A snapshot of ELT


Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) has a long history and provides a pertinent model of the learning process and a multilinear model of adult development, both of which are consistent with what we know about how people learn, grow, and develop. The spiral of learning from experience described in experiential learning theory (Kolb, 1984) can help learners (e.g. employees) “learn how to learn”. By consciously following a recursive cycle of experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting, they can increase their learning power.

Following “the learning way” begins with embracing the idea that “I am a learner” and continues with the development of sophisticated strategies for intentional learning based on their unique talents and the different learning challenges they face (Kolb and Kolb, 2009, p. 297).

The theory is called “Experiential Learning” to emphasize the central role that experience plays in the learning process, an emphasis that distinguishes ELT from other learning theories. The term “experiential” is used therefore to differentiate ELT both from cognitive learning theories, which tend to emphasize cognition over affect, and behavioral learning theories that deny any role for subjective experience in the learning process. Experiential learning theory defines learning as „the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience” (Kolb 1984, p. 41).

The ELT model portrays two dialectically related modes of grasping experience – Concrete Experience (CE) and Abstract Conceptualization (AC) and two dialectically related modes of transforming experience – Reflective Observation (RO) and Active Experimentation (AE) (Mainemelis, Boyatzis and Kolb, 2002, p. 5).

In grasping experience, some of us perceive new information through experiencing the concrete, tangible, felt qualities of the world, relying on our senses and immersing ourselves in concrete reality. Others tend to perceive, grasp, or take hold of new information through symbolic representation or abstract conceptualization – thinking about, analyzing, or systematically planning, rather than using sensation as a guide. Similarly, in transforming or processing experience some of us tend to carefully watch others who are involved in the experience and reflect on what happens, while others choose to jump right in and start doing things. The watchers favor reflective observation, while the doers favor active experimentation.

Organizational Learning versus The Learning Organization: a comparison

In the general field of learning in organizations, confusion between Organizational Learning and Learning Organization is maintained and even intensified by several aspects. The two perspectives are often confused, because of the symmetry of terms. Second, “organizational learning” is used in many situations with the old technical meaning (reception and storage of information), which confuses more the receptors of studies. Third, the expression “learning organization” determined, for a segment of researchers, the idea that only educational organizations could be the subject of this orientation (assimilating in a wrong way the concept of learning organization with schools, universities or research centers).

From the two definitions cited before we can see that the spheres of the two concepts have something in common, but are not the same. Still, the two concepts and the scientific orientations need to be characterized after their main features.

The theoretical ground for OL is larger, providing more possibilities of development in the future). The evolution of theories in social sciences shows that an interdisciplinary ground is more nurturing for further development, compared to narrow and specialized paths. By the opposite, LO capacity to bring novelty of theory is limited to propose only related concepts (as the examples given above, learning community or evolving organization). The age of OL perspective is double than the age of LO, which proves also a greater capacity to survive and develop for the former perspective. And, if someone would evaluate the circulation between the two perspectives, would identify a traffic of ideas from OL to LO, but little traffic in the reverse direction.

Finally, the empirical field is not so generous in case of LO as intended by Peter Senge and his followers. On one hand, the percentage of studies in this school using original empirical data is under 50%. On the other hand, the application of the concept in the real organizational environment proved to be limited (questions were raised if “learning organizations” really exist or could be created in reality, following the various paths proposed by LO studies).

Collective learning as a concept

Organizational learning might be explained starting from individual learning, but it is distinct of the sum of the individual learning processes. Even if the individual learning is an important asset, the group functions as a whole with own capabilities and characteristics. Thus, organizational learning may be more (desirable situation) but also may be less than the sum of individual learning processes. For both situations we may compare two examples of organizational environments. For the former situation, the United States organizational environment is strongly oriented towards objectives and based on procedures (the system is stronger than individual competencies). For the latter situation, Romanian institutional environment is characterized of a lack of organizational objectives and evaluation criteria; the procedures are defensive and reactive, rather than proactive. The system’s malfunctions have as a consequence a lower level of organizational learning than the sum of individual’s learning (people competency is satisfactory, but is poorly used by the institutional system).