How to Compare Kolb to Schon

Updated April 17, 2017

David Kolb and Donald Schon are American educational theorists who shared an interest in experiential learning theory. Both saw the process of learning as a feedback cycle involving experience, reflection about the experience, and applying the understanding gained towards the next experience. Schon introduced three major concepts to the field of learning theory: Double-Loop Learning, The Learning Society and Reflection-in-Action. Kolb introduced the 4-part Learning Cycle to explain how people learn from experience, and the Learning Styles Inventory that helps people identify which strategies they tend to use when confronting learning tasks. Comparing the work of these important theorists centres mainly on their approach to the reflective piece of experiential learning.

Identify the similarities in the central ideas of experiential learning and adult education that were put forth by Donald Schon and David Kolb. Both thinkers consciously rejected the older strategies of pedagogical learning in which teachers feed information to students who are passive receivers. Experiential learning involves direct experience with the phenomena being studied rather than merely thinking about it. It is student-centred in that the student learns through a dynamic process of action and reflection. The point of similarity between Kolb and Schon is that both saw the reflective process as an essential element in experiential learning.

Distinguish the differences between the experiential learning theories of Kolb and Schon. In Kolb's experiential Learning Cycle he posited that the adult experiential learner goes through a cycle which usually starts with a concrete experience, followed by reflective observation about that experience, then the formation of abstract conceptualisations (generalisation and theories about the experience), and finally active experimentation to see how well these generalisation and principles hold up in the real world. The cycle starts all over again when these principles are applied to the next concrete experience.

Contrast Schon's theory of Double Loop learning to Kolb's 4-stage Learning Cycle. According to Usher and Bryant, single-loop learning occurs when goals, values, frameworks and strategies are taken more or less for granted. The emphasis is on improving the technique as mistakes are made and corrected, and any reflection is directed toward making the strategy more effective. The reflective observation piece of Kolb's Cycle is single-loop learning. Double-loop learning, however, also includes reflecting upon how the framing of the problem and the learning systems which underlie actual goals and strategies influence the outcome. Schon breaks out the reflective piece of experiential learning and develops it in more depth and detail than Kolb's Learning Cycle.

Think of a recent learning experience. Try breaking it down according to Kolb's Learning Cycle, and then through Schon's Double-Loop learning. For instance, you criticise an employee in front of his peers and he quits the next day. You've lost a valuable employee. In Kolb's Cycle, break it down as follows:

Concrete Experience: You criticise employee and he quits.

Reflective Observation: The employee must have felt very angry and embarrassed to have been dressed down in front of his peers, and other employees probably felt threatened.

Abstract Conceptualization: Employees should be reprimanded in private.

Active Experimentation: You reprimand the next employee privately.

Whereas with Schon, single-loop learning may lead to the same conclusion, but double-loop learning might show you that reprimanding employees is much less effective than using positive reinforcement and incentives (you questioned the underlying strategy and goal of the reprimand practice as a whole).

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About the Author

Lorena Cassady has written professionally since 1982. She was an instructor and mentor teacher for a Bachelor of Arts in management program and has administered a home-health agency. She has been published in "Traveler's Tales" and holds a Master of Arts in English and creative writing from San Francisco State University. Cassady is bilingual.