Social Reflection Series: Kolb and Fry (1975)

Kolb and Fry (1975)

Many reflective models we have evaluated adopt a cyclical approach (Gibbs, 1988; Atkins and Murphy, 1994; Kolb and Fry, 1975).  Such models deal with the act of reflection and learning collectively as a process.  This process has observable outcomes when testing our new concepts and as such could be measured for us to note improvement of our handling of a situation after the learning experience.

This is useful in personal development and that of social marketing.  It is akin to a test-retest methodology in different situations, where we can observe ‘improvement’ in our behaviour, essentially via trial and error (specifically in a professional context this can relate directly to our work ability).  Unfortunately these models cannot suggest what ’improvement’ represents and so could be considered limited in their usefulness in ‘real world’ application in this sense.

Theoretical premise:

Kolb and Fry’s (1975) model suggests that the bases of our applied reflection are ‘principals’, or generalisations that we form from experience (as no situation is the same we assume the outcome of a similar situation will be the same).  It could in fact be the case that there is not another similar occasion where people can actually ‘test’ the principals formed.  Maybe such a situation does not arise again (e.g. if someone is bullied at school, but not for the rest of their lifetime).  Perhaps the resultant schema is repressed in the case of death, as Freud might suggest, which prevents us from handling such a situation better in the future?

Credit:  www.ltu.unsw.edu.au

Credit: www.ltu.unsw.edu.au

Despite this Kolb and Fry’s (1975) model does provide a useful snapshot of what a reflective process may look like, although it is highly context dependant, as has just been demonstrated above.  To further illustrate, if you make a small mistake, like bump into someone on the street and they shouted at you, would such a process be utilised?  No, occasions like this occur so often and are relatively inconsequential to the overall situation, which we do not need to actively process situations using the process suggested here. If we were to do so our brains surely would not be able to handle the amount of thought generated!

Another criticism of Kolb and Fry’s model is that it does not provide any help in how we might reflect or what they refer to as reflection exactly.  Is reflection a conscious and deliberated process, or a “second thought” which may occur in seconds? As stated above the comprehension and assimilation of knowledge will vary greatly from person to person.




Although all of the stages are undoubtedly important, it is the reflective ’stage’ that will help us form our understanding of the world, as well as the behaviour that governs our actions that we apply in our daily lives. The idea of stages posed here is not representative of how we think and despite the assertion that the experiential learning process can start at any point in the cycle (Kolb and Fry, 1975), realistically people’s thoughts may jump from one stage to another.  We may for example think of how to deal with a situation better and then realise that we tried that before (jumping back to reflection), before trialing a new approach.  Further more our thinking is fluid and therefore this is an over simplified view that we think in linear stages like this.

Conceptualising such a complex and fluid process however is undoubtedly difficult and requires simplifying like this in order to be of practical use.  Practitioners simply need to be aware of this when applying it and take the model on face value, even though this may not yield a deep insight on its own.  We are reminded here that there are certain considerations that need to be made when analysing a specific experience of interest.  Indeed, in what I consider structured reflection, we need an experience to observe and reflect on, which (may) lead to new understanding and ultimately testing this in new situations.  It is argued that this kind of structure is similar to what many people experience any way e.g;

“what happened” (observation and experience),
“why did this happen” (reflection),
“what would I do differently?” (conceptualisation)

Despite this model’s flaws, this does not detract from the fact that it is a useful starting point in processing our experiences.  Essentially it is a simple but effective observation that can direct our learning process, but needs supplementing with an understanding of reflection itself and of the limitations it brings with it.

Related Articles:

The Reflection in Social Marketing Series;

Part 1 – Reflection in Social Marketing

Part 2 – The Myers Briggs Indicator

Part 3 – Kolb and Fry’s (1975) reflection model

Part 4 – Johns (2000) model of reflection

Part 5 – Jarvis (1994) and Conclusions

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