Celebrating experiential learning…

… but what …
… if Kolb was misinterpreted?

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This is the second published article of a series on intercultural learning by Lene Mogensen from The Sparkle. Read the first article here.

I have previously described my critique towards certain ICL-games as means of creating intercultural understanding and tolerance. I used the example of “The Derdians�? — a simulation exercise from T-Kit No. 4 — to make the point that prejudices might actually be reinforced rather than fought.

A counterargument might be raised, that the main asset of non-formal learning is that it is experience-based — that the participants form their understanding based on their own experiences. The game is therefore not transmitting any values and understandings in itself — but is just a neutral vehicle for creating such experiences that the participants can then interpret. That non-formal learning is just that: learning from your experiences while you are playing and participating in exercises and discussions.

Maybe non-formal learning is just that: learning from experience while you are playing…

That it is not about transferring a certain understanding of culture — defining culture in this or that way. Let the formal school system — the universities — carry out that job of defining — and let the non-formal learning system provide the participants options for reaching their own conclusions. To qualify such arguments, Kolb is often perceived as the saviour, as he is said to stand up against all formal education by stating that learning is based on the first important step: experience!

Well, actually Kolb didn’t say that, and I think a great problem of non-formal approaches towards intercultural learning is based on a misinterpretation of Kolb (Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall.).

What comes first is the question of the hen or the egg and doesn’t make sense.

The question about what comes first: knowledge or experience, is the question of the hen and the egg. The question simply doesn’t make sense. Maybe it makes sense at the very first moment that the newly born baby sets eyes on this world, but from thereon a certain knowledge-structure, a certain understanding of the world has been created, and all further experience will be interpreted based on this knowledge/understanding, as well as new experience will change or widen the knowledge structure.

The innovativeness of Kolb doesn’t lie in his turning the linear approach of the formal school system upside down. Where the formal school system is claimed to start with abstract concepts and generalisations, which can later be tested and applied, Kolb is said to start with experience, observation and reflection and then abstract knowledge and concepts from experience. His innovativeness, however, lies in creating a circular model, where the two approaches are combined in a never-ending spiral.

Cycle of Experiental Learning

Interpreting “The Derdians�? — or similar ICL simulation games in this understanding of Kolb brings forward interesting questions. From the T-kit we can deduce what the experience is: the engineers will most probably experience frustration during the exercise, because it turns out to be more difficult to build the bridge, than they thought.

We also know something about the observation and reflection, as the debriefing should be lead towards a discussion of cultural differences and interpreting other people’s behaviour. But which abstract conceptualisation will follow, is an open question. Just as it is not certain which implications this will have for further action and whether any new intercultural skills will actually have been learned during the exercise. “Of course!�? — it might be argued, “as this depends on the experience of the participants and the conclusions they make�?.

Learning is a spiral

This conclusion is, however, based on the above mentioned misinterpretation of Kolb, stating that experience is the first step in learning, and thus a “neutral�? first step, on which participants can make their own conclusions. But Kolb drew a circle and said that there was something before the experience: namely abstract concepts and generalisations with implications for actions. The authors who wrote the T-kit and the trainers who select the exercises and facilitate the debriefing did/do this based on such generalised concepts (whether they are aware of it or not). The participants come with prior knowledge of what culture is and interpret their experience in the exercise based on this (whether they are aware of it or not).

There is no “neutral” first step.

In the last article it was claimed that “The Derdians�? is definitely based on a certain understanding of culture — namely one which ascribes culture to “traditional�? societies, to the “exotic�? the “distant�? the “southern�?, whereas “we�? — the engineers — are modern, developed and have science and knowledge. Well, I consider this a generalisation / concept, which might very well have prejudices and discrimination as practical implications — toward countries in the South/East or towards minorities in our European societies.

Many exercises simply re-produce the abstract concepts and generalisations they are based on.

The conclusion is that many ICL games run the risk of just reproducing the abstract concepts and generalisations that they are based on. Rather than being neutral vehicles for creating experience and reflections among participants, on which they can make their own conclusions, they just reproduce old knowledge (not much different from the formal school system). Ironically some of these concepts and generalisations of what culture is are outdated and have for instance within anthropology (the study of culture) been rejected long time ago. They have been rejected exactly because their practical implications turned out to be prejudiced and colonising development work (exchange your culture with our knowledge) as well as prejudices and discrimination against ethnic minorities. The science of anthropology is increasingly expressing worries about the concept of culture, which they themselves were promoting some decades ago.

Intercultural Learning needs to be reconstructed.

There seems to be an urgency of reconstructing intercultural learning. I cannot see how “awareness of cultural differences�? in itself can give any tools towards dealing with such challenges in our multicultural societies and globalised world. Additionally I fear that we are contributing to the reproduction of prejudiced and discriminatory practices, when we strive towards exactly the opposite, by reproducing an old-fashioned way of looking at culture. But what are the alternatives? Well, hang on to this channel (read: website) for further discussion on the subject.

Fire away with your comments!

Comments

5 Comments so far. Comments are closed.
  1. We have replaced the illustration which we used for Kolb’s cycle with a new one because the first one suggested a priority and an order by giving numbers to the stages…

    Yet, the source of the picture is a short but worthwile review of Kolb’s theory over at Infed.

    david a. kolb on experiential learning @ the encyclopaedia of informal education

  2. Bastian,

    I completely agree with the criticism expressed in this article. Some month ago I had the pleasure to work on a Study Session on the topic ‘Intercultural Learning applied in local contexts’. The concept and the theories of Culture and Intercultural Learning were, among others, discussed at length. One of the conclusions that we came out with were that Intercultural Learning, as very often practised in international youth work, is no wonder-weapon to fight social injustice and promote diversity. In fact, the concept that is too less mentioned in discourses on Culture and Inter-Culture is ‘Identity’. Modern identities are often as complex as culture is and a better understanding of the diversity of ones own culture will facilitate the understanding and appreciation of the other’s diverse identity. When Intercultural Learning takes a step back from the ambitious goal to achieve world-peace through prosperous Intercultural Dialogue and focuses on the understanding of Identity more concrete achievements might be in reach, and much less harm will be done by promoting stereotypes of what a certain culture is and how people are to be, who are supposed to be a member of that culture.

  3. Your observations are quite interesting, Bastian, because they arrive at the concept of ‘identity’, one of the main topics of discourse and exploration in the series of training modules on European Citizenship.

    Not that we have gotten very far with making ‘identity’ easily understood (can that be ever the case?), but I think we might have found educationally meaningful ways in approaching identity questions of individuals.

    That is not much, but it is a start…

    I am curious to see where this discussion takes us, because I am personally a bit at a loss with this whole identity thing.

  4. Nik Paddison,

    Thank you for this article and discussion. You raise a number of key issues, the main point for me being around the concept of reinforcing stereotypes and prejudices through this kind of examination of culture. I think i agree with you, but am not sure that i see this as entirely negative. If the ICL activity reinforces what people think, it is also getting people to realise what it is that they think – or subconciously believe. If this is handled by a competent trainer or facilitator then we have the beginnings of someone being challenged in their belief systems and the potentiality of change. But it is a big IF! I am part of running a seminar in Macedonia in two weeks, our programme starts with the Identity question, reflecting on what has been written i am re-examining the programme and looking at making the concept of Identity a far bigger part of the week. I will try to keep all this discussion in mind during the week, it will make for good reflection afterwards.

    Talking of reflection, i teach a university course on youth work in the Balkan region, i use the “Honey, Peter & Mumford, Alen. (1992). Adaptation of Kolbs Learning Circle” Their version is a learning spiral. Doing – Observing – Reflecting – Developing – Doing… Sorry that is a brief non-explanation of it. I am out of time right now, but just to say it is interesting to look at their point of view on this.

  5. :) I feel happy, really…it’s been a long time and more specifically, it is since the very first time that I was participating in a structured experience for intercultural learning, that I raised a lot of concerns (and some first steps on criticism) about them…I was not satisfied by the outcome and I also felt a lot of pressure by having to deal with all the new stimuli by myself! So, I really found the discussion held in this blog (congratulations by the way) as if I had found my soul mate to speak about everything after being drunk during a hot summer night :) Neeeh, I am not going to be that descriptive and time consuming! But still it takes a lot of effort to sum up my thoughts that have sprung the last days, after I read the texts here. My first thought is concentrated in this phrase -quoted by my self :)- “intercultural learning is a natural process taking place in an informal, borderless and spontaneous environment”…and in simulations there is a lack of the above; or not? I feel that in the core of the simulations (the “meeting” of the cultures to build the bridge, the shelter, to select 5 people and so on) the above 3 characteristics are minimized; informal? no, it is planned! borderless? no boundaries exist (“you are in an island”, “in x country” etc)! spontaneous? little…participants are following roles! But as we all know, the simulation doesn’t start with the “experience”…It starts before, where people are asked to work in their “cultures”; in small groups. For me this is the place where intercultural learning takes place! Reading a comment on an evaluation form “What was the most important ICL experience for you? – Working in small groups”!!! And simulations for ICL always include working in small groups! So, if we see simulations as a whole, I feel that, yes they offer space for intercultural learning (informal and spontaneous and borderless on a certain extend) but maybe not in the way they are planned to…So, trying to sum up, I believe that the most vital space for ICL is working in small groups; either for the preparation of a simulation or for the fulfillment of another task. Additionally, the encounter (training, exchange) in itself is also a booster for intercultural sensitivity to be developed. Hmmm, encounter; what a word; I am sure that all of us have been part of numerous intercultural encounters. If yes is the case then I just think for my self “am I able now to be confronted constructively with the difference and be enriched by that?”. I dare to say yes…I have traveled a lot, I have met thousands of people, I have spent a lot of time reflecting and also put a lot of effort in applying (and re-assessing) the learnt. Might sound exaggerated but I have the feeling that if there were enough resources (not talking only about money) for people to travel (under informal, non formal or formal processes) then not so great need for ICL would have been existed… Linking my last phrases into the training world, I strongly believe that a trainer on ICL must have made significant intercultural experience him/herself. Can someone train people on project management if him/herself never managed a project in the past? For me the answer is no…But this is not enough; it is just a good starting point. As I have started putting into the lines these figure called trainer, I reproduce here something I got from Pfeiffer library (I hope they do not have a problem)…”As group facilitators began to understand and implement the experiential learning model, the structured experience began to be viewed as a useful and effective vehicle for initiating awareness and change in attitudes and behavior. However, the fact remains that the skill and professionalism of the group facilitator is still the key ingredient in the success of a structured experience or, for the matter, of any training technology”…in few words, “the tool is as good as the craftsman using it”…criticizing simulations can only be for good and really really really thank you for raising my awareness; I will still though keep using simulations (adapting them, refreshing them, changing them as I feel to) while struggling to develop my qualities as a facilitator. As well, I will keep focusing more and more in the informal part of the processes during an intercultural encounter (listen actively, being participative in the “grapevine”, share experience with participants, raising questions) cause, in my opinion, this is the space where pure intercultural learning takes place…there is no best role to undertake while learning about and through cultures and diversity than being your self; if culture is something that changes (slowly or fast) then individual culture is the only framework of reference for the “actor”…and this still, might last for seconds!
    I am bombed by thoughts; so people I kindly ask you to be careful :) cause you are making people think! And this is dangerous especially when driving in the hell of traffic of Thessaloniki…I almost crashed after the first time I read your texts!
    Your comments will constitute the most valuable dimension in my cognitive universe ;)

    Respect.