LEARNING THROUGH EXPERIENCING

Experiential Learning and Learning Styles

David Kolb is an American social scientist known for his work in experiential learning. He reckons that we learn through spiralling through processes of participating in ‘concrete’ experiences, about which we make reflective observations, which enable us to develop abstract conceptualisations about our experiences, which then enable us to actively experiment with doing things differently. In other words, we adjust our mental models of how we behave in life, based on learning from our experiences.

Kolb reckons that out of this process, there are nine learning ‘styles’ to which we subconsciously work. We use elements of each but tend to be biased to one. Here’s a model of the styles and how they fit with the learning process.

Learning cycle

The second of these styles is the experiencing learning style.

It’s Like Deep Immersion in Virtual Reality

Most of of us are familiar with VR headsets. Some of us have experienced using them and I understand that entering artificial realities can be freakishly real. I’ve not used one of the headsets, but I have been in a virtual reality suite. It was at the University of Canterbury, NZ, somewhere around 2008-2009. We were completely immersed in a visual and audio fly-through of the Southern Alps. So immersive it was it that I felt my self moving within the virtual aircraft.

The only similar experience I’ve had was in the Grand Canyon iMax theatre in the late 1990s. The film showed the history and geology of the Canyon. In the opening sequence ‘you’ are flying across the desert towards the Canyon’s rim. As you approach, you (and just about everyone else in the audience) is enthralled and horrified as you move to compensate as the plane ‘pops up’ over the rim and drops like a stone toward the Canyon floor.

Both experiences contributed hugely to deepening my learning and love for this planet

It’s About the Ability to Find Meaning

The initiating learning style is characterised by the ability to find meaning from deep involvement in experience. It draws on concrete experience while balancing active experimentation and reflective observation.

Life Has Meaning Whatever the Circumstance

Across his career and imprisonment, Dr Viktor Frankl observed many incidents of human misery and anxiety. In all but a few cases he detected or help the sufferers detect meaning in their suffering. Frankl’s observations gave rise to Logotherapy, which has the following basic principles basic principles:

  1. Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
  2. Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
  3. We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stance we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

Logotherapy is an adjunct to virtually all other psychotherapies, providing the foundation of living a meaningful life, so that presenting symptoms do not recur.

A Remarkable Case of Learning through Experiencing

Viktor Frankl was a remarkable man. His outstanding book, Man‛s Search for Meaning, part autobiography, part self-help book, part psychology manual, was first published in 1959. It has remained in print since. One estimate puts its sales in excess of 10 million. It‛s been translated into 24 languages. I have a treasured hardback copy and a copy on my Kindle. It‛s never far from my side. I read it at least once a year. I use his lessons regularly. If you haven‛t read it, go and buy a copy and put it at the top of your reading list. Why so?

Viktor Frankl was born in 1905, a Viennese Jew. Like so many others, World War One saw his family steeped in bitter poverty. He survived. He developed an aptitude for medicine. By the time he reached high school, he was studying psychology and philosophy. Two years before graduating high school, in 1921, aged 16 he gave a speech titled On the Meaning of Life. He went further still, writing his final high school paper on the psychology of philosophical thought. Before turning 20, Frankl wrote to Sigmund Freud. He included a copy of one of his own papers. Shortly after, Freud published one other of Frankl‛s papers. By chance, they met shortly after this and Freud conveyed to Frankl how impressed he was by one so young. Here we see a series of glorious moments in the life of a young man. How it should always be. Frankl read neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna. His initial bias was to Freudian psychoanalysis. Later he veered to the work of Alfred Adler, who enriched Freudian theory with the concept of the inferiority complex.

Building out of this work, Frankl‛s early contributions were made in the field of youth suicide prevention in Austrian high schools. In 1933, he benefited from this work, becoming head of the Vienna Psychiatric Hospital‛s female suicide prevention program. By 1937 his work had helped thousands of women at risk from suicide. Viktor opened his private practice. A stellar career awaited. More great moments.

Then, in 1938, the Anschluss occurred. Hitler‛s Nazi Germany annexed Austria. As a Jew, under the Nazi regime, Frankl was not permitted to treat Aryan patients. So, Frankl became head of neurology at the Rothschild Hospital in Vienna, the only place where Jewish patients could be treated.

Like many European Jews, recognising the Nazi‛s malicious intent, Frankl had applied for a visa to the United States, and simply needed his lottery number to be called. It was, just before Pearl Harbor and the USA‛s entry into the war. Unfortunately, Frankl was caught in a dilemma. The visa applied only to him. His parents and siblings would be left behind in an increasingly evil environment. Frankl knew their fate was likely to end in a concentration camp. He was faced with a momentous decision.

Frankl knew he had a terrible choice to make. He later recalled in interviews that he chose to depend on a higher power to guide him. He found a fragment of a stone in his parents‛ house. The stone was a piece of the Ten Commandments that had once stood in a local synagogue. Burned down by the Nazis, the Synagogue was reduced to rubble. Frankl‛s father had picked up a piece of the stone as a keepsake. And the piece he just happened to pick up? It depicted a portion of the commandment:

Honour Thy Father and Mother.

To Frankl, this was a moment of huge significance and no little truth. He stood at the edge of freedom and a better future. He also stood at the edge of imprisonment, suffering and probable death. The choice was momentous. Yet to Frankl, the decision was clear. He would stay alongside his family as they dealt with the horrors the Nazis brought upon them.

He knew well what the Nazis were capable of. He and his wife Tilly married in 1941. They wanted children. Frankl‛s wife conceived, but she was not allowed to give birth. Jewish couples were not allowed to have children. She was forced to have an abortion.

The horror deepened in 1942. Frankl, his wife, and his parents were arrested. They were initially sent to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. There, Frankl helped others, running a clinic, helping new prisoners cope with the drastic shock of entry into the camp, and establishing a suicide watch. Frankl‛s father died six months in. Frankl, his wife and mother moved to Auschwitz, but Tilly was subsequently moved to Bergen-Belsen.

In Auschwitz, 1,500 people were kept in a shed meant for 250. Prisoners were forced to squat on bare ground, with only small pieces of bread to eat. From here, they were split into two lines. After queuing in the left line, Frankl‛s mother was executed in the gas chambers. Frankl escaped that fate. He defied the order to stand on the left and stepped to the right, which led to, instead of death, deep, dark, wearying slavery. A moment of extreme truth. He was one of only 200,000 to survive out of the 1.3 million sent to Auschwitz. Tilly perished at the hands of the Nazis at Bergen-Belsen, and Frankl did not learn of her death until the war ended and his liberation in 1945.

Throughout his time in the camps, not knowing of Tilly‛s death, Frankl found meaning and a level of comfort in the knowledge of love. He thought of her throughout his ordeal. He recognized how that helped him as he started to theorize about what love meant for human life. He observed many, many moments of suffering and found in them moments of meaning.

On liberation, in only nine days during the summer of 1945 Frankl dictated the manuscript that became Man‛s Search for Meaning. It describes what life was like in the concentration camps and the realizations Frankl had as a prisoner about the need for meaning in human life and the role of suffering in the world. The book outlines the principles of ‘logotherapy,‛ Frankl‛s idea that humans are most driven by a search for meaning. It formed the basis of the remainder of his professional life, providing the foundations of the so-called third school of Viennese psychotherapy.

By 1946, he was back running the Vienna Polyclinic of Neurology. By 1948, he had earned a PhD in Philosophy. He began teaching at the University of Vienna, where he remained as a professor until 1990. In the wake of the tragedy of the Holocaust, Frankl enjoyed astonishing professional and academic achievements, and was widely and rightly lauded and loved. He died in 1997.

I visited the museum commemorating Viktor Frankl‛s life a decade after his passing. I also stood outside the Polyclinic. I just stood there, revering a good man. I recall a huge wave of emotions (anger, anguish, love amongst them) that ran through me over the course of 120 minutes or more that summer‛s day. It was several hours before I could settle. There were so many moments that day. Many more since.

Finding Meaning through Experience

Frankl‛s essential arguments, beautifully framed for modern life by Alex Pattakos and Elaine Dundon in Prisoners of Our Thoughts, run thus:

  1. Exercise the freedom to choose your attitude. No matter how desperate any situation may appear or actually be, you always have the ultimate freedom to choose how you respond to it.
  2. Realise your will to meaning. Identify purposeful values and goals that you can actualise and fulfil. Commit to them authentically.
  3. Detect the meaning of life‛s moments. You are responsible for your own life. Seek and find the meaning in your life at any given moment. Take responsibility for it. Weave your unique braid of existence.
  4. Don‛t work against yourself. Overthinking or over-committing to an intent or outcome may mean that you actually work against the desired result.
  5. Look at yourself from a distance. We all possess the capacity to look at ourselves from a distance. Apply your signature character strengths to that perspective. Apply humour, even in the darkest moments.
  6. Shift your focus of attention. If challenge is proving to be tough, deflect your attention something else. Reframing a challenge often provokes a new solution. Build your mental toughness.
  7. Extend beyond yourself, since transcendence is

the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos

Abraham Maslow

I never met Viktor. I didn‛t know of him until after he died. Yet, he feels like a friend who has a hugely influenced my life. There is meaning in every moment. It‛s there. You just need to find it. To do so, you must appreciate the importance of awareness and live with it, since, to re-emphasise the most profound of Viktor‛s many profound thoughts:

Life retains its meaning under any conditions. It remains meaningful literally up to its last moment, up to one‛s last breath.