Tag Archives: “Alice Kolb”

Sitting On a Porch, but not any porch

david kolb

Dave Kolb and I enjoyed the longest conversation we ever managed to conduct over the fifteen years we’ve been friends and something like, but not really exactly like, colleagues. Our shared interest is the experiential learning theory* he helped conceptualize in the late seventies. He is its principal conceptualizer over the past thirty-three years, a span that began with the publication of the cornerstone presentation of this theory, Experiential Learning, Experience As the Source of Learning and Development(revised 2015).

When Dave signed the copy of the revised edition he gave me, he named us fellow travelers. I like it. Our paths have crossed in conferences and symposia, in workshops and, especially on the softball field on Sundays in Cleveland Heights, at 10am. I encountered Dave and Alice Kolb, his wife and most essential collaborator, back in 2002 when I ventured out to thie softball field for the first time, believing at the time that I was going to assist a documentary filmmaker who wanted to make a short about the Free Play Softball League the Kolbs started as an experiment in open system and experiential learning on the old Adelbert quad.

Yet, the three hour dialog we built together this week was the longest sustained chewing session we ever attempted or accomplished. This moment was favored by dave and Alice being between book writing projects, or, otherwise freed from the usual bearing down of their research agenda. I know this from their presentation at the June conference, a presentation offloaded into a nicely organic collaborative discussion about several of their current interests.

In our dialog, after we covered sundry subjects of interest to aging men and softball teammates, we latched onto one of several subjects that interest me as an independent scholar an fellow traveler. As it turned out, this subject, where is the ongoing theory-making in experiential learning theory happening right now, had come up between Dave and Alice on their morning walk the day Dave and I settled into our chairs on his spacious front porch. After we noted that there aren’t many scholars besides the Kolbs that you can point to, we started to ideate together on shaping (just the beginning) of what the extension and further elaboration of experiential learning theory might grapple with.

This is a big subject. We touched on examples from our different interests that bend the theory-in-use a bit differently than the most secure current conception of the theory supposes is phenomenally the case. This is not a disruptive tangent to the theory because one of the enhancements of the theory would, were it to begin to be formulated, configure the theory to flex more to particular contexts. For example, my creative process does not align with the cyclical or spiral process of the current theory, rather it oscillates between concrete experience and (what I would term,) spontaneous revision, a quality of active experimentation.

We made our beginning in any case. It would be really fascinating to continue and especially to put the handful of inspired (by theory!) persons in our community or out there in the wild together, to do some chewing.

Nowadays, almost all the action in ELT is rooted to its use in consulting, pedagogical, and coaching practices. This usefulness has put evaluative and assessment tools close to the center of those activities. The biggest impact extensive new theory-making could have on current day practice would result from theorizing context-dependent, and therefor distinct differentiations according to context pressures, of the theory-in-practice. This could be given by, for example, idiographic or qualitative difference-making that is focused on particular situations and their particularities. Certainly, from the several ways I may contextualize my own practice as an experiential learning endeavor, I’m able to lightly suggest that enactive, or social cybernetic, or, negative-capable, or, neurophenomenological, or ecological, perspectives, each create different and cogent and positive pressures when these outlooks are used to describe particularities given in specific situations.

Dave and I have noted that the enactive perspective is very sharply appropriate to elaborating a bit more about the instantaneous presence involved in reacting in an embodied and learning ‘full’ way in response to being thrown a pitched ball while acting as a batter.

The triangle at the bottom of the ELT schema reflects a kind of liminal or boundary condition for holding theorization away from its being made practical. Theorizing is begun as an impractical matter.

*Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory is a theory of learning, not a theory of learning-by-doing. It would pose itself as a meta-theory of learning-by-doing were learning-by-doing ever to be rigorously theorized.

(h/t to Mai P. Trinh for first entertaining my sense that ‘where are the theorists?’ was an interesting question.)

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Filed under adult learning, experiential learning, friends, my research, psychology

Minding the Mind

My favorite (Gregory) Batesonian teaching story, reconfigured and originally via Idries Shah.

A frenchman is teaching another french rudimentary english.

“So, the word for froid crème glacée is ‘cold ice cream.’ ”

“What’s the word for chaude crème glacée?”

“Oh, they have no need for it, so there’s no word for it.”

Although I have an acute memory, I can’t recall which friend of mine did me the favor of bringing the work of Gregory Bateson to my attention. It was a long time ago. (Maybe it was Chris Irion? Pilcher?) I dug into Bateson’s Mind and Nature thirty years ago, when it was published. In another sense, it only matters as a fuzzy starting point. It was definitely in 1996 that I returned to his opus in a re-doubled effort to make some further connections. This was due to meeting my mentor and squareONE partner Judith Buerkel in 1995. During this first meeting it turned out Bateson was our mutual touchstone. Bingo!

It was only then, after a more mature effort to really deal-in, that Bateson’s understanding came to deeply inform my outlook, and to comprise a large facet in my favorite lens. The interesting nexus for this was a weird insight evoked by my trying to make coherent the weaving together of three things, the Sufi teaching story, my new (at the time) fascination with others’ theorizing about experiential learning (this via Mezirow and Kolb,) and, my revisiting Bateson (via his last book, Where Angels Fear. Toward An Epistemology of the Sacred.) About this last visitation, the bookmark stuck a third of the way through the book–when I picked it up again–marked where I had left off nine years earlier.

Judith basically told me to woodshed! Ultimately, we grappled with how to underpin our applications–what was to become the tool kit for squareONE. We spend a lot of time discussing the practical import for our work of our different Batesonian outlooks. We both thought Bateson was an adept designer; (although this is a novel sense about Bateson, who overtly was an anthropologist, psychologist, philosopher, and naturalist.)

Anyway, my insight at the time, excitedly delivered at our weekly meeting at Arabica, was this: it was apparent to me that something like Batesonian metalogues were embedded, even secreted in the structural folds of many Middle Eastern teaching stories. Judith responded: “They’re folded in everything.”

I’ve been revisiting Bateson once again over the last month. This, however, comes long after I added my experience and understanding of his understanding, (well, some of it,) to be, basically, the fundamental facet of my favored lens. By which I mean: some synergy of dynamic ideas-in-interplay make up the essential background frame for my intentional observations. Funny how lens and frame come together!

I use a ‘reduced set’ roughly taken from Bateson. Perhaps it would better to say appropriated from Bateson. I’m not a Batesonian because I’m eclectic, disorganized, not masterly, and, an ol’ hippie. Yet, in another sense, I often turn the world around to experience its different sides using my idiosyncratic (sort of) Batesonian lens.

If I assert that I’m dedicated to being a student of my environment, then in the background of this claim is this lens. You should know this to know where I’m coming from. I’ll have more to say about this soon.

I’ve recently had reason to woodshed some more and revisit the work of Gregory Bateson. I was invited to participate in a seminar at the local grad school. Stephen Nachmanovitch, author of the terrific book Free Play, musician, and student, friend, colleague of Gregory Bateson, is to give a lecture on something to do with experiential learning and play.

Getting back to one of my main people has been fantastic. The Explorations Blog is going to go on a Bateson trip for a spell. Stay tuned. I’ll wrap with a review of resources I’ve discovered out in the shed.

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Filed under adult learning, Gregory Bateson, sufism


Sometime in the spring of 2001 my colleague and professional partner Judith hipped me to an interesting project. She knew a filmmaker who was hoping to commence a project about sports and experiential learning. ‘Would I be interested in talking over the experiential learning aspects with the filmmaker?’

Sure. And so Judith waved her finger across Starbucks and a lithe red haired woman approached our table and pitched her project. She told of a Sunday pick-up softball game played on a local diamond. This game has been going on for 15 years; anybody who showed up and wanted to play could join in; it’s duration was set by a noon ending irrespective of what inning it was.

I asked Laine, the filmmaker, what she thought the experiential learning hook was for her film. She told me some more intriguing things about the game. It attracted regular players from all over and, yet, most players didn’t know each other’s last names or what people did for a living. She described really good players who didn’t mind playing with the most green and inexperienced players. Although a score was tallied, she mentioned that a lot of times many of the players didn’t know the score.

“It’s not very competitive, even if there are some intense competitors.” She told me.

I certainly was intrigued. Laine suggested I check out the game myself. After all, ‘anybody can play, no matter how bad they are!’ (I must have chuckled to myself, knowing that somewhere at home lay a thirty-plus year old Wilson outfielder’s glove.)

“Laine, how did the game come about?” Then she blew my mind with her answer.

click for large version

“A professor at Weatherhead started the game up, first on campus and then it moved to Forest Hills. His name is David Kolb.”

“The David Kolb?!”

(Yes. David A. Kolb, author of Experiential Learning. Experience As the Source of Learning and Development. How important is this book to me? It would suffice to state that Dr. Kolb’s essential work then (1984) and to this day provides a cornerstone for my understanding of our field. His contribution is, for me, equal to the other cornerstones provided by the contributions of William James, Gregory Bateson, and Jack Mezirow.)

Yup, Kolb is one of my main guys, and Laine’s invitation to check out Kolb’s pick-up softball game pleasantly shocked me. As Judith said later, ‘I just wanted to see the look on your face!’

So it went. The film never got made or even started, yet I’ve played almost every Sunday since that fateful day at Starbucks. I’ve done so in accordance with one of the game’s ‘meta’ protocols: the seasons begins on the first Sunday after tax day and the season ends sometime in November when the weather suppresses the turnout below the minimum needed to play. Ha! We’ve been known to play with a minimum of six players.
Team late 2008
That first season I planted myself in my old position, left field, and have stayed planted for seven seasons. I take the immense enjoyment I get for granted, except Dave’s wife Alice and he have collaborated on a research paper about the game and its learning ecology. Thus, last season I was invited to be interviewed–as were all the players–as part of their research. I went further, did some research of my own kind, and supplied ethnographic notes. Once I began to reflect and think about the game, about its rituals and routines, and about the way it binds participants to a shared construction of its distinctive ‘lifeworld,’ what had been taken–by me–for granted morphed into a much more fine grained regard of the complex social and developmental system that undergirded the game’s survival cum vitality for over twenty years.

The paper, Learning to play, playing to learn, A case study of a ludic playing space, (Kolb & Kolb, Journal of Organizational Change Management; 2008) incorporates and cites some excerpts from my notes. Cool beans! It’s an excellent work of qualitative and phenomenological research. The Kolbs delineate a clear case using complex evidence in support of an (also) complex hypothesis. Basically, the informality of the softball game nevertheless supports complex processes, some formal, some tacit, that in turn support learning in, as the Kolbs write, intellectual, physical, spiritual, and moral realms. Given how embedded I am as participant/observer in the very praxis the paper investigates, it’s no complaint for me to note that this game-as-exemplar could infuse a more lengthy treatment–even make for a good film!
too cold to play
I’m holding the camera, and Dave, Tom, and Jim are on their way out of the park on November 9th, evidently the last day of this year’s season, and the first day since last year’s last day when not enough people showed up to be able to field two teams.

Just like it was with left field, when Dave delegated me to make out the line-ups every Sunday, calling me from then on ‘the handicapper’, I planted myself in the role. Earlier this year, Tom, a longtime player and our oldest player (70 years young,) said to me, “How come you always put Kolb on your team?”

Well, it’s like slotting yourself in to be Chuck Yeager’s co-pilot!


(Sometime soon, I’ll have comments on another recent publication by Alice and David Kolb, The Learning Way. Meta-cognitive Aspects of Experiential Learning; <pdf> Oct.2008; Simulation Gaming)

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Filed under adult learning, experiential learning, play