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Developing David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle

Written by: Zoe Esner
5 min read

Zoe Enser, English Advisor, The Education People, UK

During the first 12 years of my teaching, I became very disconnected from my own development – at least, disconnected from my development in relation to the CPD on offer. I had attended numerous sessions from exam boards, sat through hours of courses on AFL and APP and pretty much every other acronym you could think of. However, when I had first entered the world of education as a teaching assistant (TA), I was keen to learn and had taken modules with the Open University on diversity in education, happily devoting Saturday mornings to learning more about dyslexia so that I could better support students with whom I was working.

So, what had changed?

CPD had become one-off events, where we piled into the hall, were bombarded with information on data or safeguarding or others’ plans for our teaching. This felt removed from the reality of my classroom and left me feeling despondent, withdrawing further and further from opportunities that came my way, my view distorted by these experiences.

That was until I found the work of David Kolb (1983). This helped me to understand why the development I had experienced as a TA had excited me so much more than the CPD I had experienced as a teacher. His ideas, focusing on adult education, explored the way in which adult learners developed over time. He examined different stages of their learning process and the rhythms and patterns that would lead to more significant changes. This cycle (Figure 1) was very different to the one-off CPD events, where embedding new learning into my day-to-day practice was often left to chance.

Figure 1 shows Kolb’s Experiental learning cycle from Enser and Enser (2021). This is represented by four squares. The left square is Reflective observation which leads to the top square which is Abstract conceptualisation and to the bottom square which is concrete examples. The right soiree is Active experimentation and also leads to the top and bottom soiree via arrows.
Figure 1: Kolb’s Experiental learning cycle (Enser and Enser, 2021)

It is important to note that this learning cycle should not be equated with Kolb’s classification of learning styles, which, like other models of learning style, has been exposed as a ‘neuromyth’ (Howard-Jones, 2014).

Kolb argues that we begin this cycle by engaging in abstract conceptualisation, where we encounter new theories or are encouraged to re-evaluate pre-existing knowledge – for example, by looking at the theories underpinning learning, such as Sweller’s cognitive load theory (1994) or Bjork and Bjork’s desirable difficulties (2011).

Adult learners are given time to think about the topic and reflect on what this might look like in their context, moving then into the active experimentation stage. This means discussing the implications for their practice and putting in place some tentative plans, either as part of a team in staff meetings or as an individual. Most importantly, it is the point where we really consider the implications of these ideas on our practices and take our first steps towards enacting change.

After considering how to apply the ideas, you then have a concrete experience of trying out the idea in your own work. As you have had the opportunity to really think hard about the change that you are making, you will be more aware of any changes occurring as a result. However, it can be useful to have peers observing the experience and noting down what they notice too. This supports the subsequent reflective observation stage, where you reflect on what happened during your experience with the concept being introduced. Did it work as you had envisaged it? Did the theory hold up to scrutiny when put into practice? Again, you can do this on your own, but it can be more powerful as part of a discussion with peers who have tried the same thing themselves and/or observed you trying it.

The final stage brings us back to the theory in the abstract conceptualisation phase. This means that you are now able to look again at those abstract theories and ideas from a perspective of having had time to think deeply about the topic and consider where it fits into your day-to-day. This process makes the links between the abstract and the concrete clearer, making further refinements possible.

It was this that had been so significant in my early experiences of professional development. Those Saturday morning courses in which I was so eager to engage had not been a one-off event. Instead, we learnt about the theories, returned to our settings, where we spent a week reflecting and trying things out, finally returning the next week to engage in further structured reflection. It also helped that the whole learning support department attended, so we could offer support in adapting our practices and evaluation. This had created a natural rhythm to the development, and the impact was clear.

As the term ‘cycle’ indicates, learning is layered, revisiting each stage to build progress. This is especially important when developing practices related to big ideas of cognition or metacognition. These concepts cannot be assimilated and embedded in a short space of time. Small steps and layering learning are crucial if we want to make meaningful changes. There is no specific timespan attributed by Kolb to the cycle, and some cycles may happen very quickly over a matter of days, while others may take months or even years as we develop.

Understanding how to embed my own learning processes and how I could enact concrete changes in my practice helped me to reconnect with my own development. In addition, it encouraged me to reflect on how much time was devoted to these phases for my own students. Once I had the opportunity to take the lead on whole-school CPD, I developed these principles for teachers, creating a rhythm and pattern for development and setting aside a meeting once per term, with opportunities to observe and undertake gap tasks. These linked to whole-school priorities and became part of our whole meeting cycle, embedding it into the culture. We focused on areas such as cognitive load and feedback across the school, and when leaders observed teachers, their focus was linked to these sessions. Kolb’s work reminds us that there is a clear process that will support this. This is not the only model of adult learning, but it is one that I found really empowered me to understand what would make me a better teacher and a better leader.


Bjork E and Bjork R (2011) Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In: Gernsbacher MA, Pew RW, Hough LM et al. (eds) Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society. New York: Worth Publishers, pp. 56–64.

Enser M and Enser Z (2021) The CDP Curriculum: Creating Conditions for Growth. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing.

Howard-Jones P (2014) Neuroscience and education:  Myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience (15): 817–824.

Kolb D (1983) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Sweller J (1994) Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty, and instructional design. Science Direct: Learning and Instruction 4(4): 295–312.

The Schools, Students and Teachers’ Network (SSAT) (nd) SSAT’s Embedding Formative Assessment programme. Available at: (accessed 6 July 2021).

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