Post 12: An Education Revolution from the Field

Thursday, November, 29, 12 § 1 Comment

This post is the first in a three-part description of a national movement in adult education that successfully replaced the “sit-down-and-listen” model with a more dynamic, more humanistic learning approach. By guest contributor Paul Biderman, J.D.

Part 1: A new approach to learning.

Apart from any random molecules of enlightenment that may have drifted my way during my seven years of board service for a Santa Fe charter school, and whatever modest contribution I may have made to the presence of relentlessly inquisitive minds in two sons, I assert no claim to expertise in pedagogy.

In 1991, however, I was hired to start and run a new center dedicated to the education of the judges and staff of all New Mexico state, local and tribal courts.  I believe that some of the adult education principles I learned during my fourteen years running the New Mexico Judicial Education Center [JEC] may be adaptable to K-12 students. What may be even more applicable are my observations of and participation in the successful dissemination of this model among judicial educators nationwide, dramatically changing the culture of this profession.

Within a few months of assuming the leadership of the JEC, I attended a weeklong program called the Leadership Institute in Judicial Education, then in North Carolina but now at the University of Memphis. This Leadership Institute offered a compelling adult education curriculum, one that was built around experiential learning concepts. The Institute’s curriculum recognized that judges and court staff mostly expected to learn through the “traditional” model: a lecture followed by Q & A. Most participants, comprising judicial educators and our judicial supervisors or advisors, recognized intuitively the limitations of that model, but didn’t have the tools to offer alternatives.

The Institute presented us with an alternative model, in the form of the Kolb Learning Circle. As published by D.A. Kolb in 1984*, the learning circle model observes that all learning requires two steps: prehending (taking in) information; and transforming, or processing, that information. Prehension may occur through either of two methods: concrete experience (e.g., observation) or abstract conceptualization (e.g., listening to a lecture or reading a book). Transformation occurs either through reflective observation (e.g., cogitating) or active experimentation—doing.

The value of this insight lies in the recognition that each individual has his or her own preference for how to take in information and how to process it. While we tend to assume that everyone prefers to learn the same way we do, the Institute’s “learning styles inventory” proves otherwise. When people answer this inventory’s questions about how we prefer to learn—e.g., “I attain a better understanding of a problem after I (a) think about it or (b) act on it”—it becomes quickly clear that people actually have different preferences.

Imagining this model displayed as a circle, Kolb places the prehensive alternatives on a vertical axis, with concrete experience at 12:00 and abstract conceptualization at 6:00.  The transformative alternatives are on the horizontal axis, with reflective observation at 3:00 and active experimentation at 9:00.

The circle shows that divergers and assimilators learn best by reflecting, either on concrete experiences (which appeal to our emotions) or on abstract conceptualizations (which stimulate thinking). Convergers and accommodators, on the other hand, learn best through active experimentation, or doing, with material gained through one of the two types of prehensive processes. This means a converger prefers to experiment with material he is exposed to through abstract conceptualization, while an accommodator prefers to experiment with material gained through concrete experience. It’s important to note these four terms are descriptive and not judgmental: any learning style is equally valid.

As examples of these learning styles, then, we see that the student who prefers to hear a good lecture and ask clarifying questions is showing a preference for the assimilator’s learning style. He likes to take in information through abstract conceptualization (the lecture) and process it by reflective observation (the questions). The student who instead is most stimulated by watching a video dramatizing a challenging child neglect situation and then working with other students to develop a plan for responding to it is functioning as an accommodator. She prefers to take in knowledge through concrete experience (the video) and then to process it by acting on it (the development of the plan).

The different methods of learning can be employed in the manner most suited to the learners, but also best suited to the material. For example, since concepts of evidence are a “heady” topic, most readily presented through abstract conceptualization, our judicial education program often brought in the strong lecturers for evidence programs. But when we tried to sensitize judges to the impacts of domestic violence, the content had to be presented through affective methods. And that meant using concrete experience, such as videos of testimonials by victims, at least to get the ball rolling.

After years of administering learning styles inventories, I found that every group produced at least one learner in each category; more often the room would divide nearly equally among the four types of learners. And that told us that the most effective teaching we could do would appeal to multiple learning styles. So, for example, if I wanted to teach baseball to a foreigner who knew nothing about it, I wouldn’t simply lecture him from a handbook on the rules. Nor would I just throw him into the game. I’d walk him around the circle, to make sure I hit the learning style that works best for him: I’d start by taking him to a game (a concrete experience) and letting him pose questions as he watches (reflective observation). Then I’d describe the rules (abstract conceptualization) while answering those questions, and ultimately put him into a real game, or at least a Wii version (active experimentation). You can see for yourself how that approach takes him around the learning circle—clockwise, in this case.

While a lot more explanation would be needed to clarify what all this means—the Leadership Institute did take almost a week— here are the key points to take away:

  • People all have their own preferred learning styles;
  • Within any group you will generally find a variety of learning preferences;
  • Those learning styles can be defined in ways that can be addressed successfully by teachers through various techniques; and, most importantly,
  • The most effective teaching will go around the learning circle to appeal to all learning styles within the group.

Next week, I’ll move on to part two of this blog post, and describe how my colleagues and I were able to convince judges and other judicial educators across the nation to embrace this new educational approach, which for them represented a step into the unknown, a radical change from the lectures with which they were comfortable.

*David A. Kolb, Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall (1984)

Paul Biderman | November 29, 2012


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