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Learning Models – Stages and Cycles: Burch, Kolb, Handy

How does learning (the acquisition of knowledge and skills) happen? What are the models for the learning stages? There are many theories, but theorists seem to agree that four is a good number… and a circle is a good shape.

The models presented here consider conscious effort, competence level, abstract vs experiential learning, and contemplation/reflection on progress.

Learning Models: 1 __ Burch – Skills: Ignorance to Mastery in four Stages (Burch)

In the 1970s, Psychologist Noel Burch suggested a four-stage model to describe how people go from ignorance to mastery of a skill. He called this the ‘Conscious Competence Learning Model’.

Burch’s model traces the evolution of learning (skill) along with the conscious effort related to that learning: People start at a level of incompetence while being not generally aware of the actual gap in learning. This is – in other words – the area of “unknown unknowns”. As awareness of the gap (through reflection and feedback) rises, people identify their incompetence and begin conscious learning. This leads to a state of conscious competence after a while, where reason and a conscious effort are needed for a skill to be applied competently. The repetition of the task and continued practice leads to the final phase of unconscious competence, where people are unconsciously excellent at the skill, and it is somehow ‘automatic’.

A discovery of something new happens then, and the cycle repeats itself.

Burch’s learning model : four stages

Learning Models: 2 __ Kolb : Experience-based Learning Stages

The Experiential Learning Cycle Model : Kolb

Kolb’s work stresses the role of experiences. Within Kolb’s learning style model, there are four learning modes (Yes, again, four..) : (1) Concrete Experience (CE), (2) Reflective Observation (RO), (3) Abstract Conceptualization (AC), and (4) Active Experimentation (AE).

All four processes need to be applied for optimal learning: People experience something, reflect and then think about it. Consequently, they start to rationalize and conceptualize, before finally experimenting actively to improve.

Learning Models: 3 __ Handy : The Wheel of Learning Stages

( Adapted from the Book by Charles Handy – The Age of Unreason )

Handy believes that it is best to think of learning as a wheel of four (hopefully not surprising by now) parts:

  • Question
  • Theory
  • Test
  • Reflection
Handy: The Four (!) stages of learning

Learning doesn’t end at reflection, but like a wheel, goes back to Questions and so on. It is a wheel because it is meant to go round and round: One set of questions duly answered and tested and reflected upon leads on to another. It is life’s special treadmill.

Questions need possible answers, and this is what the second stage provides .. theories .. a stage of free thinking , reframing, speculation, and looking for clues. Ideas and theories are never enough.. ‘dreams give wings to fools’.. the theories have to be tested in reality – which is the next stage of the wheel. Finally, reflection is the last stage that includes knowing why.. without it there is no learning.

For some people, the wheel never starts.. they have no questions and seek no answers. Content or Dull – they will not voluntarily learn to change.

There are also those who stick to the Questions stage, who keep on asking – because it is questioning that is fascinating not the answer. They don’t learn, and others don’t learn much from their questions. They are the inspectors or auditors; useful, but irritating.

The next stage is theory, its specialists are the bad academics, full of answers to other people’s questions. They teach the answer first and assume the question.. Knowledge for its own sake motivates them.

The enthusiasts of the testing stage are the pragmatists or the action men – no time for theory or thinking: immediate reaction  – Energy and more Energy – attack with the tool nearest to hand – they don’t know why !

Lastly there are those who are stuck at the reflection stage, endlessly rehearsing the past, seeking better explanations.. One lesson is enough for them.

Comments & Thoughts

Note that all these models have their critics. None of them has an exclusive claim to the truth, and none of them are universal. As with different statements in psychology and sociology, they work under specific conditions, and serve – mainly – to help us make sense of the world.

The concept of continuous cyclical stages is central to learning and growth. Learning and knowledge grows from prior knowledge, and leads to new knowledge in turn. The number of stages isn’t as important as this fact.

The role of experience and repetition is also central, and that manifests itself in more questions and different types of knowledge. Being able to ‘automatically’ do certain tasks, that go can happen unconsciously.

Relevant Resources:

Think Grow Games: Intelligent Play

The Think-Grow Games are mobile games that take simple game mechanics and blend them with elements that encourage thinking, exploration, and mental exercise.

Think-Grow Knowledge Modules

The Think-Grow Knowledge Modules are mini-libraries of book summaries, each giving a wide (wise) enough view of a specific field.

They offer a simpler, wiser, and more convenient approach to reading about different fields. The Better Brain Library in particular has summaries of books on intelligence, thinking, and mental training.

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