Experiential Learning of the Embodied Kind

Margarita Steinberg, 29 June 2018


‘Meet the technology’: workshop participants practicing the lead-and-follow interface used as a starting point for learning this Experiential Learning format


The approach introduced at this workshop uses physical movement, in connection with a partner, to model interaction dynamics, whether of situations in the workplace, elements of a discipline, and beyond.

Because the format is inherently relational, its value is best demonstrated when applied to specific “back home” challenges.  The format fosters a nuanced exploration of complex situations and systems, and focuses on “what could be” rather than “how ought it to be” (the last tends to engage our expectations, whereas the first keeps us focused on discovering).

What complex situations or challenges are on your plate right now?

Which aspects of that would you welcome having a new way of exploring?

The stimulus for devising the format arose when students at my Argentine Tango classes started to use parallels with the lead-and-follow dynamics in dancing Tango improvisationally for discussing challenges in other areas of their life and studies.


The ground of this work: integrating multiple intelligences

The work of philosopher Ken Wilber has attempted to integrate the learning that our civilisation has achieved to date, and has resulted in a call to engage more of our intelligences (Wilber refers to them as ‘lines of development’). As a culture, we are familiar with the concept of IQ, which posits intelligence as the skill of rational thought. Alongside that, we as a culture are slowly growing more familiar with the notion of EQ – also referred to as Emotional Intelligence. What is perhaps less widely known, is that further ‘intelligences’ have been identified as essential for the thriving of humans, individually and as communities. Lists of ‘intelligences’ that have been identified vary, so I’ll quote one as an example:

  • Logical / mathematical
  • Verbal / linguistic
  • Musical / rhythmic
  • Bodily / kinaesthetic
  • Intrapersonal
  • Interpersonal
  • Existentialist
  • Visual / spatial
  • Naturalist



What are the implications for education?

The tradition of education that we inherit has historically prioritised logical thought and verbal/linguistic skills. Socratic Questioning sought to elucidate our understanding using rational thought as the primary tool. This preoccupation may have resulted in a partial view of the task of education, and in our tradition of education having developed very competent ways of training and enhancing those skills and having overlooked other lines of development.


So as educators, how do we support integrated development of a broader range of intelligences, in ourselves as well as in those we guide? How do we promote actively involving multiple intelligences in how we approach our lives and our work? How do we cultivate a more integrated approach to subjects, to interdisciplinary endeavours, and to teaching? This workshop presents one approach exploring what might be possible.


The goal of the workshops

The approach presented in this workshop seeks to move away from a focus on declarative knowledge (which is readily available in the modern environment) and on right-or-wrong answers (which are insufficient for negotiating complex challenges with an emphasis on needing to generate new solutions), and towards promoting deep learning resulting in functional knowledge (using a distinction formulated by Biggs).


Where could this work be relevant?

Research by Cassel and Kolstad found that by the year 2000 the top skills demanded by U.S. Fortune 500 companies had shifted from traditional reading, writing and arithmetic to teamwork, problem solving, and interpersonal skills. [1]

Since the format presents an approach to investigating the intrapersonal, interpersonal and system properties of a situation, and potentialities of sit


The format draws on the power of metaphorical modelling to investigate any situations with an interactive dynamic. This can be interactions between tutors and students, within groups and teams, larger-scale configurations at organisational level, and more abstracted notions, such as the relationship between a company and its founder (on which more later).


The workshop introduced the lead-and-follow format which evolved out of an approach I have used for teaching improvisation to students of Argentine Tango.

Once participants have acquired familiarity with the format through direct personal experience, and through discussing it with their partner, the sequence of activities was then intended to build up to participants devising an experiment-in-movement related to their own contexts, in line with Active Learning good practice.

Work using this format could, in principle, engage most of the intelligences listed in the example quoted above, perhaps with the exception of existentialist and naturalist.


The format: embodied cognition


The format presented involves a type of embodied cognition. Briefly, one type of embodied cognition can use physical representations of what is being thought about (an example of this might be chess, where the figures and the field represent two warring states and the terrain of battle). In contrast, this format uses the participants’ bodies and movements to metaphorically represent the characteristics of a specific situation, in order to explore its dynamic properties and options for action.

The initial experience with the format is set up to pair two people who are connected by a point of contact. This workshop used as the starting point a configuration where the fingertips of one partner rest lightly on the back of the hand of the other partner (this is based on a practice in Eastern martial arts sometimes referred to as ‘Butterfly Lead’, designed to train sensitivity and responsiveness).

The paired partners were asked to move in co-ordination with each other, with the collaboration mediated via the physical point of contact, with one partner taking the lead and the other prioritising ‘following’. The partners then swapped roles, so that each experienced both roles within the partnership.

The complex dynamics of the lead-and-follow that the participants experienced in this first encounter with the format provided the material for discussion and reflection, which established a foundation for further explorations later.

In addition, operating in a dynamic environment where each pair in the room moved in unpredictable ways brought additional challenges. Unfortunately, the time constraints of this workshop did not allow for exploring to any great extent the dynamics of this larger system in the room.

The rhythm of work: doing and reflecting

Active learning engages students in two aspects – doing things and thinking about the things they are doing. [2]

Numerous studies have shown that introducing active learning activities (such as simulations, games, contrasting cases, labs,..) before, rather than after lectures or readings, results in deeper learning, understanding, and transfer. [2]


David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model (ELM) elaborates on this, stipulating a sequence where experience provides material for reflection, and the ensuing conceptualisation feeds into subsequent active experimentation. [3]

Reflecting this, each activity used the pattern of doing (incorporating a new element each time) and ‘reflection on doing’ in small groups, occasionally brought together in a plenary discussion.

Up the Bloom’s taxonomy

The activities that the participants were guided through followed a sequence that could be mapped using the revised Bloom taxonomy stages as:

Understanding -> Applying -> Analysing -> Creating -> Creating -> Applying -> Analysing -> Creating

(The sequence was condensed due to time constrains, relying on the assumption that the conference delegates as experienced educators would be capable of skipping over a stage here and there).

Correspondingly, after a demonstration and a first practice applying the concept in groups of two, a brief analysis of the system as two autonomous agents and an interface/connection point was offered.



The participants then worked in groups of 3 to generate up to 20 configurations of connection. Some prompts were offered in the accompanying worksheet (see the handout at the end of this post), to stimulate further investigations, once the initial ideas from the group had been explored. This activity was added following a previous workshop where participants used only the configurations demonstrated by the workshop lead in their designs for experiments, so an alternative approach that would ‘warm up’ participants’ creative thinking was chosen. The plenary discussion at the end of this segment of the workshop revealed much more adventurous ideas from the participants, compared to the previous iteration.

One memorable option involved a prop to provide a ‘mediated contact’ interface (e.g. using a paper cup pressed between the palms of each partner in a pair), a solution that could deal with the challenge of working with participants for whom direct skin contact would present difficulties. The same configuration could alternatively represent something of value in a situation being modelled, something that would be jeopardised if the connection were disrupted.



The workshop culminated in participants collaborating in small groups on designing a scenario expressed in movement that would model a situation of each group’s choosing. The groups then ran their experiment, and explored options for operating within their chosen parameters (a worksheet supported the groups in considering some categories for responding dynamically as their ‘situation’ evolved, see the hand-out at the end of this post).

The conclusion to the process would be to ‘translate’ back into action in terms of the situation being modelled the options discovered through the embodied exploration.

While this completed one cycle of getting familiar with the idiom and achieving some mastery in using it, there was unfortunately insufficient time to hold a further discussion of how educators could formulate activities to be used in their own teaching.


Challenges and solutions

In considering how the workshop participants might use this format in their own contexts, there was concern raised that people with cultural or personal discomfort around body contact may have difficulties engaging with this format. This point was reinforced when I found out, after the workshop had concluded, that the cause for one participant making a hasty exit immediately after the initial activity ended had been his discomfort with proximity and physical contact with a colleague. The option to observe rather than participate had been pointed out at the start; however, this may not be sufficient to resolve all the concerns of potential participants.

Future versions of the workshop will therefore explicitly offer alternatives to the ‘Butterfly lead’ configuration from the start, perhaps using the ‘mediated contact’ design that one group at this workshop explored, or a palms-at-a-distance configuration (this does result in a reduced amount of information being shared by the partners, so would represent a compromise).


Future Workshops

Two directions for further development are apparent at the moment:

1)           Further enhancing the process of offering this format, or its future evolutions, as a resource for colleagues to use and adapt to their contexts, and pursuing any collaborative projects that may emerge from that. Setting out to model larger complex systems would be of particular interest.

2)          Developing a programme applying this format to one of my own specialisms: leadership and organisational development. The intended programme currently carries the working title ‘Experience Leadership’


Participants’ Experiences

  • One participant I spoke to after the workshop described her experience as ‘visceral’, which suggests that it had succeeded in engaging a complex mix of her faculties.
  • Another participant spoke of her apprehension at the start of the workshop, which resolved into excitement at engaging in a new approach to learning.
  • Steve Cayzer’s blog post on his experiences at the Conference includes a paragraph describing his take on the workshop. He noted the intriguing effect of directing participants to devote more attention to the conditions in the room:


  • One discussion at the end of the conference queried what the limitations of the format might be. My own stance is that the format can be viewed as a creative medium, in which case it is more fruitful rather to explore how the format can adapt to serve a variety of needs, and what further options can be generated using it.


A follow-up

As a follow-up, I used the format, soon after the conference, for a discussion with a coaching client, a CIC founder, around the dynamics of his leading his company. Here are his reflections on the experience:

“I found the Tango-based Embodied Learning format enabled me to envision my relationship with my company in a new way. Where vocabulary can be limiting when it comes to expressing feeling, with this I was able to express the feeling physically, which offered a more illuminating analysis. It worked because I felt I was reliving the experiences and emotions I’d recently had with my business and was able to relay them in a very real way.

I learned to a deeper level the extent to which I think I’ve been strangulating my business by slightly maniacally trying to control it. This was reflected in the strong and firm grip I had on my partner, and the brisk movement that ensued in a ragged manner. I was also able to learn more about the relationship I’d prefer to have with my company: one that allows it more freedom and can develop in a more organic way, with space to explore at a regular pace. This has told me I would benefit from focussing on a more relaxed approach to my work.”


Invitation to collaborate

The creative solutions that participants have generated to date, even within the restrictions of a one-hour workshop, have been illuminating for me, so I continue to remain interested in exploring the possibilities of this format further. I would welcome any enquiries or ideas for potential collaborations.


About the author

Margarita is a regular participant at the Active Learning Network events on the University of Sussex campus, and has run a previous version of this workshop for the campus network.

Margarita is a qualified Psychosynthesis Leadership Coach.

Email Margarita at M.A.Steinberg@sussex.ac.uk

With thanks to Stuart Robinson for the photography used in this blog


I’d like to thank Maria Kukhareva and Kathryn Hunwick at the University of Bedfordshire, for their collaboration in developing this work.

My thanks also to Wendy Garnham and Tab Betts at the University of Sussex for their interest and support of this approach, and for organising the Active Learning Conference.



[1 ] Deep learning

[2 ] Active learning

[3 ] Experiential learning

Margarita has kindly provided a handout to accompany this blogpost- it can be found on our resources page.





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