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Experiential learning for transcultural competence

At its core, experiential learning focuses on learning from experience through reflection and meaning making. In our work with adult learners, their experience can come from their lived experience at their workplaces and in their communities as well as from experiential activities in our learning sessions. In our session for the “Transcultural Cooperation & Leadership” working group, we went right into an experience with a short activity. Why don’t you try it out as well?

Our sample activity has been inspired by well-known intercultural game designer Thiagi ( who offers many more experiential activities, many of which can be done both face-to-face or online. 

You can do this by yourself, though it is more fun with a couple of friends or colleagues. Or maybe you want to try this one with your students or learners? First, decide which language you want to do this in – if done with multiple people, everyone can pick their language of choice. The task is quite simple: Just name the days of the week as fast you can – and if you do this in a group, do it all at the same time out loud (yes, it is meant to be loud and chaotic). 

Ok – that was easy, right? Let’s make it a bit more challenging in round 2. Do it again – but this time in alphabetic order. 1, 2, 3 – GO! 

What do you notice? Did it take longer or feel more difficult? Maybe a sense of “phew, this is hard”? Or maybe you are realizing that the instruction does not make sense in your language of choice? For example, if you said the days of the week in Chinese, sorting them by alphabet might make little sense and require you to first translate Chinese characters into Pinyin.

This little activity offers a chance to experience the difference between system 1 and system 2 thinking (cf. Kahneman, 2011), between automatic processing (reciting days of the week as we have done many times since childhood) and deliberate effort (sorting week days by alphabet, probably for the first time ever). What can we learn from this experience? How does this relate to intercultural interactions and relational competencies? Reflection, on our own or in a debriefing with a group of learners, offers a chance to turn experience into learning through meaning making. With this activity, we might reflect on the parallels to code switching, deepening our understanding of why it is effortful and how it can get easier the more we practice. 

Let’s have a look at the bigger picture of our session:

Before taking our learners along in any kind of learning journey, we carefully design the learning experience. This is where Stephan and Stephan’s (2013) six-step process for evidence-based design comes into play: (1) Know your target group, (2) specify your goals, (3) identify relevant theories, to (4) determine which processes you want to activate in your learners, before (5) selecting your activities, and (6) evaluating your learning intervention. In our session, we zoomed in on step 3, identifying relevant theories to understand adult learning. Many of you might be familiar with Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle which invites us to support our learners in moving from concrete experience into reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. To better understand adult development and learning, we move beyond Kolb and also consider Kegan (1982, 1994) and his theory of adult consciousness development. Kegan distinguishes five levels of adult development, at its core is the notion of adult development as a process of developing an independent sense of Self. It’s easier said than done, however, since so much of what we think, we associate with how others experience us. Kegan talks about the Subject – Object shift: moving what we ‘know’ from Subject (where it is controlling us) to Object (where we can control it). Let’s illustrate it with a seemingly simple question that is at the core of the transcultural field: Do you have culture or does culture have you?

To break it down further, Subject (“I AM”) corresponds to self-concepts we are attached to and thus cannot reflect on or take an objective look at. They include personality traits, assumptions about the way the world works, behaviors, emotions, etc. This is the case of culture having us

Object (“I HAVE”) then stands for self-concepts that we can detach ourselves from, that we can look at, reflect upon, engage, control and connect to something else. We have culture, we can engage with it on our terms

To put it into a practical perspective, think of the first step of the evidence-based design process: What stage of development is the majority of your target audience at? What would be their answer to our culture question? How many of them, do you suppose, have their culture? 

Here are the three later stages of Kegan’s model for further illustration:

In order to grow (develop) and make sense of the increasingly complex world we live in, we – and our adult learners – are constantly pushing the boundaries of the Subject – Object realm. To do so more effectively, we need to embrace and employ other ways of knowing, besides using our rational mind, the favorite tool since Enlightenment.

How do you make sense of the world? How do you know? What other ways of knowing do you employ besides rational knowing through verbal inquiry and analysis?

To explore this further, we chose a non-verbal experiential activity that opens our ways of inquiry beyond cognitive knowing and explores the intersection of affective and embodied knowing. This activity revolves around participants gazing into each others’ eyes for a prolonged period of time. This seemingly simple simulation, however, has potential to trigger feelings of discomfort and vulnerability, which participants could experience as breaching the tacit contract of the safety of the training. Its facilitation thus requires the ability to perceive the deeper layers of what is at play in this exercise. While acknowledging that this activity might be found in different sources and in different versions, we would like to thank Daniel Haeberle for initiating us into facilitating this activity. And we recommend you experience it yourself and consult it with an experienced colleague before introducing it to your adult learners.

Which brings us full-circle to experiential learning. The huge potential of learning by doing and reflecting is that it combines cognitive and affective knowing (and sometimes goes even beyond). To what degree the affective element is employed depends on the type of the experiential activity or game. The larger the potential emotional involvement of our adult learners, the larger the risk of powerful emotions, the more trust it will require, so timing is key as well. And this is where our final discussion at the end of our session brought us. Take advantage of the potential of experiential learning, use it in your training sessions, yet choose your activities wisely (and ideally experience them first-hand before you try them out on others). 

Further reading:

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: the mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning. Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2005). Learning styles and learning spaces: Enhancing experiential learning in higher education. Academy of management learning & education, 4(2), 193-212.

Stephan, W. G., & Stephan, C. W. (2013). Designing intercultural education and training programs: An evidence-based approach. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 37(3), 277-286.

Nadine Binder
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Nadine Binder is a trained Co-Active® coach and trainer specialized in intercultural competence development, intercultural communication, personal leadership & development, healthy work strategies, mental health, time- and self-management, and DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). She holds a PhD in psychology and is currently based in Northern Germany.

Jana Hollá
+ posts

Jana Hollá is a freelance cross-cultural consultant, facilitator and trainer specializing in cross-cultural competence building, diversity management, and relocation training & coaching. Her interventions explore the nature of difference, knowledge and learning as a means of developing and transforming individuals, teams and their organizations who seek to build effective and meaningful working relations across cultures and differences.

Jana has designed and facilitated learning programs for multinational audiences in some twenty countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia, both in the corporate and non-profit sectors. She recently published her first book on intercultural competence practice in study-abroad context – Us and Them. On Belonging, Difference and Cultural Adaptation. She is also a teaching fellow at the Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences, delivering courses related to Culture, Identity and Cognition.

Jana holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. A native of Slovakia, she has resided in Cairo, Egypt, since 2004.


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