Open Space 2015 – Facilitated by Adrian Underhill, Susan Barduhn, and Ros Wright

David Dodgson's picture

The first ‘Open Space’ session at the IATEFL conference was held in Harrogate in 2014 and has returned to the programme this year, ably facilitated by Susan Barduhn, Adrian Underhill and Ros Wright. Having heard about Open Space events at other conferences, I was intrigued by the concept and was keen to join for the first time. The whole idea is often explained as an ‘extended coffee break’ –those chats that take place between delegates at a conference outside the talks and that can be highly engaging and thought provoking– and Open Space aims to capture that in a collective development experience.

Open Space can also be seen as a mini conference in its own right (indeed, it has been run elsewhere as a whole day event). The topics arise from discussion between the participants, the ‘mini-plenaries’ come in the form of summaries of those discussions, and the delegates get the chance to set the agenda based on the issues that are relevant and/or important to them.
One question mark I had in my mind before entering the room was how such an event would work in practice. Surely it would need some kind of structure and moderation but how would that be managed without negating the idea of teachers driving the event forward with their own ideas? In the introduction then, I was glad to hear Adrian state dual aims – to discuss, share, and develop lines of enquiry between participants, and also to explore and analyse the concept of Open Space and think about how we might apply it in our own professional development contexts.

After an introduction, we were divided into groups of five with ten minutes allotted to brainstorming topics. Our only guideline was that each member of the group should briefly outline a topic that is important to them and then the group together would pick out two issues to relate to the entire room. There was also an option to ‘pass’ on suggesting a topic if more thinking time was needed. Immediately, common themes started to emerge and each group eventually presented two topics that in effect summed up the five different issues that had been individually suggested.

The next phase brought everyone back together, as each group explained their two choices. These were summarised by Susan on a flipchart while Adrian unpacked and clarified the wording. It was interesting to see how he did this. He asked questions and made comments in a way that made each group crystallise their idea without himself imposing anything on them. Thus, he helped a vague, general idea become something more specific and targeted. A key skill, and one he performed admirably.
With various topics presented on the chart, we were then given the chance to join the group which interested us. There were only two rules in place – first of all, no single person should dominate the discussion, and secondly there was the ‘rule of two feet’. That meant if you had a change of mind or were not happy with the direction the discussion was going, you could simply excuse yourself from the group and walk up to another one.

I spoke at length with a teacher from Spain about assessment. We quickly established a common area –experiences of preparing students for the Cambridge examinations– and began to discuss the pros and cons of using these tests and how to avoid the test being an interruption to learning. We shared our thoughts and were able to exchange some interesting ideas.
During the discussion, Adrian and Ros circulated, listening in and directing us towards producing a summary of our ideas for the final phase. With seven different discussions going on it was key to bring it all together, and it was interesting how common themes began to emerge from different groups. Time was against us but Adrian highlighted how in a whole day Open Space session, that might then provide the impetus for a new groups to form for following rounds of discussions.

It was an eye-opening first experience of this conference format for me. It certainly involved a lot more discussion and interaction than any other workshop or professional development event I have attended before. The spontaneity and energy of the conversations from a room full of people who, on the most part, did not know each other was encouraging to see.
In my own context, I could see this working as a method of running an in-house professional development day. It would especially work if there was a focus on an issue that affects every class differently such as classroom management as it would give each teacher a voice and a chance to explain what does and doesn’t work in their context. A refreshing change and an interesting complement to hearing the ideas of one expert.