Open Space professional development


March 20, 2013 by Willy Cardoso

On 8 March I had the pleasure to host an Open Space session at the 20th IATEFL Slovenia Conference.

abstract open space - iatefl slovenia

If it’s the first time you hear about Open Space as an organizing framework for meetings, (un)conferences, etc, take a look at this adapted version of Open Space principles and the excellent law of two feet.

I also usually like to show participants bits of the wikipedia entry, highlighting that:

The issues that are most important to people will get discussed.


After a brief intro, participants wrote their questions/issues on post-it notes and then voted. We decided to break out in three groups to discuss the three most voted topics.

participants' ideas

What is most interesting about Open Space – apart from letting people who came to the conference to develop decide what they need to discuss in order to develop – is that the topics that will get discussed may be topics that would never be proposed by speakers in the traditional way conference programmes are designed. (see below for the one on age)

Whereas I gave a plenary in which I spoke for 45min about things that I like, that I wrote, that I experienced, that I, I, I… and I think that is valid method; I also feel that this is a transmission method, and as such is not enough and that we also need to open space for dialogic and interpretative opportunities for teachers at conferences that go beyond the informality and extrovert-orientation of coffee breaks. Open Space is the way!

– Here are the summaries I received after the session (thanks Biljana Makuljevic and Shelly Terrell for sending them):

Group question: “Does the teacher’s age influence his/her work in the classroom?”

  • Main subtopic: AGE VS. RESPECT

    • Teachers in our group have noticed that, nowadays, being a teacher does not mean that the mere title makes children respect you (assuming you are the source of knowledge). The internet made it so much easier to look up things which interest them, and approachable to learn new things on their own.

    • We reached a conclusion that age does not have much to do with respect, it’s something that is more related to the teacher’s personality.

    • If you show respect to them, they will show respect back (the what-goes-around-comes-around approach).

    • As a teacher you must be prepared for anything as soon as you enter your classroom. There are many unpredictable factors which can contribute to your lesson, and you have to be prepared to deal with them (flexibility).

    • Some teachers stated that they are not afraid of old age, but of becoming old teachers.*

  • Our conclusion was that age is not important. What is important depends on the individual.

*This is an issue which, I believe, could be discussed further, and should be discussed as often as possible. If you are afraid of yourself, of something that comes from within, children will notice that, and could use it against you.

open space

iatefl slovenia – march, 2013

Topic: I want to improve as a teacher


  • Difficult to choose which method, 100s to choose from
  • Constraints from schools can hinder
  • How do you motivate students and teachers
  • Other teachers may resent your efforts
  • Other constraints- curricula, student thinks they know best waytolearn, testing

Some solutions

  • Working with peers and peer observations
  • Good to consult someone- a mentor or online
  • Blogging
  • Gather student feedback
  • Teachers need wider skills
  • If you have a good time and the students have a good time it works

16 thoughts on “Open Space professional development

  1. Hi Willy,

    This certainly looks like an exciting development ofr conferences in the future. When I first started to go them I was always very excited at the prospect. Nowadays I am a bit jaded at seeing the same topics come up again and again. Open Space might very well be a way forward, as you mentioned.

    I was just wondering how long you had for the session and how the participants produced a report. Was it all in bullet points like the ones you have included above?

    • Hi Stephen
      I only had 60min. In fact, it was more to give teachers a flavor of what a session like this looks like. The ones I’ve done as a participant lasted 3 hours or so, which is much better I think, then you can actually join different groups.
      In the 60min we had, about 5-10 was spend on introducing the idea, 10 on selecting topics, 30 on discussions, and 5 on reporting.

      Re: reports. Each groups had a scribe/spokesperson; there were three groups. The reports above are as I received them. One was sent in a minute after we finished (done on a ipad), the other emailed a couple of days later. The third, I don’t know.

      I would like Open Space reports, in general, to be more like action plans and less like summaries. The idea of an open space is that a ‘problem’ is raised, and then people find ways to tackle it. I didn’t make that a rule for many reasons. But in a longer session, or one in which participants share the same context and can meet again later, it would be good if there is this kind of commitment and continuity. There’s got to be something that will make it more than just a pleasant (or boring) chat.

  2. […] See on […]

  3. Hi Willy,

    My first experience with Open Space was at the “Teaching Unplugged” course I attend last July, led by Luke Meddings in Natal, RN, Brazil. And I loved it… As a teacher involved with teacher training and continuous development I think open spaces are a perfect break from just getting lots of input to deciding what concerns me most right now (whether its something from my everyday practice or a concern/doubt that has arrived from reading or attending sessions (online or not).

    I loved the questions that came out of your session and the conclusions / thoughts that came out from it. I think this should definitely become a feature at conferences, just like the PKs were from a while. Maybe we’re at a moment where we need a bit of a “stop and reflect” moment at conferences… It has to be hosted by someone with great knowledge who can actually be caught off surprise and help in most current topics, but I think it’s be a great hit. think we can still convince people at IATEFL to hold one? 😉

    Hardcore dogme.. That’s what this is. 🙂


    • Hi Ceci
      I hear a lot of people say that it is sometimes during coffee breaks that they can share experiences, meet other teachers, and either find someone like-minded or with a different perspective, and consequently they end up learning something. However, it is not easy for some people to do that, introverts to be more specific. So I think the structure Open Space provides, even though it might look rather unstructured, offers everyone an opportunity to join a conversation. Granted that introverts might just sit through the meeting without saying anything, but I like to think that at least they are ‘in’ a conversation, and not out of one.

      A hundred problems of course might arise: that dominating person, chatterboxes, whiners, downers, etc. But then again, at a conference you might end up stumbling upon them anyway, or you might end up attending a 90min plenary that is dead boring; then what do you do? With Open Space at least the stated etiquette allows for the law of two feet to happen; not happy? go somewhere else.

      Another thing that people need to have in mind is that in an open space groups, as far as I know, leaders emerge, and it is everyone’s job to either let this person lead or not. I have to say there is a social struggle in open space.

      In the session I mentioned above, to be honest, I didn’t join any of the conversations. I just set up the voting and grouping system. The groups looked like they didn’t need me really.

      • Tyson Seburn says:

        One thing that is vital for me is to not make OS –the– event of a conference, but one of many that a select group can choose to attend, fully in-the-know about what to expect and what will result. As you say, the MC of the whole thing should know what they’re doing. Haha. I like the idea of having a bell go off every 20 mins or so, like speed dating, for people to get up and shift around. Depends how long the session is in total though, I guess.

        Where I’ve found it go awry (as I’ve said in my comment below) is that the first little while ends up being the small talk chatter as strangers get to know each other, which is tedious with any number of people together.

  4. marytierra57 says:

    Thank you, it’s excellent…………..I’m a teacher in Mexico city in junior high, and some times I struggle whit my students when they don’t want to work………….We can practice Open Space and share our different issues, and get their interest going on….Awesome! Sincerely…..Teacher Mario Santamaia from Mexico city.

    Date: Wed, 20 Mar 2013 12:24:18 +0000 To:

  5. Jimmy Astley says:

    Hi Will,
    I’m quite interested in a couple of thoughts which emerged from your session. The “I don’t want to become an old teacher” thingy and when teachers concluded that “when you have a good time and the students have a good time, it works”. I sometimes see people doing things rather automatically and not really being involved or enjoying that moment with the students. I’ve written about this here ( but I still see myself as a minority. Many teachers are still reluctant to get into a more ‘personal approach’.

    • Hi Jimmy
      Thanks for your comments. I enjoyed your blog.

      We have to keep in mind that people are different, therefore teachers are going to be different. There are teachers who don’t want to become friends with students, or share any personal information with them. I think this is fine provided students are still learning. I don’t think getting ‘personal’ automatically leads to better teaching and learning. It can be one of the many factors, sometimes the most important one, but it depends on your social/cultural context, etc.
      Instead of a ‘universal’ idea of good teaching, I much rather see what you did for example, which is to observe your lessons and yourself, reflect, improve, reflect, do it all over again, and so on; that way not only you develop teacher autonomy, but also a locally relevant approach.

  6. Tyson Seburn says:

    I’ve participated in five OST and honestly, never really cared for them. The law of two feet just doesn’t seem to work well in a culture that politely waits until a discrete time to get up and leave or an environment where everyone can watch you do it. This is despite knowing intellectually that this is what is supposed to happen. I’ve often found the dialogue that ensues with the participants in the group often revolves around their ‘contexts’ for a long time before going anywhere. I’ve also rarely had an experience where it came together at the end or culminated in any particular take-aways. I’m sure yours was much better. When I was part organiser of one, I tried putting together the info into a post-OST journal, but it just didn’t mesh with me either (

    • Tyson, thanks for your comments.
      As we can see from the doc you linked here, there can be very good summaries with action points and all, which seems to indicate the OST was productive at least to some people. On the other hands, there are the ones with half a dozen bullet points, which apparently didn’t go much beyond participants talking about their contexts, like you said.
      It can be that the format is flawed in some ways, okay, but there isn’t any format that is in itself a guarantee of success, is there? One can sit through a lecture for an hour and love it, and in another occasion hate it.
      Having said that, some formats seem not to work more often in some contexts, depending on culture, etc. It’s sensible then not to do it. And, of course, once you’ve been through a couple of bad experiences, you’ll not want to give it another go. Like, I don’t go to musicals in theaters (or anywhere), but I can’t say musicals are a bad idea.

      Thanks for the “I’m sure yours was much better”, I have my doubts though. But I think it was good enough for me to want to try again.

  7. […] Willy Cardoso describes an open space session on professional development. […]

  8. annloseva says:

    Hi Willy,

    I”m (quite) a bit late with my comment, but I hope it’s fine as I like to think that’s how blogs are supposed to work.

    Since your iSTEK session on OS used in the class I”ve been quite keen on the idea, as that was when I learnt about it for the first time and it feels promising to me.

    I”m trying to organize an independent OS event here in Moscow and your post is most helpful. I”ve already read a lot about OST in general and from what I get out of it I can agree there can be all kinds of problems. More than anything, I’m worried about groups being extra passive or groups suffering from an overwhelming leader. I don’t know now how I”m going to deal with that, I’ll be thinking on my feet I guess.

    As for the end product, summary surely doesn’t look best to me..I’d love to dream of them coming up with the resolutions for the next year or till the next time they come for such a hang-out, ideally, imagining it’s so very successful.=) But remembering Owen’s 4 principles, whoever comes is the right people, whatever happens is the only thing that could have. So they will anyway manage it their own way, the only way for them to manage.

    Thanks for the post. I”ll write up about my experience with this OS thing as I pull it off.


  9. […] Open Space professional development […]

  10. […] to participate more, or doing an open space presentation  this year. Willy Cardosa explains in this post how he conducted his open space presentation that I was fortunate to be a part […]

  11. […] I’ve said before, the open space format allows for participants to jointly construct the agenda of the session / […]

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