April 5, 2024

Diving Deep into Learning: From Epistemology to Experiential Coaching

Coaches facilitate learning. But what is learning? We all have our theories about what it is and how to facilitate it. We know how to recognize it. I think it might be meaningful to have a short deep dive into the different ways in which you can conceptualize learning, as these concepts have implications on what it is we do and how we learn as coaches. Ready for a plunge? Let’s jump in.

How we come to know is the subject of the philosophical discipline of epistemology (just in case you needed a fancy word to throw around at parties), so the question of “what is learning” and epistemology are intertwined. Kolb’s seminal book: “Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development” (1984) differentiates epistemologies of learning: rational and idealist epistemologies and the epistemology of experiential learning.

In rational and idealist epistemologies assume that in order to learn, the learner needs to acquire new ideas or content. This learning is outcome oriented: The teacher designs a process which gives the knowledge that they would like to convey to the learner. The outcome of this teaching can then be tested by checking if the learners have actually acquired the content of the lessons.

Experiential epistemologies assume that our knowledge and experience are constantly changing and learning is an emerging process (p. 26). Experiential learning is process oriented rather than outcome oriented. “The fact that learning is a continuous process grounded in experience has important educational implications. Put simply, it implies that all learning is relearning. How easy and tempting is it in designing a course to think of the learner’s mind as being blank as the paper on which we scratch our outline. Yet this is not the case. Everyone enters every learning situation with more or less articulate ideas about the topic at hand. […] Thus, one’s job as an educator is not only to implant new ideas but also to dispose of or modify old ones.”

Coaching, as we can see in the definition of ICF’s core competency 8, is firmly based in experiential learning. As coaches, we are asked to “partner with the client to transform insight into action”. The environment of the client in which they act, the actions of the client and their insights are inextricably interconnected. As coaches, we do not assume that we have to teach our clients new ideas and concepts (which we can test later), but we partner with our client in their journey of experiential learning. We invite them to tell us their stories, to reflect and learn from them and then to experiment with different actions in the future: In short, a coach is by definition a facilitator of experiential learning!

So why does the ICF then ask coaches to fill in a multiple-choice test in form of the credentialing exam in order to check whether the coach has acquired the necessary concepts and ideas in their head? This strategy of “testing knowledge that is in someone’s head” sits clearly in an idealist and rationalist, individualist epistemology. What is it about “demonstrating competences” in a performance evaluation? Talk about competences also has a whiff of “you gotta have them all” – the applicant demonstrates that they “have” them inside their heads.

These disparities get on my nerves (sorry, I continue to be a sucker for consistency) and I promise I will write about something else next time 😊. Coaches also develop experientially. They learn a simple structure, try it out, reflect, get feedback, experiment, learn some more, integrate into their previous knowledge, throw out old theories, develop new ones and so on. At SolutionsAcademy we understand our job as coach educators as supporters of the experiential learning of our participants. We want to help everyone to be the best coach THEY can be and not produce cookie-cutter-competence-comedians.

I hope you have enjoyed the musings on two different (and of course there are more differences) conceptualizations of “learning” and how they impact how we do and learn coaching. What is your theory of learning?

We think that if you want to learn how to coach, you need to start a journey of experiential learning. You need concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation (p. 30). If you want to join us for some of that, come to our free coaching meetups and exchanges!


Kolb. D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Clifs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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