Forward the Action, Deepen the Learning

“The potentiation of a new brain requires a self-reflective mind.”

~ Coaching with the Brain in Mind

The importance of reflection in learning and change has been well-researched over the years. Over 20 years ago, David Kolb presented a powerful model of the experiential learning cycle that is widely used to this day. Known to experiential educators around the world, it looks like this:

  1. Person takes some sort of action, does an activity
  2. Person reflects on what was learned by doing this action
  3. Person now takes new action(s) based on the learning

In 2002, James Zull brought the theory up to date by showing the biology behind it, and proving that this cycle “cre­at­(es) con­di­tions that lead to change in a learner’s brain.” Here is how it seems to work, according to Zull:

  1. We experience something. In other words, we DO something (anything), the motor cortex carries out plan of action.
  2. When we recall the experience, the sensory cortex receives input from the five senses. The more we activate all five senses in this part of the process, the more we are able to understand about the experience. We actually don’t think about experiences without re-experiencing them in the brain. Thus, reflection strategies that tap into the full sensory experience (visual, auditory, smell, taste, touch, as well as emotion) are most effective.
  3. When we reflect on the experience the back integrative cortex makes sense of the input from the sensory cortex (see step 2 – the more you give it to work with, the better).
  4. When we further use this reflection to develop a deeper understanding of who we are as a person (and therefor how to move forward), the frontal integrative cortex develops a plan of action. Deeper reflection, more well-thought out and therefore effective further action.
  5. When we move forward and see how it goes the motor cortex once again carries out plan of action.
  6. And so on, repeating – the “upward spiral” of learning.

In practice in  coaching, the action is often what our clients do off the call. They try something (hopefully something new) and then reflect with us about what happened and what they learned. We then call them into more action based on the new learning, resulting in an “upward spiral” of growth and development. As shown in step two, it seems that the richer the experience of recall is, the more helpful it may be to our clients. Thus the use of metaphor, somatic embodiment (using the body’s geography), and recalling all the senses can expand our client’s experience and give them more information to work with.

Without reflection, we only have endless input. The brain needs to recall what happened in order for the frontal integrative cortex to develop the most effective plan of action. In other words, in order to learn, grow and develop.


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