Friday 3 February 2017

Reflection is also an Experience

This is an experience
This is an experience
This is an experience

Wingsuit flying is an experience.
A conversation is an experience.
Meditation is an experience.
Private reflection is an experience.
A reflective conversation with others is an experience.

The nature and quality of an experience is influenced by the physical, social and cultural environment as well as by mood, intentions and expectations. It is also influenced by how active or passive you are within the experience: are you a passive log floating downstream, or are you an active kayaker paddling upstream and making your own route through the turbulent water? 

This brief meditation on "experience" readily leads to some serious questions about how experiential learning theory is understood and applied in practice.

"Experiential Learning" is generally chosen because it is more engaging, immersive, holistic, inclusive and dynamic compared to other (more passive) ways of learning. But in practice, it often happens that the reflective part of the process (in the review or debrief) is anything but engaging, immersive, holistic, inclusive and dynamic.

It is as if once we start thinking about experiences we need to shut down all other systems, or at least put them on standby or hibernation. I disagree...

Engaged? If we are not engaged, our thinking suffers.

Immersed? If we are not immersed, our thinking suffers.

Holistic? If we switch off our emotions, put creative thinking to one side, restrict visual communication, keep our hands and bodies still, and rely on analytical thinking - it is not only the quality of experience that suffers, it is also the quality of thinking that suffers.

Inclusive? If we just listen to others talking with each other, they might be learning from experience, but we are probably not.

Dynamic? Not every kind of movement will aid reflection, but there are many kinds of movement that can readily support reflective processes. As a simple example, many people find that walking and talking or walking and thinking fit very well together.

So I do get a little impatient when after "the experience" the facilitator sits everyone down and fires out analytical questions for group discussion. And that's about all. This is the "classic debrief". And it falls into the "classic error" of separating experience and reflection into two different worlds.

We are always experiencing, and we are nearly always reflecting. These two processes are so intertwined why try separating them? As far as I know we are not able to teleport into some kind of parallel universe where we are able to reflect without experiencing anything.

David Kolb's Theory of Experiential Learning and Development appears to present experiential learning as a 4-stage step-by-step process. But Kolb himself states that these four processes "interact simultaneously" (p.61). As Malcolm Garbutt clarifies:
"The difference may be subtle but it impacts on people who read only one half of Kolb. This view considers each process as a single action seen in isolation which goes against the very nature of what Kolb proposes... The four processes are entwined and typically operate in conjunction rather than individually." Malcolm Garbutt
It should come as no surprise to those who base their practice on only half a theory that they are only half as effective as they could be.

One way of paying attention to the whole theory (whichever one you "follow") is by paying attention to what participants are experiencing while they reflect and review. Are you, for example, facilitating the review in ways that allow people to experience a sense of belonging during the review itself and of feeling appreciated within the review process? Does your facilitation practice generate experiences of responsibility, ownership, creativity, exploration and achievement within the reviewing process itself?

It is difficult to pay attention to what people experience unless you provide the means through which they can best reflect and communicate what they are experiencing. This usually means moving beyond questions and answers and being more imaginative with the processes and tools that you offer.

For follow-up on Kolb's theory see my collection of critiques. For follow-up on how you can apply the insights above to your practice see my Guide to Active Reviewing. And to follow up with your own thoughts, please add your comments below.


  1. For greater clarity I have rewritten the paragraph about the fictional parallel universe in which experiences don't happen.

    I'd also like to warmly invite readers to leave a comment before scrolling down or clicking/tapping into another universe.

    It is pleasing to have had over 200 visitors within a couple of days. (All invisible visitors leaving without comment) Please comment even if you disagree. And if you think others would like to know of this blog, please share or tell them.

    Thank you :-)

  2. I have revised the paragraph ending: "Does your facilitation practice generate experiences of responsibility, ownership, creativity, exploration and achievement within the reviewing process itself?" to make it as clear as possible that I am referring to the experience of reviewing and not to the experience being reviewed. I would even claim that the experience of the review is even more important than the experience being reviewed - but I think that is something to explore more thoroughly in another blog rather than just making a simple assertion.

  3. A doubt: Does this reflection over Kolb's work considers the latest publications were he also admits that there is the balancing mode of learning which combines all the learning styles?

  4. Thank you Erica for expressing your doubt and question. In addition to my point about not applying only "half of Kolb" I would happily add a reference to Kolb's more recent writings about the balancing mode and how this is a helpful addition / clarification.

    However, Kolb's term "concrete experience" (CE) implies that this is the part of the cycle where experience happens - followed by 3 stages (even if overlapping stages) that transform the experience into learning (RO, AC, AE). I am trying to bring attention to the fact that each of these transforming stages are also experiences, and that the nature and quality of these more reflective experiences can be of equal or greater significance than the original experience (CE) on which these processes are acting.

    In other words there is both the original experience (CE) and the experience of processing the experience (RO, AC and AE). The processes that enable learning from an experience can themselves generate experiences that are far more interesting, impactful and empowering than the experience (CE) that is being processed.

    Does Kolb's balancing mode include the experience of learning within this balance?

    For example:
    CE (concrete experience) could be a frustrating experience.
    RO (reflective observation) could be an uncomfortable experience
    AC (abstract conceptualization) could be an exciting experience
    AE (active experimentation) could be an emotional roller coaster

  5. I agree that the reflective process is an experience, and one that can be experienced asynchronously. Some participants in experiential education groups I have led do not speak in a debrief, but listen to others sharing, and later, in a written reflection, compare and contrast others' truths with their own, examining as a whole, the experience of solving the problem together and reflecting on the group experience in the debrief.

    What I have seen in practice is that during an experience people move back and forth between stages, and group members will be at different stages in any given moment, given their different characteristics in relation to the problem.

  6. Thank you for your insights and for highlighting that different stages of a reflective process can generate different experiences. Referring to the example you provide ... being a non-contributor in a group debrief might feel a bit uncomfortable, but writing about their experiences (of both the activity and the debrief) might feel satisfying, perhaps tinged with regret (about what they did or didn't do) and determination (about what they now intend to do differently).

    We are both sharing quite positive accounts of the learning process here. One of my main concerns is that participants' experiences of a standard debrief may not be so positive. If the experience of the debrief itself is (say) dull, superficial or predictable there is a high risk that participants zone out and drop out from the learning process.

  7. When we're not experiencing, we shut down, maybe due to tiredness, stress etc.

  8. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. There seem to be two kinds of shutting down here. You mention tiredness which presumably reduces both experiencing and thinking (until sleep takes over). You also mention stress which could be in the form of an unwanted experience that intrudes on the (original) learning process. The learner or the facilitator can always choose to focus on the experience that is getting in the way and use that as a source of learning.

    In relation to the original blog post above, I would be cautious about identifying moments of "not experiencing". This is because we can achieve significant learning from all kinds of experience whether big or small, pleasant or unpleasant, when fully alert or in a dream-like state. Even seemingly trivial experiences can become highly significant for learning - such as a prisoner watching a bird fly past. And there is the more philosophical question about whether a state of "not experiencing" is possible. I experience therefore I am??