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date: 19 January 2020

Learning Identity, Flexibility, and Lifelong Experiential Learning

Summary and Keywords

The world is changing faster than ever before. Recent advances in technology are constantly making old knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) obsolete while also creating new KSAs and increasing the demand for jobs that have never existed before. These advances place tremendous pressure on people to learn, adapt, and innovate in order to keep up with these changes.

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) has been widely and effectively applied in various settings in the last four decades. This theory posits that learning is a proactive process, coming from the holistic integration of all learning modes in the human being: experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting. Learners must own and drive this process, because ownership of their own experiential learning process empowers learners to do far more than an external person—whether a parent, a teacher, or a friend—can accomplish. More than just a way to learn, experiential learning is a way of being and living that permeates all aspects of a person’s life.

Given the demands of the fast-changing world we live in, what do individuals need to do to make sure they stay ahead of the change curve, remain fit with the changing environment, survive, and thrive? At the individual level, a number of important competencies need to be developed, including learning identity and learning flexibility. At the system level, learning and education as a whole must be treated differently. Education should be an abductive process in which learners are taught to ask different types of questions and then connect new knowledge with their own personal experiences. The outcome of education, likewise, should be adaptive and developmental. Instead of promoting global learning outcomes that every student needs to achieve, educators need to hold each student individually responsible for incrementally knowing more than he or she previously knew, and teach students not only how to answer questions but also how to ask good questions to extract knowledge from future unknown circumstances. Helping students foster a learning identity and become lifelong learners are among the most important tasks of educators in today’s fast-changing world.

Keywords: adaptability, experiential learning, flexibility, holistic, learning identity, lifelong learning, whole person development

Learning is a never-ending process, whether it is learning from school, work, or life. In contemporary organizations with frequent changes, the ability to learn from past experiences and adapt to new situations is a reason some people succeed while others do not (DeRue, Ashford, & Myers, 2012; Garvin, Edmondson, & Gino, 2008; Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000; McCall, Lombardo, & Morrison, 1988; Spreitzer, McCall, & Mahoney, 1997). Businesses and organizations increasingly value individuals who learn new things quickly and are flexible when dealing with change (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000). Executive leaders are required to have expert knowledge suitable for their role, the ability to learn from past experience and the capacity to adapt to the current situation, and to change for the better. As people differ significantly in their ability to learn from experience (McCall et al., 1988), those who effectively learn and adapt are more likely to succeed, whereas those who cannot will not progress.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities realized this growing trend and emphasized that higher education institutions should provide students with educational environments that “foster a well-grounded intellectual resilience, a disposition toward lifelong learning, and an acceptance of responsibility for the ethical consequences of our ideas and action” (2002, p. xii). Lifelong learning is defined as a “propensity of human beings to continue to learn, grow, and develop” (McCombs, 1991, p. 120). However, many people think of learning as a finite process instead of a lifelong journey; when they have successfully learned something, such as completing a course or getting a degree, they are done learning. This phenomenon can be observed frequently in contemporary organizations, where the most knowledgeable people in a business are often the least flexible and the most resistant to change. Drawing from their consulting experience, Lombardo and Eichinger described this phenomenon:

According to organizational insiders interviewed, people quit learning, thought they were infallible, became legends in their own minds, or couldn't make the transition to a different job or way of behaving. They relied on what had gotten them to where they were, ironically becoming victimized by their past successes. They got locked into standard ways of thinking and acting that didn't really meet the new demands. They also underestimated the newness of the demands, seeing them as just another version of what they had done before. Once dug into this non-learning pattern, strengths tipped over into overuses and weaknesses as they did more of what had previously been a good thing. The bright sometimes lorded it over others and missed getting new ideas; the organized became detail drones and missed the big picture; the creative had their fingers in too many pies and couldn't innovate; the aggressive over-managed and couldn't empower or build a team.

(Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000, pp. 322–323)

On the one hand, there are many explanations for why it is hard to change one’s way of doing things, one of which is specialization in the learning process. Individuals tend to specialize in a certain mode of learning and acquire a learning style that best fits them and their work; hence they often apply this approach more generally in all of their life situations (Kolb, 1984). On the other hand, in order to adapt effectively to changing situations, learners need to be willing to learn and also develop learning flexibility—“the extent to which an individual adapts his or her learning style to the demands of the learning situation” (Kolb & Kolb, 2013, p. 27). In other words, learners need to be able to effectively use different modes of learning and to change their learning approach if need be. Ironically, many people believe that there is a tradeoff between specialization and flexibility (Dane, 2010), and it is this very belief that prevents them from continuing to learn and becoming lifelong learners.

Given new demands in an increasingly flat, diverse, and fast-paced world, what skills or competencies do higher education institutions, specifically business schools, need to provide students in order to increase their chance of success? What can educators do to train lifelong learners who will be capable of anticipating and adapting to changes in the world? This article synthesizes several new concepts related to experiential learning that are conducive to developing lifelong learners. A brief summary of Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory is provided first, followed by a review of recently developed constructs such as learning identity, learning flexibility, learning agility, and cognitive entrenchment. This article does not discuss classroom applications of the theory itself because there has been a significant amount of work dedicated to this topic in the past few decades (see Kolb & Kolb, 2009c, 2017). Rather, this article draws attention to learning identity and multiple aspects of flexibility, an area that is relatively new and has yet to receive a lot of attention in the experiential learning arena. From an experiential learning viewpoint, the ability to continue learning and to adapt to changing situations are two essential ingredients of lifelong learning. Among the many skills of experiential learning, the abilities to identify effective strategies to learn new materials and to adapt to changing situations are crucial competencies to prepare students in higher education to face an unknown future.

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory and Learning Identity

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory (ELT)

Building on a diverse set of theoretical works of prominent scholars such as Kurt Lewin, John Dewey, William James, Jean Piaget, Carl Rogers, Paulo Freire, and Mary Parker Follett, Kolb’s ELT is an integrative theory that proposes that “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984, p. 38). ELT reflects six fundamental assumptions shared among these foundational scholars:

  1. 1. Learning is best conceived as a process instead of outcomes.

  2. 2. All learning is relearning.

  3. 3. Learning requires the resolution of conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of adaptation to the world.

  4. 4. Learning is a holistic process of adaptation to the world.

  5. 5. Learning results from synergetic transactions between the person and the environment.

  6. 6. Learning is the process of creating knowledge.

As such, ELT conceives of learning as a dynamic and holistic process that involves the integrated functioning of the whole person—acting, reflecting, thinking, and feeling. According to ELT, learning involves two dimensions of knowledge: the prehension dimension, which is the way learners grasp knowledge, and the transformation dimension, which allows learners to transform knowledge. In a particular learning situation such as finding a new location, a person could grasp knowledge through absorbing concrete experience (“feeling”; e.g., “This building is next to a park; the park is in that direction, so the building must be in that direction as well”) or through abstract conceptualization (“thinking”; e.g., “On the map, this building is in the southwest corner of the intersection between Main and University, so I must turn right onto Main”). Similarly, a person may transform knowledge through active experimentation (“acting”; e.g., “I’ll just go in that direction and figure things out from there”) or reflective observation (“reflecting”; e.g., “I am not seeing University; I must have missed a turn earlier, so I’ll have to either turn around or drive around the block”). Altogether, these four modes constitute the experiential learning cycle, which emphasizes a cyclical, dynamic learning process. Each learner has a preferred mode for entering this cycle, called a learning style, which represents individual differences in approaches to learning. Learning style is neither a fixed psychological trait nor a stereotype, but rather a dynamic state resulting from synergistic transactions between the learner and the environment.

ELT conceptualizes the human developmental process into three stages of maturation: acquisition, specialization, and integration (Kolb, 1984, 2015). The first stage—acquisition—usually extends from birth to adolescence and represents when children acquire basic learning and cognitive abilities. The second stage—specialization—marks the impact of formal education and career training, when people become specialized in one or more particular topics as they choose their career paths in life. At this stage, people achieve a sense of individuality through their specialization, often in the form of a professional label (e.g., “I am a doctor”), as well as acquiring a sense of social security and accomplishment. Fewer people arrive at the third stage—integration—because it requires a personal, existential confrontation of the conflict between social demands and the personal fulfillment needs created as a byproduct of the second stage. The transformation from Stage 2 to Stage 3 carries a sense of spiritual awakening, which is parallel to other stages in other theories about adult development, such as Maslow’s intuitive stage (1971), Loevinger’s transcendent stage (1976), Cook-Greuter’s integrated stage (1990), and Wilber’s ego-transcendent stage (1999). According to Cook-Greuter (2000), less than 1% of the population is reported to be in this stage.

Using ELT to explain the problem posed at the beginning about why experts and specialists tend to be inflexible, we can see that expertise and the process of acquiring expertise lie in Stage 2 of the ELT development model, whereas flexibility is the movement from specialization to Stage 3, integration. From a developmental standpoint, people have to get to Stage 2 before moving on to Stage 3. The dilemma lies in the competing demands of these two stages: acquiring expertise means making a decision about which learning mode works best for them and specializing in it while forgoing the other learning modes, whereas being flexible requires them to loosen up their framework and integrate other modes of learning they had previously given up. The difficulty is to get out of that comfort zone, to take up the opposite learning mode or even to unlearn some of their own expertise. This challenge is not easy to overcome, yet it is one major milestone in becoming a lifelong learner. What makes up flexibility, and how can it be cultivated? Recent research has only begun exploring ways to address this challenge. The next section introduces the concept of learning identity as the core ingredient of lifelong learning and the foundation to cultivate learning flexibility.

Learning Identity

Fostering a learning identity helps people balance the tradeoff between specialization and flexibility and thus develop appropriate strategies for lifelong learning. Learning identity characterizes people who “see themselves as learners, seek and engage life experiences with a learning attitude, and believe in their ability to learn” (Kolb & Kolb, 2009b, p. 5). This identity is rooted in the assumption that people will only learn if they want to learn and if they believe that they can grow from their education and experience (Kolb & Kolb, 2009a). This assumption is consistent with the causal view of learning, which emphasizes learning as a process in which learners intentionally take charge of their own progress, rather than something that happens to them (Dewey, 1916; Kolb, 1984; Piaget, 1952). A learning identity forces people to examine their self-image as learners. It pauses the process of looking outward and putting responsibility on teachers, peers, and subjects, and instead makes them look inward and ask themselves, “Am I a learner, and if so, what kind of learner am I? How can I learn this subject?” Formally, learning identity is defined as “an individual’s disposition to learn from life experience that entwines his or her love of learning, valuing of learning and development, and core belief in him- or herself as a learner” (Trinh, 2016, p. 27).

A learning identity develops over time through four stages, in which learners gradually adopt

  1. 1. a learning stance toward life experience;

  2. 2. a more-confident learning orientation;

  3. 3. a learning self who is specific to certain contexts; and

  4. 4. a learning self-identity that permeates deeply into all aspects of the way one lives one’s life (Kolb & Kolb, 2009b).

This development emphasizes that learning identity is not a fixed personality trait, but instead can be shaped by lived experience and developed by intentional efforts. This process of developing a learning identity is consistent with the stages of ELT. In the acquisition stage, learners develop a general learning identity toward the world, a genuine curiosity in broad terms, a universal sense of “I want to learn more and I know I can.” In the specialization stage, learners’ learning identity has an additional domain specificity to it. They start to identify the areas that they are more interested in than others, whether solely by hobbies or the need of their environment (e.g., “I want to learn more math, but I’m bad at dancing.”). As an analogy, in the first stage, people begin building their intellectual resources (e.g., mental energy, concentration, interest, curiosity, and time), whereas in the second stage, they allocate their resources differently across different learning opportunities according to their needs. Finally, in the integration stage, learners pool all of their resources together once again, but this integrated resource is so liquid that it can be applied broadly—that is to say, integrated learners hold a learning attitude and believe in their ability to learn in a wide variety of learning situations.

Individuals’ identification as learners is self-defined and based on subjective meanings and experience (Cerulo, 1997; Hogg, 2012). Like other types of personal identity, learning identity is produced through value commitments (Hitlin, 2003) and entwines feelings, values, and behaviors that promote learning (Alvesson, Lee Ashcraft, & Thomas, 2008). Individuals with a strong learning identity are committed to continuing personal development, value learning from experience, feel the joy of learning, and often seek learning opportunities. Their motivation to learn is essentially intrinsic (learning for the sake of learning) rather than extrinsic (learning for the sake of external rewards). It is this intrinsic nature that makes their motivation less susceptible to contextual changes and therefore more stable over the course of their lifetime. In this sense, learning identity could be considered a disposition to lifelong learning.

Learning identity is conceptually related to many other concepts, such as openness to experience (LePine, Colquitt, & Erez, 2000; McCrae, Costa, & Martin, 2005), motivation and ability to learn from experience (Colquitt & Simmering, 1998; Spreitzer et al., 1997), learning agility (DeRue et al., 2012; Eichinger & Lombardo, 2004; Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000), curiosity (Berlyne, 1954, 1960; Litman, 2005; Litman & Spielberger, 2003; Reio, Petrosko, Wiswell, & Thongsukmag, 2006), and learning focus (McKenna, Boyd, & Yost, 2007). Early empirical evidence has shown that learning identity has no relationship with age, sex, locus of control, or self-esteem (Trinh, 2016). Individuals with a strong positive learning identity tend to adopt an organic view of the world as opposed to a mechanistic view, resist change less, and have a high need for achievement as well as positive self-efficacy (Trinh, 2016). Unlike learning agility, which is discussed in this article, learning identity itself does not capture the ability to learn from experience or the degree to which learners can perform and/or be successful. Learning identity is a motivational factor that allows learners to embark on the experiential learning process, thereby acquiring knowledge that, in turn, transforms into performance outcomes. However, it is also more than just motivation to learn, curiosity, or openness to new experiences. Learning identity is rooted in self-awareness about an individual’s own learning process, thus generating a sense of belief and confidence in an ability to learn.

Perhaps most similar to people with a strong positive learning identity are those who psychologist Carol Dweck calls “incremental theorists.” In her work on lay theories, studying the ways in which people’s perspectives of the self and the world are influenced by their fundamental assumptions (Dweck, 1999), she identified two theories: entity theory and incremental theory. Those who hold to entity theory believe that human attributes such as intelligence and personality are fixed entities and are not subject to personal development. These people tend to have a fixed mindset and a performance goal orientation, trying to prove their competencies and avoid failures. On the contrary, those who adhere to incremental theory believe that such attributes could be incrementally developed through personal efforts. Those people tend to have a growth mindset and embrace a learning goal orientation (LGO) placing more importance on developing their competencies than on mastery of tasks. In many experiments, Dweck and her colleagues found that students espousing incremental theory primarily set learning goals related to competency development; less frequently blame low ability as the cause of their failures; and think of effort as something that can enhance their ability instead of making up for the lack thereof (Dweck, 1986; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Molden & Dweck, 2006). These characteristics are very similar to what Kolb and Kolb (2009b) found in people with a learning identity.

Though conceptually related, learning identity differs from the growth mindset or LGO. Although both learning identity and LGO capture aspects of learners’ motivation to learn, the former evokes an enduring self-perception rooted in learners’ values, beliefs, and emotions, whereas the latter was conceptualized as a reactive response to external situations, such as task difficulty, failure, feedback, and effort (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Elliott & Dweck, 1988; VandeWalle & Cummings, 1997). As opposed to the intrinsic nature of learning identity, LGO depends on extrinsic motivation, which makes it more susceptible to changes in situational demands and external rewards. Seijts, Latham, Tasa, and Latham (2004) found that introducing a situational learning goal overrode the effects of dispositional goal orientations that individuals held. Furthermore, with regard to developing lifelong learners, growth mindset and LGO encourage students to work harder, whereas learning identity empowers them to learn in the most effective and efficient way. Because students have to question themselves to understand the way they learn, this self-awareness in turn enables a sense of self-confidence in their learning process and generates a belief that they will be able to find the most appropriate way to learn. Therefore, learning identity helps learners overcome learning anxiety, which “comes from being afraid to try something new for fear that it will be too difficult, that [they] will look stupid in the attempt, or that [they] will have to part from old habits that have worked for [them] in the past” (Schein, 2002, p. 104). Learning identity helps to remove the threat to learners’ self-esteem and empowers them to embark on a lifelong learning journey. Similarly, fostering learning identity may help learners transition better from the specialization stage to the integration stage of development, therefore helping them to acquire flexibility more easily.

Learning Flexibility and Related Constructs

In addition to fostering a learning identity and identifying the best learning strategies for themselves, individuals also need to be able to adapt to changing situations in order to keep on learning and thrive in today’s fast-paced world. Three new concepts have been developed since the new millennium to capture the notion of flexibility: learning flexibility, learning agility, and cognitive entrenchment. A brief overview of each concept is explained here.

Learning Flexibility

In ELT, learning flexibility, previously termed adaptive flexibility (Boyatzis & Kolb, 1985), refers to the adaptation of one’s learning style in response to different situational demands. Although learning style is one’s generally preferred mode of learning, which plays an essential part in the specialization stage, learning flexibility is the movement or development from specialization to integration. ELT argues that “this development in learning flexibility results from integration of the dual dialectics of conceptualizing/experiencing and acting/reflecting that allows the learner to move freely around the learning cycle using all four modes to learn from an experience” (Sharma & Kolb, 2011, p. 3). People with a high degree of learning flexibility will be able to use many different learning styles under different circumstances, including their own dominant learning style. However, people who have a low degree of learning flexibility will mainly anchor in their comfort zone and only rarely change to other similar learning styles. Empirical evidence has shown that learning flexibility decreases with age and educational level, even though higher flexibility is related to higher levels of Loevinger’s ego development as well as Akrivou’s Integrative Development Scale (Kolb, 1984; Kolb & Wolfe, 1981; Sharma & Kolb, 2011). Sharma and Kolb (2011) found higher flexibility in women; in those in concrete professions such as fine and applied arts, humanities, and literature; and in assimilating learners. Thompson (1999) surveyed 50 professionals from various fields and discovered that higher adaptive flexibility was associated with self-directed learners. Moon (2008) found that sales success in financial services, measured by monthly volume of sales, was influenced by flexibility, regardless of learning style preference.

Conceptually, learning flexibility captures adaptations across all learning modes of the experiential learning cycle and also takes into account the degree of flexibility at each particular mode. The definition of learning flexibility as to how learners change their learning styles to adapt to specific contexts and situations is located holistically within the framework of ELT and helps clarify many confusions in other similar constructs. For example, it distinguishes “flexibility” from “fast” in DeRue and colleagues’ possibly confounding conceptualization of learning agility as “an ability to learn from experiences through being flexible and fast” (2012, p. 264), as is discussed further in “Learning Agility.” Learning flexibility does not imply fast learning, but instead alludes to the fact that fast learning is a result of being able to move through all modes of the experiential learning cycle effectively and swiftly. Operationally, learning flexibility is measured by the Learning Flexibility Index, ranging from 0 to 1 (Sharma & Kolb, 2011). The higher the index, the more flexible the individual. The index report also shows learners’ primary learning style as well as other styles that they may flex into under different circumstances (Kolb & Kolb, 2013).

Learning Agility

Although learning flexibility is located squarely in Kolb’s ELT framework and commonly applied in training and education, learning agility has been more popularly used in business and management practice. Business managers often refer to learning agility as a measure of adaptability. Since the early 2000s, learning agility has been favored by many companies as one of the most important characteristics for identifying a high-potential employee who could become a future executive. It was originally defined as “the willingness and ability to learn new competencies in order to perform under first-time, tough, or different conditions” (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000, p. 323), then further clarified to be “the willingness and ability to learn from experience, and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions” (de Meuse, Dai, & Hallenbeck, 2010, p. 120). Learning agility demonstrates the extent to which someone can learn from experience, engage with feedback, develop new skills, grow professionally, and change over time. Lombardo and Eichinger (2000, p. 324) conceptualized learning agility as having four dimensions:

  1. 1. People agility: people who know themselves well, learn from experience, treat others constructively, and are cool and resilient under the pressures of change.

  2. 2. Results agility: people who get results under tough conditions, inspire others to perform beyond normal, and exhibit the sort of presence that builds confidence in others.

  3. 3. Mental agility: people who think through problems from a fresh point of view and are comfortable with complexity, ambiguity, and explaining their thinking to others.

  4. 4. Change agility: people who are curious, have a passion for ideas, like to experiment with test cases, and engage in skill-building activities.

Despite gaining much attention from practitioners, learning agility has been criticized for its ambiguous conceptualization and lack of rigor and the parsimony in measurement. Conceptually, there is no clear evidence that learning agility is a unique concept (DeRue et al., 2012; Wang & Beier, 2012). DeRue et al. (2012) argue that the definitions of learning agility confound: (a) the willingness (motivation) to learn with the ability to learn, and (b) the nature of learning agility and successful performance. Consequently, learning agility has become an equivocal label for anything related to experiential learning or an individuals’ ability to learn from experience. Furthermore, it is unclear how agility is related to general mental ability (g) (Arun, Coyle, & Hauenstein, 2012; Wang & Beier, 2012). Wang and Beier (2012) claimed that one of the main components of learning agility is simply cognitive ability, given that g is a determinant of how efficiently people learn from experience.

In terms of measurement, learning agility is measured by the Choices® Architect, which comprises 81 items—27 dimensions of three items each, measuring the four agility factors (people, change, mental, and results). The Choices® Architect contains about 40% double-barreled questions (e.g., “Knows that change is unsettling; can take a lot of heat, even when it gets personal”), making it difficult for respondents to give an accurate and simple response. Most importantly, it does not measure learning agility in the way it was originally conceptualized by Lombardo and Eichinger (2000). DeRue and colleagues (2012) engaged three management doctoral students in a blind coding process, in which six coders sorted the 81 items into three categories: (a) manifestations of learning agility according to the definition, (b) somewhat related, and (c) totally unrelated to learning agility. They reported that only 14 items fell into the first category with major raters’ agreement, whereas 26 items were sorted into the third category, and the remaining 41 items received less agreement among raters.

Empirical studies both validating this instrument and utilizing it in research have been very scarce. Lombardo and Eichinger (2002) reported that learning agility appeared to be a relatively stable construct with test–retest reliability coefficients within a 30-day interval ranging from 0.81 to 0.90 for its different components. However, learning agility was shown to be unrelated to age, gender, ethnicity, intelligence, goal orientation, and personality (de Meuse, Dai, Hallenbeck, & Tang, 2008; Eichinger & Lombardo, 2004). The only exception is that it was “somewhat related to a personality measure of Openness to Experience” (Eichinger & Lombardo, 2004, p. 13), but the authors did not provide any further detail about this relationship. Although aspiring to be a key indicator of high potential, learning agility has been found to be unrelated to whether a person is promoted. When rated by one’s supervisor, learning agility has a small to moderate positive correlation with performance after promotion, which is likely a product of common source bias (DeRue et al., 2012; Eichinger & Lombardo, 2004). With a sample size as large as 2,242 and no correlation coefficient larger than 0.05 (de Meuse et al., 2008), these results show skeptical predictive and convergent validity of the construct.

In an attempt to generate a new theoretical framework of learning agility, DeRue et al. redefine learning agility as “an ability to learn from experiences through being flexible and fast” (DeRue et al., 2012, p. 264). More specifically, learning agility can be thought of as an individual’s ability to learn quickly from a particular experience and flexibility to adapt from one situation to another, or from one experience’s lesson to the next. These authors further clarify that learning agility is only one aspect of the ability to learn from experience, and not the ability itself. However, this conceptualization also has shortcomings. Not only are “flexible” and “fast” two distinct conceptual notions, but they also do not necessarily co-vary in the same direction. In fact, Gemmell (2012) found that entrepreneurs with high learning flexibility were more likely to take longer to make key strategic decisions. Moreover, the authors refer to an abstract experiential learning cycle instead of a specific framework (e.g., Kolb’s ELT), thus limiting the connection between their theory and the existing literature.

Cognitive Entrenchment

The newest of the three flexibility concepts is cognitive entrenchment, defined as “a high level of stability in one’s domain schemas” (Dane, 2010, p. 579) that prevents experts from being flexible in viewing problems from others’ perspectives or in responding to new rules and conditions within their domain of expertise. Dane argues that over the process of training and practicing to become a specialist, one’s cognitive schemas become larger, have more interrelationships among relevant attributes, and are more detailed and accurate compared with those of a novice. Because this process usually takes time, continual practice, performance, and repetitive feedback, one’s domain schemas are activated and applied frequently. Through trials and errors, attributes in a person’s schema structure are constantly adjusted and modified to meet the requirements of a task until a relatively stable schema is left. At this stage of one’s expertise, one already knows the “best” way to problem-solve and is not likely to change one’s way of doing things. Cognitive entrenchment thus sets in and could lead to problem-solving fixation, difficulty in adaptation of new rules and regulations, and limited radical idea generation within one’s domain. Dane (2010) also proposes that the relationship between domain expertise and cognitive entrenchment could be moderated by engaging in a dynamic environment within one’s domain or focusing attention on outside-domain tasks. However, these propositions have not been empirically tested.

Implications for Management Education

Experiential learning and its related techniques, such as action learning, service learning, and project-based learning, remain a dominant approach used in business and management education (Lund Dean & Forray, 2015; Lund Dean & Jolly, 2012). However, institutional and public pressures on instructors—not just in higher education institutions, but at all levels—to achieve performance metrics (e.g., number of students achieving learning outcomes, passing a class, or graduating) has diverted attention to these metrics and away from the thing that really matters: learning. Educators tend to overemphasize specific learning outcomes that pertain to their particular classes and forget that learning is a never-ending process and does not stop at the end of a semester, a school year, or a degree program. To be able to keep up with changes occurring daily in the world, people need to become lifelong learners, and higher education needs to teach them how to learn even after they have left their formal institutions. Fostering a positive learning identity helps individuals adopt a learning attitude, understand the way they learn, and be able to find effective strategies to navigate unknown situations or adapt to changes. Having learning flexibility will help them thrive in various environments instead of being constrained to a particular job or setting.

One way for educators to overcome the trap toward specialization and away from learning is to remind ourselves that teachers are learners too and that there are often many things to learn in unexpected moments, as well as unintended consequences in addition to intended learning outcomes. If teachers narrowly focus on only the things that they are looking for, they tend to miss things that can be useful, but not recognized (Patton, 2010). Hence, they need to be open to unintended consequences, embrace these teachable moments, and make sense of them like any other learning experience. An example of being open to unintended consequences is paying attention to time when conducting experiential learning exercises with students. Time is inherently embodied in all aspects of ELT, including learning modes and learning activities, accumulation and reflection of experience, length of class, progress of lesson plans, and evaluations of learning outcomes. Even though the passing of objective time is linear, the subjective experienced time is not. Educators need to be mindful that their students may not be in the same time point as they are, that their takeaways may take them into directions that are temporally different from what was intended, and that teachers need to meet students where they are in the process. In addition, what might seem to be a failure of learning in one context could actually be learning in another context or in the longer term. For example, a student’s disengagement from an in-class experiential exercise (from the instructor’s point of view) could be because he or she is stuck in a “flow” state (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) and stops progressing along with the exercise. In the long run, however, this moment of deep experiencing (Kolb & Kolb, 2017) may benefit this student far beyond the exercise itself.

Another example is moving away from a linear, top-down, causal way of evaluating learning outcomes and adopting more of a developmental evaluation mindset (Patton, 2010). Instead of traditional learning objectives that are definitive in nature (e.g., “Students will learn to identify five different leadership styles”), educators could switch to adaptive principles such as “Students will learn to identify more leadership styles than they previously knew.” If they are receptive to the humbling idea that their students’ learning is neither a direct result of their teaching nor the exercises they use, then they are no longer constrained to what they promise to deliver within a short time period, but are open to limitless possibilities.

In conclusion, in an age when the only constant is change, experiential learners and educators should adopt a long-term view of experiential learning and focus on developing competencies for lifelong learning, such as learning identity and learning flexibility. Education should be an abductive process in which students are taught to ask different types of questions and then connect new knowledge with their own personal experience. The outcome of education, likewise, should be adaptive and developmental. Instead of global learning outcomes that every student needs to achieve, educators need to hold each student individually responsible for incrementally knowing more than he or she previously knew, and teach students not only how to answer questions but also how to ask good questions to extract knowledge from future unknown circumstances. Helping students foster a learning identity and become lifelong learners are among the most important tasks of educators in today’s fast-changing world.


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