Experiential Learning Activity – Shoes

The purpose of this experiential learning activity (ELA) is to demonstrate:

  1. We generally behave according to a code of conduct
  2. We tend to assume that others behave according to the same or similar code
  3. When they do not, conflict is inevitable
  4. Often, we think others are strange or even stupid
  5. The importance of understanding our own code of conduct
  6. The necessity of learning if others have the same or different code
  7. The possibility that people with different codes of conduct may actually live and work together effectively
  8. Such a way of life requires collaboration

This ELA works best with a sample group between 9 and 15 participants. If your population group is larger, you can randomly choose 15 individuals to participate. Give each of the 9–15 participants a set of instructions. There are three sets. Make sure that the three sets of instructions are handed to 3–5 people per set. Participants see you handing instructions to each person, but do not know there are three different sets and consequently three different “hidden” sub-groups. Here are the three sets of instructions:

Configure, arrange, and locate the shoes
  1. The activity begins when you read these instructions. You may not verbally speak with any of the other participants during the activity. Remove yours shoes and place them in the middle of the room. Once all the shoes from the participants are placed in the middle of the room, your task is to configure them in a circle anywhere in the room.
  2. The activity begins when you read these instructions. You may not verbally speak with any of the other participants during the activity. Remove yours shoes and place them in the middle of the room. Once all the shoes from the participants are placed in the middle of the room, your task is to arrange them from smallest to largest anywhere in the room.
  3. The activity begins when you read these instructions. You may not verbally speak with any of the other participants during the activity. Remove yours shoes and place them in the middle of the room. Once all the shoes from the participants are placed in the middle of the room, your task is to locate all of them adjacent to the facilitator’s table.

At first each individual will likely assume that others received the same instructions. Then, it appears that the instructions are in conflict. The task of Sub-group 1 relates to CONFIGURATION (arrangement and location are immaterial). Sub-group 2 relates to ARRANGEMENT (configuration and location do not matter). Sub-group 3 relates to LOCATION (configuration and arrangement can be anything).

How to facilitate the ELA? There is no timeframe. During the activity say, “Please make sure to tell me when you feel every person has accomplished the task.” Also, “If one person does not agree with the result, the activity is not over. You need to find consensus.” It can be helpful to ask for one or two observers (apart from the 9–15 participants) before the ELA begins. They receive pen and paper, walk around the room, observe silently, and write down facts, body gestures, strategies, and anything interesting that caught their attention. It can be helpful to have the observers speak first in the debrief.

What to do in a debrief? Note how the questions below follow the sequence of David Kolb’s Circle of Experiential Learning.

  • What happened? What did you do? What were others doing?
  • How did you feel?
  • When did you realize there were others with similar instructions? How did you feel when you “found” those people?
  • When did you realize there were others with dissimilar instructions? How did you feel about those who were different?
  • How many sets were there?
  • What were the three sets of instructions?
  • What problems ensued?
  • Who was the first to recognize that the sets of instructions could actually work together?
  • What were the steps that resolved the seeming conflict?
  • Who took what roles? Leader, helper, and observer? How does this compare to daily life?
  • How did not being able to speak compound the challenge? How does this relate to a cross-cultural setting?
  • What is the problem of assuming that others were following similar instructions? In what ways do we do this as we travel and work internationally?
  • How many aspects of “culture shock” did you experience when faced with dissimilarity?
  • How does rigidity versus flexibility impact how you respond to others who are different?
  • To what degree did you sense a motivation to participate in the first place and continue when conflict was manifested?
  • How did you refine your strategy?
  • How did you adapt your actual behavior?
Natalia Sarro

Natalia Sarro and I facilitated this ELA (El Juego de los Zapatos) in Buenos Aires, Argentina with the members of SIETAR, Argentina. They did great. Quite easily and quickly they adjusted and harmonized the instructions. Elena Steiner and I have facilitated this ELA in the USA among professional coaches and trainers. They had a much more difficult time collaborating. Why do you think this may be true?

Have you facilitated this or a similar ELA involving shoes in the Middle East or Asia where shoes, feet, and legs have strong connotative meanings in cultures? Valli Murphy, the Coordinator of SIETAR USA Local Groups, recently asked me about this.

If you use this ELA in a cross-cultural training session and find it beneficial, let us know at Global Perspectives Consulting.

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