An Open Space Event
For Carrie Martin Elementary School

Introduction

CoQuora works with global organizations, government bodies and community groups. So why would we choose a Case Study about a small elementary school as representative of this work?

Because all the conditions for success were there:

1. The commitment to have everyone experience themselves as a leader; and to be heard as having a valuable contribution

2. The humility of the ‘leadership team’ to sit in the circle, let go of their labels and job titles, and be part of the change

3. The desire to hear from anyone, about anything, however uncomfortable the topics might have been

4. The willingness to invite a cross section of the community to be part of the change, since all levels and constituents would be affected by the results of the conversation – in this case: students, parents, teachers, board members, etc

5. The confidence to move from talk to action quickly; no need to ‘go away and consider’ – just trust participants to make a plan, commit to action, and test out what happens.

We believe these elements represent the essence of Creative Problem Solving through People.

Overview

Carrie Martin is a Public Elementary School in the Colorado city of Loveland, population 71,000. The school has 240 students, with 42% qualifying for free or reduced cost school meals. In terms of education philosophy the school incorporates a Leader in Me model and bases its approach to child development around Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

The school had expressed interest in the work of The CoQuora Project, and had asked if we could help them experience a small version of the process with a view to incorporating it into the already-arranged ‘Fifth Grade Kick-off’ event. This had been traditionally run as a predominantly social barbecue event, with some speeches from the Fifth Grade teachers.

We encouraged the school to see the benefits of creating a more interactive evening, which kept the best elements of the social event, but also invited the students, parents and staff to work together on conversations that mattered to them and to see what they might create together from those discussions. We worked with the Fifth Grade teaching staff to set what we refer to as the Big Question (see Footnote) – the question that would become the focus for the evening’s conversation. In this case, the ‘Big Question’ was:

“What do we need to do to make this the best ‘Fifth Grade we can?”

The event was set for August 30, 2016 and people were invited to attend from 5:30 until 7:30 PM. A total of 54 students, parents, teachers and district staff attended.

Process

The Carrie Martin Open Space session was convened after the BBQ with all participants sitting in a circle of chairs. The Principal and 5th Grade Teachers gave some words of welcome and their own intention for this Open Space session.

Our facilitator then gave a brief overview of how the participants can work with the OS process.

The ‘Big Question’ was then revealed.

Participants who had ideas and suggestions that help answer that ‘Big Question’ were invited to step into the circle, tell the group a little about what they had in mind, and then write a ‘headline’ for their idea onto a sheet of letter paper.

They then stick their paper onto a grid we had created on a bare wall outside the circle. This represents the ‘Marketplace’ of ideas; in effect the agenda for the meeting.

The person who suggested the headline idea was then invited to host a small group conversation about this idea in a little while.

When the Marketplace was full, the whole group was asked to move to the Marketplace and to decide which conversations they wanted to go to.

Here then is where the large group splits down into smaller groups and goes off into other meeting spaces to hold their breakout sessions.

During the breakout sessions, notes were taken to a simple template so that those who couldn’t be in there can still learn what was shared, during and after the event (as these reports may also be a source of future ideas).

Outcomes

On one level, the ‘outcome’ of any Open Space is what ends up on The Marketplace: this always represents what the community of people involved believe in this moment to be the most important issues and best ideas confronting them (this can sometimes be a stark contrast to what the leaders thought was most important to the community).

Within the first 20 minutes of the Carrie Martin event, parents and students had populated The Marketplace with 12 of these ideas (see image).

But Open Space is more than a feedback process. It is committed to creative action as well as authentic conversation. More ‘standard’ Open Space meetings ask the group, after it has held all of its breakout meetings, to select what it believes to be the most impactful and implementable ideas. There is then a further round of breakout sessions, where each of the selected ideas is shaped into an action plan, with timelines, milestones and ownership. However, because of the limited time available for the Carrie Martin event, we agreed with the teachers that they would incorporate this action planning phase into classroom activities. CoQuora will continue to support the teaching staff as they work through and implement each of the 12 ideas. In the spirit of both Open Space and Leader in Me, the students will be active participants in the implementation of these ideas.

Observations

When we describe OS to people we meet, skeptical leaders will sometimes say ‘That sounds great, but I don’t think my group would go for it.’ A rational person might also have questioned whether asking a 10 year old child to step into a large circle of peers, teachers and parents and say ‘I have an idea I’d like to share’ might be asking too much. But in fact the students were jumping into the circle as soon as the facilitator sat down. The 12 students who chose to step forward with ideas also continued their leadership by skilfully hosting the breakout conversations.

What was also good to see was the parents and teachers joining in with the breakout conversations as peers and equals: it was clear that this was a Big Question that everyone was concerned with, not just the 5th Graders.

This is a mark of the power of OS – when people are free choose to join in where and when they want, they tend to do that. It supports a fundamental principle we hold in CoQuora, that most people want to contribute, and often beyond what they are currently asked to. In addition, because the small groups ‘self-organize’ out of the large group, diversity (or perspective, of experience etc, of background etc) tends to happen naturally in these meetings.

Finally, one other thing that was apparent in this event was participants rising up to a mature level of accountability. One 5th Grader suggested that ‘We could make this the best 5th Grade by doing our homework on time, so that we don’t make the teachers grumpy’!

Reflections/Further Applications

Open Space is one of the primary large group methodologies CoQuora incorporates into its own Process. After nearly 20 years experience of working with this approach, the question we challenge our clients to ask is not so much ‘Where could I use Open Space?’ but ‘Is there any conversation my community needs to have that couldn’t benefit from it?’ And then, beyond that, ‘Who would we invite to that conversation?’

If creative solutions, higher participation, deeper engagement and more ownership of action is what you are looking for, the results of Open Space could well be what you are seeking. Indeed, requests are now coming in from those who heard about the success of the Carrie Martin event, from School District Administrators, from other schools in the District and, in one case, from a parent wanting to discuss the use of CoQuora’s work in her company.

Open Space itself is ideal for larger groups of 20+, but the spirit and guiding principles of the method inform all of the CoQuoara work, and we also have a powerful process available for smaller groups.

 

FOOTNOTE

Big Questions are created to address issues that:
* need the future to be different from the past ie answering the question demands creative action
* need the future to be ‘better’ than the past ie are aspirational and uplifting to consider
* do not have obvious answers
* impact multiple stakeholders
* might invoke conflict or be highly charged emotionally.