O is for Open Space

22 05 2011

The 8th “vow of Dogme ELT chastity” proclaims:

Grading of students into different levels is disallowed: students should be free to join the class that they feel most comfortable in, whether for social reasons, or for reasons of mutual intelligibility, or both. As in other forms of human social interaction, diversity should be accommodated, even welcomed, but not proscribed.

(Thornbury, 2001)

An open space: venue for the Teaching Unplugged demo lesson at the TD SIG event

The thinking that motivated this idea is that, by adopting students’ “levels” as their basic organising principle, schools sideline the learners’ needs, interests and desires, for the sake of conformity to an externally imposed and spuriously quantifiable standard, typically the grammar McNugget standard. (A teacher reported to me that she once overheard a colleague rejecting a student’s request to go up a level with the words: “No, Mohamed. Your present perfect sucks!”).

Such a mentality ignores the socially constructed nature of learning and the socially directed purposes for which language is used.  It also denies the learner access to an important means of controlling their own learning trajectory, with possible negative consequences for their sense of agency.  Apart from anything else, the freedom to find, and adapt to, one’s ecological niche in the institutional ecosystem is surely an important contributor to motivation, as well as being a useful skill in coping with the real world of ungraded language use . Finally, a ‘levels-based curriculum’ compels teachers to adopt the role of level vigilante, constantly fretting about “mixed ability”. The mean-spiritedness of such an approach is well captured in this piece of teachers’ book advice:

Don’t let the false beginners dominate the real beginners or pull you along too quickly… Encourage them to concentrate on areas where they can improve (e.g. pronunciation) and don’t let them think they know it all!

An alternative way of reconfiguring the curriculum along less hierarchical lines might be to co-opt some of the practices of Open Space Technology, a humanistic approach to problem-solving in organisations, developed by an American writer, Harrison Owen.

Open Space is a group dynamics methodology designed to maximise the benefits of bringing people together to address a shared issue or concern. Inspired by Owen’s personal experience of finding the coffee break to provide the most fruitful learning opportunities at conferences, Open Space Technology rejects delivery-mode instruction and promotes genuine interaction, peer-teaching and self-discovery.

Organisers agree a general theme for a session, but there is no agenda in Open Space. Participants meet in the round and are invited to post sessions under more specific headings.

People posting a session are responsible for initiating the discussion and for reporting back later. Participants sign up for different sessions and within a given time-frame people can attend one only, or go from session to session, or do nothing at all. The basic principles are that whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened, and that the people who turn up for a given session are the right people. As Owen (1998) puts it :”If any situation is not learning rich, it is incumbent upon the individual participant to make it so.”

A group reports on its discussion

This weekend’s Teaching Unplugged conference in Barcelona (sponsored by the IATEFL Teacher Development SIG) adopted an Open Space format for the afternoon session. Participants posted topics that they felt might be of general interest. Topics included ‘Syllabusing and lesson planning for Teaching Unplugged’; ‘Integrating technology into Teaching Unplugged’; ‘Researching Teaching Unplugged’; and ‘Implementing Teaching Unplugged in an institutional context’. Volunteers offered to ‘chair’ one from a short-list of these topics. After 90 minutes or so of group discussions – in which participants were free to come and go – the whole group re-assembled for the report back stage. The sense that the conference participants had some ‘ownership’ of the conference agenda was palpable.

How might this kind of structure translate to a language learning context? At one extreme, it suggests an end to level tests and a permanently fluid learning environment – as suggested by the dogme vow quoted above. But it could also be implemented more modestly – as a kind of Friday afternoon option, for example.

Of course, in choosing their class, learners would need to take account of their (self-assessed) ability to cope with the language: it would be foolhardy, perhaps, for a novice to embark on, say, Academic Writing 101, but they should at least be given that choice. If we accept that language learning is both an emergent and a complex phenomenon, any attempt to regiment and control it from the outside is foredoomed.

References:

Owen, H. (1998). Emerging order in Open Space. http://www.openspaceworld.org

Thornbury, S. (2001) Teaching Unplugged: That’s Dogme with an E. It’s for Teachers, Feb 2001. (A copy can be found here)