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Open Space Technology – does it really work?

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  • duncanfoord
    OST is an alternative or perhaps complementary way to rrganise a conference for teachers. What do people think of the idea? There is an OST event at IATEFL
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 2, 2010
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      OST is an alternative or perhaps complementary way to rrganise a conference for teachers. What do people think of the idea? There is an OST event at IATEFL this year. Our OST event in Barcelona has been postponed as there wasn't enough interest. Will there be in the future do you think? What are your experiences of traditional conferences as scenarios for teacher development? Below is Andreja's article on OST from the current TD SIG Newsletter. It would be great to hear the group's thoughts on the issues raised in the article.

      Open Space Technology – does it really work?

      Andreja Hazabent Habe, Slovenia

      It seems that one of the emerging "fashion items" in the field of ELT conferences, especially in the TD SIG, is Open Space Technology (OST). If you haven't been part of one, you have at least heard of it. It's spreading its wings with the aim to brighten up conferences, to give the participants their word, to get new perspectives on various topics, etc. The motives are numerous, but the end result is the same; people participating in conferences, seminars or any other forms of professional gatherings are gaining greater importance in the event.

      So what is so magical about OST that it dazzled us so strongly?

      OST is a way of summoning people and giving them the opportunity to discuss issues they feel passionate about and are hence ready to go deeper with similarly interested people. Participants themselves create their own agenda in parallel sessions working around a central theme.

      "Technology" stands for a "tool" – a process or a method – which gives participants the space they need to develop their ideas, confront their opinions, find new solutions and move forward.

      OST has been widely used by companies, primarily when the topics to be discussed are too broad or too complex to be dealt only amongst the "heads". In situations such as this, wider and various perspectives are needed in order to come to advanced and common outcomes. It is believed that OST works best where conflict is present, things are complex, where there is huge diversity of players and the answer was needed yesterday.

      How does it work?

      In Open Space there is usually a facilitator who explains the process and announces the general topic and then invites participants to contribute issues, topics they feel the need to discuss. Participants who propose a topic are also the "hosts" of their own discussion groups. Discussions are held at given times and in designated areas or special rooms. People choose the topic they are interested in, summon at provided places, where the host opens the floor by explaining the proposed issue in more detail. The discussion is opened. Afterwards, the host or the whole group provides a written output (in any form; hard copy, blog, video, etc.) of what was discussed or list possible outcomes of the discussion for everyone not involved in that topic to get an insight.

      Such discussions can last for a few hours or even for days. There can even be an entire conference organised with no prepared plenary speakers or workshops, but it is solely up to the participants to create their own space of interest, work and passion. It can involve from only 5 to more than 2000 people. No one and everyone is in control. Hence it may seem chaotic, but extremely productive and fun.

      There is only one basic rule in the whole process, which is "The Law of Two Feet". This law gives every participant the possibility to walk out of a conversion that they no longer feel its right for them or the group without "I'm terribly sorry" or "I really would like to stay, but…" or any other possible guilt-formulations we might use otherwise. However, when doing this for the first time, you feel really weird and that enrooted guilt-feeling is very much present. But once you see others walking in and out of discussions without uttering any excuse you quickly adopt it as an acceptable behaviour in the given context… and you loosen up!

      Maybe OST is also an opportunity for us as individuals to place personal wishes, interests and goals above the group ones, and, paradoxically, by doing so contributing even more to the group goals.
      OST is a space where every one can be a complete egoist as well as the most valid team contributor.

      Following the core principle of OST, there are four key rules:
      1. Whoever comes is the right people.
      2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
      3. Whenever it starts is the right time.
      4. When it is over it is over.

      Reading all that, it seems that anything is possible. Discussions can go in any direction the participants want them to go, the topic may even change in the process, groups may fall apart, etc. It is really a free space to do and say nearly everything.

      Can it really work?

      But can people handle so much freedom? The process of socializations constantly presents new codes of acceptable behaviour, which every responsible human being should follow to some extent. They become part of who we are. And into this notion of acceptable behaviour comes the idea of Open Space Technology. The method which breaks away with (it seems) some of the most basic "polite" behaviour patterns. Walking out on people in the middle of a sentence, joining a formed group without any explanation and even more so, contributing views as an equal member of the group after three minutes of listening, etc. It is awkward and challenging for most of the people I've experienced participating in OST. It seems like everyone needs the "silent period of a foreign language" and when they pass that stage, the world of endless possibilities opens up.

      When the new code of behaviour becomes acceptable for every individual in the process, the real open space idea can start. And when it starts, no one can predict where it will end. And here lies the beauty of it all.

      After everything I experienced to far, I strongly believe that being given all the space you can have and all the freedom to talk about anything you want, does not only give people control, but, far more importantly, it gives people responsibility to get involved, get activated and get something done. So, in short, to me, Open Space Technology helps people make a small, but yet an enormous step from thinking to acting.

      Everything about Open Space Technology looks simple, it is performed simply, it is simple and yet, it carries the notion of being so complex that hardly anyone can properly do it.

      When I first started working on OST, I was taught by somebody who was really keen on the idea of introducing it into our trainings (leadership trainings) and was even keener to do it right. The training team played by the book the first year and got mixed feelings about the whole process of OST. The next year, our `teacher' was not part of our training, so we started modifying some prescribed elements of the original OST. Instead of leaving all the space to the participants, we decided to include a topic of two according to our needs and desired outcomes. We presented the participants a more concrete general topic, to make it easier for them to think in the given realms. Our participants were young adults (in their 20s) and by giving them a few more guided topics, they started thinking more easily and even more creatively.

      Of course the "teacher" of OST came to see how we were doing, but to my surprise he was really unhappy about what we "had done to OST". We were told that was not OST anymore. He even suggested that we couldn't call it like that any longer, because apparently it was not how it is supposed to be done. So we called it the Marketplace, and the next year `Coffee-to-go', and we didn't run out of creative names for another few years. But every time we (the trainers) were actually only giving participants the open space to discuss burning issues freely. We adapted it every year considering the general characteristics, backgrounds and needs of the participants.

      And isn't this what Open Space Technology is all about? And isn't this just like any other tool that we take, adapt to our own needs and then use just as efficiently (or even more so)?

      I guess my aim is to bring OST closer to its users, who are the creators of the whole process. The process in which everyone can present their ideas, views and opinions without feeling unwanted or unneeded. And at the end feel good about it – whatever the outcome.

      So the next time you decide to participate in such and event (and there will be two in 2010 – the first in Barcelona in February and the second at the TD SIG Pre-conference event in Harrogate) do come for a professional chat and maybe something great will come out of it.

      Andreja Hazabent Habe studied English and German at the Faculty of Arts in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Her love for teaching was detected already in her scouting years, but her professional growth started with preparing students for Cambridge certificates and continued at a primary school. She was a speaker at the Liverpool and Cardiff conference and was a member of the executive board in IATEFL Slovenia for three years. She will be facilitating the OST event at the TD Pre-Conference Event in Harrogate in 2010.

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