A good lesson in the Kolb cycle
What is a good lesson?
What does it mean a good lesson? This is a question I had the opportunity to ask the teachers at the Digital Historytelling programme workshop in Poland. What did I hear? A good lesson is based on the needs – both of the learners and of the teacher. It gives a sense of safety, it is based on trust, but it also gives a sense of impact. It is non-schematic, taking into account different response options. It is collaborative, but also reflective. Enables activity, allows you to do “something”. Refers to previous experiences.
I deeply agree with all the answers. They confirm my experience as a trainer – I try to build such activities. And when I succeed, I see results. The learners leave satisfied, still talking about the topic of the class. I get the feeling, they know and can do more.
This understanding of a good lesson is confirmed by the concept of a ‘learning situation’, created by Jacek “Jac” Jakubowski, a Polish trainer, coach, psychologist and chairman of the Council of Trainers of the Polish Psychological Association. The author argues that in order to learn effectively from each other, i.e. to add new experiences and knowledge to the experiences and knowledge already possessed, four conditions need to be met:
- safety – to learn effectively we need to feel mentally and physically safe. If we don’t have this comfort, our brain switches into survival mode – we are able to remember new things, but for a short time.
- sense of meaning (reward) – we learn more effectively when we know why we are doing it, we know the purpose of the learning, we know what the new knowledge and skills will give us, what they are for.
- a sense of community – this doesn’t mean that we have to like each other in the group we are learning in, but for development we need: mutual respect, knowing and following the rules we have agreed on, relationships.
- activities – if I want and need to, I can actively engage in a task, and I can change place and space when my body wants to.
How to conduct good lessons? The Kolb cycle
Alice and David Kolb, American researchers and theorists of teaching methods, came to similar conclusions. They proved that each person learns slightly differently, each person has a different dominant learning style. How do you reconcile these when working with the learners in a given class? The authors of the concept answer: work with each of the model styles over a period of time. In doing so, they created a cycle, the so-called Kolb cycle.
The cycle consists of four steps:
1. Concrete experience – Kolb’s research has shown that some people need to experience something in order to learn something new. This style of learning is close to a wide range of people. So the Kolbes say: start with experience – let people experience something in a safe learning situation, preferably in a way that engages their emotions. What can be an experience? A game (like those created in the Digital Historytelling programme). A re-enacted situation or scene by the students. Simulation. Case study. Performing a task in teams, such as preparing a timeline (see again: materials on the project website). Watching a film. The more you involve the emotions of the students, the better. The limit is their safety, their well-being. I encourage you, don’t announce the topic of the lesson or activity. Let the pupils experience, put them in touch with what the lesson will be about, let them discover the topic themselves. Your role at this stage is to create a safe space for experiencing. Of course, you tailor the exercise to the objectives and topic of the lesson.
2. Reflective observation – some people get the most out of discussing what they have experienced. The key to success is to ask the right question. What to ask? On the one hand, it is useful that the question allows you to express and unwind the emotions that often accompany the experience (“How did you work?”, “How do you feel after what you did?”, “How do you feel?”, “What was difficult and what was easy for you?”). On the other hand, it should allow the experience to be deepened, analysed. It should open up the group, encourage sharing (“What was the exercise/film you watched about?”, “What happened here?”). It is worth preparing a good opening reflection question beforehand. Your job is to open up the group, moderate the conversation and listen carefully. Remember that there are no wrong or right answers, don’t take up time here with your comments – the more you hear, the better you will get an idea of what the group needs in the next step. Silence (after your question) can be your ally here – before you ask the next question, try to hold it for a bit, perhaps in a moment someone will start a deep reflection, but needs to think a bit more or gather courage.
3. Abstract conceptualisation (knowledge/theory/generalisation) – this is the stage where you help to draw conclusions from experience and reflection, name the phenomena or processes the group has experienced, translate them into more general principles. Answer the question: what else is worth mentioning to those participating in the activity? It is best to do this twice: the first time when you are preparing your activity, and the second time during your activity, after the reflection phase. Many things may come up, including things you hadn’t planned. If so, which ones are worth reinforcing, emphasising? This is the stage where – for the first time – you show that you know a bit more about a topic than students. And if you don’t know – you can guide the group to gain this knowledge together, e.g. by searching together on the internet for the answer to a question that was raised during the reflection. You can use a short lecture here (but really short! – remember, this part has to be coherent with what the participants have experienced in the previous steps). You can also work out the knowledge with the group. It is important that this part of the lesson is not too long and that it refers to reflection and experience.
4. Active experimentation (application) – this is the stage where you give learners the opportunity to put their new knowledge and skills into practice by answering the question: what can this knowledge/skill be used for? You can go back to a task from the experience at this stage by asking if they would have done it differently with their new knowledge and skills. You can prepare a new task in which they would use them. Finally, you can ask them what opportunities they see for applying the new knowledge. The latter is very close to history lessons: how does the past affect the present? Does the new knowledge provide a different perspective on today’s world?
The four steps above are called the cycle because the application of one can be an introduction and a start to the next. This process can be repeated until the topic is finished and subsequent lessons can constitute further cycles.
How to do it in practice?
To work with the Kolb cycle, to think in this way, you have to implement, get used to it. The more lessons you carry out using this method, the easier it will be for you. It is worth helping yourself by preparing lessons according to the pattern of a few questions.
It is important to do this in the proposed order:
WHAT are the pupils for whom I am preparing a lesson? What do they like? What and how do they think? How do they acquire knowledge? What motivates them, makes them happy? How do they like to work and what do they find difficult? What are they interested in?
WHY am I doing this? What are my educational goals? However, not the ones for the next lesson, but for this school year or the whole process of educating pupils at school. One lesson is very little, the educational process is a long time. So what do I care about? What competences do I want to develop in my pupils? What kind of people will they come out with after a few years of lessons with me? What useful competences in life will I help them to develop?
WHAT? What lesson topic will I follow?
HOW? This is a question of method. If I am working with the Kolb cycle, I need to answer the following questions:
- Where do I start? How will I gain their attention and bring them into contact with the subject of the lesson? (concrete experience).
- What will I ask after they have experienced this? How will I open up the reflection? (reflective observation)
- What else will I tell them? What should resound as a generalisation? What do I care about? (abstract conceptualisation)
- How does what I say relate to the lives of my students? How can I show them how to apply their new knowledge and skills? (active experimentation).
Would you like to see what a lesson using the Kolb cycle might look like in practice? Take a look at the lesson plans prepared as part of the Digital Historytelling programme.
Good luck with your work with experiential learning!
Author: Maciej Sopyło – trainer working with groups for twenty years. Supports teachers and educators in the field of media education, empathetic communication and human rights.
This article was created as part of the Digital Historytelling programme run by the School with Class Foundation in collaboration with Asociación Smilemundo and the King Baudouin Foundation with funding from the European Commission’s Erasmus+ programme.