Last week I was the closing keynote at NEIT 2008, the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS) Education and Information Technology conference. It was an “unconference” and used a structure called “Open Space” to plan and manage the meetings. Other than the two keynote “anchors”, there were no planned sessions.
Open Space Technology is “a simple way to run productive meetings, for five to 2000+ people, and a powerful way to lead any kind of organization, in everyday practice and extraordinary change.”
At NAIS 2008, I found it very successful, and at the same time, a powerful metaphor for learning.
At the beginning of the conference, everyone is free to step up and propose any session they want. Not just ones they want to present, but anything they want to know more about. And then as these suggestions begin to fill the slots, more ideas come forward. After a few sessions, you have another meeting and fill more slots, propose more ideas. (More about how this works)
When it started, it seemed like there were way too many open spots and not enough ideas. People worried that voting would help sort out what to do, that their ideas wouldn’t be popular, that they would miss things, or that we would run out of ideas. But as we heard the Open Space Four Principles and One Law it started to make more sense:
- Whoever comes is the right people
- Whenever it starts is the right time
- Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
- When it’s over, it’s over
The one law is The Law of Two Feet, meaning, if you want to be somewhere else, do it – just don’t waste the time.
How it worked
Sure enough, most sessions had enough people. Part of the success was due to the facility having many small rooms, enough to accommodate all the proposed sessions. Some had projectors, some didn’t but it all worked out. When we re-gathered for the next planning sessions, people were energized, more sessions were proposed, people decided to continue or repeat a session, and slowly the open slots were filled
I’ve been to other unconferences, and this one was different. Because there was no voting, there was no competitive element and no hidden message that only the most popular ideas or people are important. While I understand that often the physical space is a limitation, I think there must be ways to acknowledge that everyone can contribute.
As I went to various sessions, people were passionate and focused. It’s the first conference in years where I went to every session and wished there were more. Lots of people said the same thing. You know when you go to a conference and the best part is the conversation in the hall? This was all hall.
The kids in the room are the right kids
But really, isn’t this what we hope for classrooms, especially project-based learning environments? Sometimes it’s hard to explain project-based learning. It’s hard to convince others that it actually works, because it’s hard to “see” the learning when the teaching is not continuous direct instruction. You have to trust the process, design situations that will engage students, and then give students time to become immersed in them. You have to trust the students and allow them to take risks, make mistakes, overcome frustrations and work through momentary distractions. You have to believe that your kids are the right kids, that you are the right teacher, and that when it all works, it will be magic.
I took a risk too, I didn’t prepare my keynote presentation until the night before. I felt I wanted to honor the process and trust that the experience of the conference would provide support for my topic of leadership vision to action, especially student leadership. And it did. I liked what I came up with, and the audience seemed to as well. It was videotaped, but apparently only the audio worked. Oh well!
I knew I wasn’t going THAT far out on a limb; I have enough videos and examples that I can pull together fairly quickly. But the theme of trusting the process and the participants ended up providing the perfect context.
Your kids are the right kids, you are the right teacher, and now is the right time. Trust them, trust yourself, trust the process. Now let’s get busy.