Today I observed an iteration of Promises Promises, a proprietary experiential learning game created by Eagle's Flight, of Guelph, Ontario . The game was played by 60 high school students and facilitated by an experienced adult trainer. The game simulates an economy among 10 "Island Nations", wherein country teams execute trades of commodities and services in order to achieve given game goals. The game is constructed to permit an overall solution ( "that all countries shall keep assigned promises"), despite the fact that initial resources are unevenly distributed and inter-group communications are arbitrarily inhibited.
The involvement of the participants was impressive--the students were selected by their home schools for "leadership qualities"--and appeared to generate several of the game's intended insights, at least for 10 or so of the participants who shared personal reflections afterwards.
What is less clear is what learnings the game actually delivered for each of the participants.The Kolbian learning cycle, experience, reflection, conceptualization and testing, did not seem to be fully provided for in this design. The reflection was open-ended and voluntary. There was no requirement that everyone construct some meaning of the exercise, nor was there opportunity to test and refine any newly acquired insights.
The "point" of the game, as I think the facilitator saw it, was that the overall goal of any "team of teams" can be lost when a competitive rather than cooperative paradigm reigns. This was not suggested until after play ended. It's not clear how many got would have gotten to that particular realization on their own.
In the context it was presented, this was to be a leadership development activity. It may have been more of a demonstration of who the incipient leaders are. At least one member of each country team seemed to emerge as spokesman or leader early in the game action. Without a methodical, real time observation of the dynamics within each of the teams, it would be hard to say what the game activity was calling forth from each of the participants. Those who emerged as leaders here might well have been the same ones that would come forth in any other exercise. Team dynamics seemed to stabilize quickly. A brief exercise like this may persistently favor the "first movers" ( those already accustomed to assuming leadership roles) and see them persist for the balance of the game.
For this exercise to develop new leadership skills, not just demonstrate them, it might require a lot more time for recursion; for insights to be tried out in practice, and to let group dynamics further evolve. My guess is that experiential learning is still perfectly valid, under Kolb's theory as well as other constructivist views, but a reasonable application of it requires considerably more time and rigor than is typically granted in conventional training settings.