D as Diagramming: Challenge as Opportunity

Oliver Ding
Published in
10 min readOct 6, 2021


To be, or not to be…Building a community for Epistemic Development or not?

This post is part of the D as Diagramming project which aims to explore the power of diagrams and diagramming. Today I’d like to share a story about making decisions and turning a challenge into an opportunity.

In 2018, I made the above diagram which is part of a plan of building a community of inquiry about epistemic development. However, I didn’t act to build such a community but accepted another challenge later.

@Daiana Zavate, this article is inspired by your post on Linkedin. Thank you very much!

A Reflective Practitioner

As a serial creator and a lifelong thinker, I am passionate about intellectual development and life reflection. Initially, I was influenced by Chris Argyris’ Action Science and Donald Schön’s Theory in Practice and The Reflective Practitioner. In 2014, I started learning Ecological Psychology, Activity Theory, and other theoretical approaches.

I wrote my first learning autobiography in 2015 and was attracted to biographical studies. In 2016, I developed a framework called Career Landscape which is inspired by Activity Theory, Communities of Practice, and other ideas. I also developed a series of tools such as the Learning Autobiography Guide, Learning & Reflective Cards, Learning & Reflective Canvas, Learning & Reflective Monthly Report Template, etc.

However, these methods and tools were not adopted by others. So, I stopped making such tools and focused on my own journey of intellectual discovery. At the end of 2017, I wrote a series of articles on the relationship between Knowledge and Personal Development and developed a framework called the Dynamic System of Personal Knowing.

In June 2018, I was thinking about a typical question of middle crisis:

What should I do with the rest of my life?

I focused on the side project about intellectual development and life reflection. It was clear that this is one of my life enterprises because I had worked on it for several years without any pay. If a person can do a thing for many years without any pay, the thing definitely is his passion.

The next question is not about life’s meaning, but techniques.

A Deep Review

I realized that I didn’t adopt academic resources for the project. Though I quoted many theories about knowledge and development in 2017, I didn’t check the status of Personal Knowing from the perspective of academic research.

In June 2018, I did a rough literature review about personal knowing and found there is an established discipline called Personal Epistemology or Epistemic Cognition.

I realized there is a Hamburger of personal knowing! Thus, I designed a diagram below.

At the top of the Hamburger, there is a branch of philosophy: epistemology. Also, a related discipline is the Philosophy of Science.

At the bottom of the Hamburger, there is a real daily life world. I pointed out two keywords: Narrative and Action. These two keywords refer to two approaches: the narrative approach is about biographical studies while the action science approach refers to Chris Argyris’ Action Science and Donald Schön’s Theory in Practice and The Reflective Practitioner.

In the middle of the Hamburger, there are several areas. One layer is about academic professional research themes such as Metacognition, Epistemic Cognition, and Conceptual Change. These themes belong to different disciplines and different theoretical research traditions. For example, Metacognition is part of cognitive psychology. Epistemic Cognition belongs to educational studies. The term Conceptual Change is only used by North American scholars.

In order to connect academic research and the daily life world, I coined the term Epistemic Development and used it to replace my old terms such as intellectual development and life reflection.

Finally, I found my position on a large map.

A Plan for Building a Community of Inquiry

The reflection led to a plan of building a community of inquiry about Epistemic Development. I thought I could connect to others who are passionate about intellectual development too.

I have built several Communities of Practice before 2018. Both Communities of Inquiry and Communities of Practice are communities for social learning. However, a major difference between them is that the former focuses on intellectual development while the latter emphasizes practice-centered learning.

Due to my previous experience, I was not sure if I could find enough people to build the community for pure intellectual development since most people are busy with their daily life work and family activities.

A Life Challenge

Then I met a significant challenge in my life. I had to choose between two things:

  1. Build a community of inquiry about Epistemic Development
  2. Keep on the journey of personal intellectual discovery

Later, I decided to stay with the second option.


I had many years of experience in building communities. I found several non-profit communities with friends. I thought the first option is not a big challenge for me. However, I thought that my personal intellectual journey in connecting theory and practice is just beginning. I should take one more step.

To be honest, I didn’t make a clear decision in one day. I just didn’t act on the first option and its plan.

An Intellectual Challenge

After three months, I and my colleagues returned to the BagTheWeb project which is one of our old projects, and did something with it. The work was just a quick review. We soon returned to the working project.

However, this experience inspired me to reflect on the BagTheWeb project with theories. I started learning Ecological Psychology, Activity Theory, and other theories around 2014. I thought that I need to conduct at least one empirical study with these theories in order to improve my intellectual development. I just thought this is the “one more step”.

Then, I applied Activity Theory to reflect on the BagTheWeb project. The project is about content curation. So I developed a framework for discussing the Curation Activity. However, the result is not ideal. First, there was someone who had applied Activity Theory to study curation activity. Second, my framework didn’t totally match Activity Theory. Third, it was not a big challenge for me.

Thus, I moved to Ecological Psychology and tried it again. However, there were no existing frameworks for applying Ecological Psychology to empirical research. Then, I just developed a brand new one for myself.

Why did I decide to do it?

Because I knew some creators tend to make tools for themselves and some creations are originally internal tools. I accepted the challenge as an opportunity.

From Sept 2018 to March 2019, I wrote a 615-page book titled Curativity: The Ecological Approach to Curatorial Practice and developed a new theory about general curation practice. The theory built a brand new ontology called “Whole, Piece and Part” and adopted James Gibson’s “Affordance”, George Lakoff’s “Container” and Donald Schön’s “Reflection” as epistemological tools. Originally, I called the framework the “Gibson — Lakoff — Schön” solution. Later, I renamed it the Ecological Practice approach.

The Ecological Practice approach is a by-product of writing Curativity. After March 2019, I continuously worked on revising Curativity and developing the Ecological Practice Approach as a new project.

Now, I realize that I made a significant decision in my life in 2018. If I didn’t keep on the journey of personal intellectual discovery, if I didn’t take the intellectual challenge of trying ecological psychology, then the Ecological Practice approach wouldn’t be born.

Challenge as Opportunity

In Dec 2019, I had a discussion with a friend about her career development. In order to share my insights from the perspective of the Ecological Practice approach and Curativity Theory, I made a document titled Life Curation.

One part of the Life Curation framework is the “Challenge — Response” module. By curating some theories, I identified three types of challenges. See the diagram below.

The Existing Challenges are about keeping life balance. I adopted Ellen Skinner and Kathleen Edge’s motivational model of Context, Self, Action, and Outcomes (2002) as a resource. I defined the Positive Existing Challenges as the actions which respond to aggressive tasks while the Negative Existing Challenges as the actions which respond to defensive tasks. The Positive Existing Challenges refer to Engagement which is a concept of Skinner and Edge’s model. The Negative Existing Challenges refer to Coping.

The concept of Incongruity is the core of an action theoretical approach which was developed by Matthias Rauterberg in 1999. According to Rauterberg, the difference between the complexity of the mental model (MC) and the complexity of the external context (EC) is called incongruity: IC = EC -MC. There are two types of incongruity: Positive Incongruity and Negative Incongruity. For Rauterberg, only positive incongruity leads to learning.

Based on the approach, I defined two types of Learning Challenges. The Positive Challenges refer to actions that respond to positive incongruity (understanding the complexity of the situation) while the Negative Challenges refer to actions that respond to negative incongruity (transforming the complexity of ability). Based on my own experience, I thought the negative incongruity could lead to learning too. However, it refers to transforming the complexity of ability. For example, an expert faces a negative incongruity if the complexity of a situation is lower than the complexity of his mental model. However, if he wants to teach others how to cope with the same type of situation, he needs to learn communicative skills in order to reduce the complexity of the ability for others to learn. My suggestion expanded Rauterberg’s model from an individual perspective to an interpersonal perspective.

The Possible challenges are inspired by Hazel Rose Markus’ Possible Selves Theory (1986). The Positive Possible Challenges refer to actions responding to positive selves (like-to-be selves). The Negative Possible Challenges refer to actions responding to negative selves (like-to-avoid selves).

Now, let’s apply this framework to my decisions in 2018. First, let’s have look at the two options:

  1. Building a community of inquiry about Epistemic Development
  2. Keep on the journey of personal intellectual discovery

Both the above two options are not Negative Existing Challenges because they are not things given to me by others. They are not Positive Existing Challenges too because they are not related to my daily life work. Both options are Positive and Possible Challenges because they refer to like-to-be selves. However, I chose one possible self from these two options. I rejected challenge 1 because I had run several communities. I accepted challenge 2 because I wanted to be an expert in theory-based reflection.

Second, let’s review the process of writing the book Curativity:

  1. Apply Activity Theory to general curation practice.
  2. Develop an ecological approach and apply it to general curation practice.

Both challenges are Learning Challenges. For this case, the external context refers to general curation practice while the mental model refers to my understanding of theoretical approaches. There is no incongruity for challenge 1 because I knew both sides. That was the reason that I thought challenge 1 was not enough for me. Challenge 2 is a Positive Learning Challenge because there was a positive incongruity. I didn’t have a clear mental model of the ecological approach. Thus, the complexity of the mental model is lower than the complexity of the external context. This led to learning.

Also, both challenges can be considered as Positive Possible Challenges. Challenge 1 could lead to the developmental direction of becoming an expert in Activity Theory while challenge 2 refers to the direction of the ecological approach. Since Activity Theory is an established theoretical tradition, I chose the ecological approach because there are no established frameworks and that meant a creative space. This is a radical exploratory strategy.

However, I returned to Activity Theory and worked on the Activity U project in 2020.


Because I wanted to make a balance between exploration and exploitation.

Also, I realized that the complexity of my mental model in 2020 was higher than it was in 2018. Thus, I found that my understanding of Activity Theory was not deep enough. I needed to re-explore it.

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Oliver Ding

Founder of CALL(Creative Action Learning Lab), information architect, knowledge curator.