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.
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!
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)