Lifelong Learning

{Passarelli & Kolb, 2021. The learning way: Learning from experience as the path to lifelong learning and development. In London, (Ed.), Handbook of lifelong learning.}


Lifelong learning shifts responsibility from the system to the individual. The so-called global economy and new market conditions ask us to be autonomous and independent individuals responsible for updating our skills to achieve our place in society.

Beyond the requirement of learning new marketable skills in an ever-changing economy, self-direction, self-emancipation, and self-creation become the guiding principles in the ongoing human development of the whole person.

This mode of life embodies values of freedom and participation, exercising reason through problem-solving in dialog and interdependent relationships with others and engaging in action for change as part of a dialogic encounter.

Experiential learning theory (ELT) provides a theory and a roadmap for learning how to learn and understand how learning occurs, themselves as learners, and the nature of the spaces where learning occurs.

The journey of lifelong learning, the learning way, asks you to approach life experiences with a learning attitude. Other ways of living tempt us with immediate gratification at our peril; the ways of dogma, denial, addiction, submission, or habit. The learning way requires deliberate effort to create new knowledge in the face of uncertainty and failure. It opens the way to new, broader, and deeper horizons of experience. Learning is intrinsically rewarding and empowering, and growth-fostering relationships sustain and nurture the learning way.

Experiential Learning Theory

ELT is based on a learning cycle driven by the resolution of the dual dialectics of action-reflection and experience-abstraction. It defines learning as the major process for human adaptation.

Six propositions of ELT: 

Learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes. Learning does not end at an outcome, nor is it always evidenced in performance.

All learning is re-learning. Individuals construct their knowledge of the world based on their experience. In the learning process, the learners’ beliefs and ideas about a topic are drawn out so they can be examined, tested, and integrated with new, more refined ideas.

Learning requires resolving conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of adaptation to the world. Conflict, differences, disagreement, and opposing modes of reflection, action, feeling, and thinking drive the learning process.

Learning is a holistic adaptation process. Learning involves the integrated functioning of the total person in terms of thinking, feeling, perceiving, and behaving. In addition, it encompasses other specialized models of adaptation from the scientific method to problem-solving, decision-making, and creativity.

Learning results from synergistic transactions between the person and the environment. Learning occurs through the equilibration of the dialectic processes of assimilating new experiences into existing concepts and accommodating existing concepts to new experiences. The characteristics of the person and the learning environment influence learning.

Learning is the process of creating knowledge. Social knowledge is created and recreated in the personal knowledge of the learner.

The Cycle of Experiential Learning

Knowledge is created in a cycle of experience by moving recursively through four learning modes: experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting. Immediate or concrete experiences are the basis for observations and reflections. These reflections are assimilated and distilled into abstract concepts from which the learner draws new implications for action. These implications are actively tested and serve as guides in creating new experiences.

Knowledge is constructed in this cyclical process and results from the combination of grasping experience, or Concrete Experience and Abstract Conceptualization, and transforming experience, or Reflective Observation and Active Experimentation.

The concrete-abstract, or grasping, and action-reflection, or transforming, modes form a dialectic.

These are parallel to the ways of knowing the world in terms of “knowledge of acquaintance” based on direct perception and “knowledge about” based on mediating conception. Concepts derive their validity from connection to sense experience and enable us to predict the future and achieve our desires. Perception is of the here and now; conception is of the like and unlike, of the future, the past, and the far away. Both are necessary to live and understand life. William James describes the experiencing-conceptualizing dialectic in his philosophy of radical empiricism.

The transformative dialectic of reflection informed by action and action informed by reflection become emphasized in praxis through dialogue with others. This is presented in the critical theory of Paulo Freire.

Learning style

Individuals spiral through the learning cycle in unique ways based on their preference for the four learning modes of CE, RO, AC, and AE. Being concrete or abstract and being active or reflective are the real-world choices one encounters in learning; one’s genetic makeup, particular life experiences, and the demands of the current environment come together in establishing one’s patterned, characteristic ways, or learning style, influenced by culture, personality type, educational specialization, career choice, and current job role and tasks.

Learning style is not a psychological trait but a dynamic state arising from an individual’s preferential resolution of the dual dialectics of experiencing-conceptualizing and acting-reflecting. Stable and enduring patterns of human individuality arise from consistent transaction patterns between the individual and their environment. We process the possibilities of each emerging event in our preferred ways, presenting us with a range of choices and decisions we see. To some extent, our choices and decisions determine the events we live through, influencing our future choices. People create themselves through the choice of actual occasions they live through. (Kolb, 1984: 63-64).

Learning spaces

From Kurt Lewin’s field theory, person and environment are interdependent variables. Behavior is a function of person and environment, and the life space is the total psychological environment the person experiences subjectively.

The objective factors of the physical setting, time available for learning, information and activities offered for learning, and the subjective factors of learning preferences and expectations of reward or success form the learning space, existing in the learner’s experience.

Learning and repeated practice from different perspectives and under different conditions by engaging in different learning styles introduce variation in the learning space leading to greater retention and learning transfer.

Learning spaces are socially embedded or situated and nested in the social environment.

Strategies for Lifelong Learners

To increase learning effectiveness, match unique learning preferences and capabilities to the demands of the tasks.

1. Develop the capacity to engage in all four learning modes.

Containing the inhibiting effects of opposing learning modes can be as effective in getting into a mode as actively trying to express it. One may also develop the learning skills associated with the four learning cycle modes: interpersonal skills for CE, information skills for RO, analytic skills for AC, and action skills for AE.

(A) Developing the capacity for experiencing (CE). What does experiencing require?

Fully opening oneself to direct experience, being present in the moment, and attending to direct sensations and feelings enhance engagement in concrete experience.

The thinking mode can inhibit the ability to sense and feel in the moment.

Interpersonal skills of leading, building and maintaining relationships, and giving and receiving help are conducive to developing and expressing the experiencing learning mode.

(B) Developing the capacity for reflecting. What does reflection require?

Deliberately viewing things from different perspectives and exercising empathy, stillness, and quieting the mind enhance the ability to reflect deeply.

Impulsive desires and pressures to take action can inhibit the ability to engage in deep reflection.

Information skills of sense-making, information gathering, and information analysis support developing and expressing the reflection mode of learning.

(C) Developing the capacity for thinking. What does thinking require?

Practicing theoretical model building and creating action scenarios enhances the ability to represent and manipulate ideas in your head.

It can be distracted by intense direct emotion and sensations and pressure to act quickly.

Analytical skills of theory building, quantitative data analysis, and technology management aid in developing and expressing the thinking mode of learning.

(D) Developing the capacity for action. What does action require?

Courageous initiative-taking and creating cycles of goal-setting and feedback to monitor progress enhance commitment and involvement in the practical world of real consequences.

Too much internal processing in any of the three modes of internal experiencing, reflecting, and thinking inhibits the ability to act in real-time.

Action skills of initiative, goal-setting, and action-taking aid in developing and expressing the acting mode of learning.

2. Increase your learning flexibility.

For effective learning, move flexibly from one learning mode to the other in the learning cycle.

3. Customize your learning spaces.

Learning environments and materials may not be designed with the recognition of individual learning styles and preferences.

Take responsibility and initiative to supplement the provided learning space with other spaces that suit your style. For example, if you learn best by diverging, you may want to form a group or socialize into a wider community of practice to talk about the learning material presented; or, if you are a thinking style person, you may want to prepare in advance by reading about the material to be covered in the training session.

The Spiral of Learning and Adult Development

When a concrete experience is enriched by reflection, given meaning by thinking, and transformed by action, the new experience becomes richer, broader, and deeper. Through iterations of the cycle, learning is integrated with other knowledge and generalized to other contexts. Adult development occurs through learning from experience.

The learning cycle arises from the structure of the brain. The spiraling process of experiential learning is related to brain functioning. For example, concrete experience comes through the sensory cortex; reflective observation involves the integrative cortex at the back, new abstract concepts originate in the frontal integrative cortex, and functional testing involves the motor brain.

In Jung’s concept of individuation, adult development moves from a specialized way of adapting toward a holistic, integrated stage.

The ELT developmental model defines three stages:

acquisition, from birth to adolescence, where basic abilities and cognitive structures develop;

specialization, from formal schooling through the early work and personal experiences of adulthood, where social, educational, and organizational socializing forces shape the development of a particular, specialized learning style;

integration in mid-career and later life where non-dominant modes of learning are expressed in work and personal life.

Development through these stages is characterized by increased integration of the dialectic conflicts between the four primary learning modes, AC-CE and AE-RO, and by increasing complexity and relativism in adapting to the world.

Each learning mode is associated with a form of complexity that is used in conscious experience to transform sensory data into knowledge. For example, the development of CE increases affective complexity, RO increases perceptual complexity, AC increases symbolic complexity, and AE increases behavioral complexity.

These learning modes and complexities create a multi-dimensional developmental process guided by an individual’s particular learning style and life path.

Cross-sectional studies of learning style and developmental patterns in different professions point to transitions to non-dominant learning modes in later life stages mainly associated with changes in the work environment. Development is not solely a function of individual factors alone but the transaction between the person and their environment.

ELT Stages of Development

Acquisition; Specialization; Integration

Acquisition: self as undifferentiated – immersed in the world

Specialization: self as content – interacting with the world

Integration: self as process – transaction with the world

ELT Levels of Consciousness

Registrative; Interpretive; Integrative

ELT Modes of Adaptation

Performing; Learning; Developing

Stages, Levels, And Modes are directional and move in parallel, but there may be many exceptions in individual cases.

Progress toward development is seen as an increase in the complexity and sophistication of the dimensions associated with the four modes of the learning cycle, namely affective, perceptual, symbolic, and behavioral complexity, and the integration of these modes in a flexible full cycle of learning.

Full integration of the four modes of the experiential learning cycle – experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting; is considered development toward deep learning and is divided into three levels.

The first level is registrative and performance-oriented, involving two learning modes.

The second level is interpretative and learning-oriented, involving three learning modes.

The third level is integrative and development-oriented, involving all four learning modes in a holistic learning process.

Consider a traditional lecture course.

Emphasis is on the first level, registrative learning, emphasizing the learning modes of reflection and abstraction involving little action and little relation to personal experience.

Using multiple-choice tests that assess the registration of concepts in memory involves minimal action.

Bringing in a third mode by practically applying concepts can create second-level learning. Reflection supplemented by action serves to deepen conceptual understanding further. One strategy to involve action could be to add more extensive learning assessments.

We create the potential for third-level integrative learning by bringing in the fourth mode. This could involve adding personal learning experiences, such as internships or field projects.

As a counterexample to a traditional lecture course, consider an internship.

An internship emphasizes registrative learning via the modes of action and experience.

Enhance deeper interpretive learning by adding activities to stimulate reflection, such as team conversations about the internship experience and student journals.

Linking these to the conceptual material related to the experience adds the fourth learning mode, abstraction and integration through completing the learning spiral.

Strategies for Lifelong Learners

Practice makes perfect. Practice involves comparison with a mental model or explicit outcome. The master’s journey follows a recurring cycle of brief spurts of progress followed by dips in performance and a plateau of performance slightly higher than before, where nothing seems to be happening until the next spurt. 

Exercise appropriate time framing. A key to learning success is establishing an appropriate time frame expectation for its achievement.

Self-making and the development of interest. James’ interest-attention-selection: We attend to things that draw our interest and select experiences that allow our interests to be explored and deepened in a continuing learning spiral.

Learning Identity

A learning identity makes you see yourself as a learner, seek and engage in life experiences with a learning attitude, and believe in your ability to learn. Self-image; attitude; self-belief.

A learning identity develops from adopting a learning stance toward life experience to a more confident learning orientation, a learning self specific to certain contexts, to a learning self-identity that permeates deeply into all life aspects.

Learning requires conscious attention, effort, and time on task.

Individuals who believe they can learn and develop have a learning identity.

The learner faces a challenge with a mastery response, while the person with a fixed identity is more likely to withdraw or quit.

Learners embrace challenges, persist in facing obstacles, learn from criticism, and are inspired by and learn from others’ success.

The fixed identity person avoids challenges, gives up easily, avoids criticism, and feels threatened by others’ success.

Change from a fixed to learning self-identity requires a safe learning space characterized by unconditional positive regard from the teacher. This space reduces defensive behavior and allows people to experience themselves as learners in a new way.

Our self-identity is a combination of fixed and learning beliefs for most of us. We may feel that we are good at learning things like sports and not good at others like mathematics. Lay theories or mindsets are domain-specific. Every success or failure can trigger a reassessment of one’s learning ability; learning identity is continuously reformulated through experience.

Lifelong Learning Strategies

What reinforces a fixed self? What builds a learning self?

What are ways to overcome fixed self-characteristics?

What are ways to improve learning identity characteristics?

The fixed self is reinforced by negative self-talk, avoidance of risk and failure, or being threatened by the success of others.

Learning identity is built by trusting one’s ability to learn from experience, seeking new experiences and challenges, persistence, learning from mistakes, and using others’ success as a learning source.

Trust the process of learning from experience.

Trust your experience. Place it at the center of your learning, and make it a focal point of your choices and decisions. Own your choice of what you learn and validate it in your experience. Take charge of your learning and life.

Trust the learning process. Focus on the longer-term recursive learning process by tracking your performance progress over time. Excessive focus on outcomes of immediate performance reinforces a fixed identity.

Reassess your beliefs about how you learn and what you are good at. Consciously reflect on and choose how you define yourself as a learner. Be aware of how you characterize yourself and your abilities. Negative self-talk reinforces a fixed perception of self. Look for opportunities for change and embrace your new identity as a learner.

Monitor the messages you send yourself. Pay attention to your self-talk. Your words can reinforce a negative fixed identity, or your words can reinforce a positive learning identity. Beware of internalized oppression.

Redefine your relationship to failure. Failure is an inevitable part of doing something new. Failures focus your priorities and life path on your talents and strengths. It can mean stripping away the inessential.

Control emotional responses to learn from failure. Failures, losses, and mistakes provoke emotional responses. Learn to control emotional reactions that block learning and feed into a fixed identity.

Balance your success and failure accounts. Most of us remember our failures more vividly than our successes. Negative experiences have lasting negative effects, primarily when they affect an individual’s beliefs. Make an inventory of learning strengths and successes to balance your accounts.

Risk losing. Winning is not everything; focusing too much on it can block learning.

Learning Relationships

Learning is a social knowledge-creation process. Social knowledge is created and recreated in the personal knowledge of the learner.

Personal knowledge mastery is the creation and recreation of social knowledge.

All knowledge is rooted in shared meanings and knowledge that the individual transforms.

Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of development suggests that learning occurs first between people in an environment of social exchange and then within an individual as they make sense of the interaction. The first exchange is laden with socio-cultural artifacts, such as language and number systems, whose meanings are the products of our human history. Artifacts provide tools for learning and are reproduced through the social process. The socio-cultural context offers cognitive artifacts for use in the learning process.

In a growth-promoting learning relationship, each learning interaction carries a sentiment, or emotional charge, which sets the tone for learning. Interactions characterized by compassion, respect, and support build the trust and positive emotional resources necessary to create space for learning, even when learning is challenging.

To support the learning process, a facilitator can activate modes of experiencing in others by asking key questions that draw out different learning responses.

Growth and learning are promoted by movement through the learning spiral.

Interactions are the building blocks of a relationship. Interactions characterized by empathy and empowerment that include reciprocal engagement of thought and emotion give rise to positive feelings and perceptions of the other. This feeling tone creates the conditions for mutual growth. Under these conditions, individuals experience increased vitality, the ability to take action, clarity about themselves and their relationship, a sense of self-worth, and a desire to form more connections.

How Learning Relationships Support Learning

Social support can come as the emotional support of caring, empathy, and love, instrumental support of tangible resources, informational support in the form of help with problem-solving, and appraisal support as information for self-evaluation.

Support for Feeling

Support for the feeling mode of learning (CE) enhances the affective dimension of learning by providing positive emotional or expressive benefits. A positive emotional state opens the learner to direct experience and bolsters their emotional wellbeing to be able to persist in the face of adversity. Frederickson’s Broaden and Build Theory suggests that positive affect and positive emotion enable individuals to expand their attention, cognition, and behavior. The psychological benefits of positive experiences are then stock-piled or built to create a reservoir from which individuals draw in future circumstances.

Support for Reflecting

Feedback relevant to self-evaluation and identity construction offers support for the reflecting mode of learning (RO). This type of support encourages self-appraisal and enhances perceptual complexity.

Evaluations or observations from others, particularly those in a role of authority, can influence learning identity in unexpected and subtle ways.

Support for Thinking

Offering new ways of thinking, conceptualizing, or solving problems will support the thinking mode of learning (AC) and develop the learner’s symbolic complexity and reasoning capability.

The zone of proximal development refers to the potential for learning when a learner cooperates with someone slightly more advanced in an area.

Situated learning theory suggests that the opportunity to engage with others to problem-solve and complete tasks necessary for the operation of the community creates the conditions for learning.

Support for Doing

Instrumental support provides tangible resources that move learners to action and supports the doing mode of learning (AE). These learning relationships help learners perform, experiment, and take risks. Instrumental support is related to performance and promotion outcomes.

Resources provided may include financial assistance to participate in formal education programs, information about new learning opportunities, and technical advice.

Lifelong Learning Strategies

Be aware of the learning identity contagion. Avoid people and situations that make you feel bad about yourself and incapable of learning. Instead, engage in relationships that support developing a positive learning identity.

Appreciate the diversity of your interactions for their potential to contribute to your learning. Diverse interactions increase the likelihood of experiencing support for all modes of learning. Every connection holds the potential for learning. Always be open to learning from others, regardless of their status relative to yours.

Realize your impact on others. Be mindful of your daily connections with others. You are also contributing to their learning experience.

Future Directions

How do strategies for learning from experience vary in different life stages?

What are the opportunities and pitfalls of learning in times of transition?

How does metacognition monitor and control the learning process?

What role do relationships play in developing metacognitive capacity?