivism. Further, learning transcends the classroom experience as we traditionally know it. “It occurs in all human settings” (Kolb 32).

  • Learning involves transactions between the Person and the Environment

Kolb quotes Dewey who writes: “The environment…is whatever conditions interact with personal needs, desires, purposes, and capacities to create the experience which is had.”

  • Learning is the process of creating knowledge

Kolb suggests we define knowledge as the transaction between social and personal knowledge.If personal knowledge is a component of creating knowledge, we must next consider how people come to know. Kolb helped to construct a paradigm to make the process explicit.

Kolb’s four-part cycle of learning:




In this model, Active Experimentation (DOING) and Reflective Observation (REFLECTING) are dialectically related; they are opposite modes of knowing that a learner chooses between. The same is true for Abstract Conceptualization (UNDERSTANDING) and Concrete Experience (APPLYING). While everyone must engage each of these modes, individuals have preferences for how they intake experience. We tend to think of this as learning styles. Further, the acts of doing, reflecting, understanding and applying work in concert:

According to the four-stage learning cycle… immediate or concrete experiences are the basis of observations and reflections. These reflections are assimilated and distilled into abstract concepts from which new implication for action can be drawn. These implications can be actively tested and serve as guides in creating new experiences. (Kolb, Boyatzis and Mainemelis)3.


[1] The theory is known as Experience Based Learning Theory; however, the term “experiential learning” is also used synonymously.
[2] We acknowledge that there are many critiques to Kolb’s theory; all are instructive. However, they do not undermine the impact of Kolb’s work.
[3] For more information, this site from the UK provides a nice overview: http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/experience.htm


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