Recently I attended the combined Teacher Development / Leadership and Management Special Interest Group (LAMSIG) annual “conference” in Brighton. It was the first time I had attended a LAMSIG event and, the first time I’d experienced Open Space Technology (OST). When I first looked at the programme, I was a little sceptical but also intrigued about the inclusion of so many Open Space sessions in the programme. I had heard mixed stories about the effectiveness of OST.
However, after experiencing my first OST session, I was a fan! And I know I wasn’t alone in being impressed with the use of OST at the event. So why did it work so well?
One of the most important factors was how the sessions were set up. Adrian Underhill masterfully talked us through the objectives of Open Space Technology in a way that made the sessions seem both intriguing but unthreatening. He likened OST to coffee breaks in a conventional conference and argued that it is during coffee breaks when the “burning issues” which really concern conference participants are talked about. The idea of OST is to allow these issues to be explored by providing the means required: space, time and people with similar concerns.
Another important factor in the success of the sessions was the fact that the event was attended by like-minded people from similar contexts with related issues and problems. This was not coincidental. The event was a joint venture involving two Special Interest Groups (SIG); the Teacher Development SIG and the Leadership and Management SIG. And the conference theme: Developing Teachers in Developing Schools attracted a combination of mainly DoSes, other managers and teacher trainers all interested in development issues.
The order of the different sessions during the event was significant. The programmed speaker sessions were held before the OST sessions and helped to get everybody thinking about related issues. These sessions were thought provoking and helped to give rise to the “burning questions” which became the focus of the OST sessions.
At the beginning of the OST sessions participants were invited to propose a burning question by writing the question on a post-it. Similar questions were grouped together and participants were asked by a show of hands to choose the question they would like to talk about. If there was no interest in a question, no group was formed, if there were just two or three people interested, the group could form or not depending on whether the participants wanted to form a small group. A time limit was set for the discussion of approximately 50 minutes and the only request was that someone in each group volunteer to take notes.
Adrian Underhill explained the only rule, the rule of two feet. If you are not contributing or getting anything out of the session, use your two feet to find a session which is of more interest to you. There were no other rules, no hierarchy, no fixed structure, you could contribute if you wanted or just listen which meant that there was no pressure on any participant.
Another factor which influenced the success of the sessions was the size of the conference. There were approximately 70 participants which was a very manageable number for this type of activity. I wonder how effective OST would be in events with more participants.
The only area which I would tentatively suggest could have been different was the time and space allocated for feedback on each OST session. This could have been simply time set aside for the reading out of the notes taken in each session. This would have allowed us all to reflect more on what had been discussed sessions we didn’t take part in to maybe take this further in other OST sessions. Instead, the minutes were printed out and stuck up on a board for us to read in the coffee breaks which was potentially useful. However, like many others, I was in coffee break mode and busy talking about other burning issues rather than finding time to read the minutes of other OST sessions.
As a participant, it was a very rewarding experience and much more meaningful and relevant than other TEFL events I have attended. I am sure that, to a large degree, this is due to how the event was organised and the very successful use of OST. I, for one, will definitely sign up for more events which include OST sessions.