David Kolb, an educational academic published his popular learning styles theory in 1984 and it has been widely quoted since. Very broadly, Kolb’s learning styles theory looks at 2 scales:
- How we approach or look at learning – or how we perceive information (perception)
- How we actually work with the material – or how we process it. (process)
It turns out that, like so many things in life, there tend to be fairly predictable differences in our approach. The learning diagram above illustrates the perception and process scales that many learning theories are built around. On the horizontal perception scale people tend to have a preference for either observing or doing, while on the vertical processing scale people tend to have a preference for either experiencing/sensing or relying on concrete experience.
As the diagram illustrates, Kolb views learning as a four-stage cycle. At the first stage, immediate and concrete experiences serve as a basis for observation. Next, the individual reflects on these observations and begins to build a general theory of what this information might mean. In the next stage, the learner forms abstract concepts and generalizations based upon their best guesses or hypothesis. Finally, the learner tests the implications of these concepts in new situations. After this step, the process once again cycles back to the first stage of the experiential process.
Kolb gave descriptive labels to all four of these styles as follows:
- The Converger (Abstract Conceptualization and Active Experimentation). People with these learning preferences are typically highly skilled in the practical application of ideas. They tend to do best in situations where there is a single best solution or answer to a problem.
- The Diverger (Concrete Experience and Reflective Observation). People with these learning preferences are good at looking at the “big picture” and organizing smaller bits of information into a meaningful whole. Divergers tend to be emotional and creative and enjoy brainstorming to come up with new ideas.
- The Assimilator (Abstract Conceptualization and Reflective Observation). Understanding and creating theoretical models is one of their greatest strengths. They tend to be more interested in abstract ideas rather than in people, but they are not greatly concerned with the practical applications of theories. Individuals who work in math and the basic sciences tend to have this type of learning style. Assimilators also enjoy work that involves planning and research.
- The Accommodator (Concrete Experience and Active Experimentation). People with this style or preference are seen as doers or enjoy performing experiments and carrying out plans in the real world. Out of all four learning styles, Accommodators tend to be the greatest risk-takers. They are good at thinking on their feet and changing their plans spontaneously in response to new information, using a trial and error approach to solve problems.