Open Space @ Braz-TESOL


May 5, 2014 by Willy Cardoso

Last week I had the pleasure to facilitate another Open Space  event within a TESOL / ELT conference. This time in Joao Pessoa in Brazil, as part of the excellent Braz-TESOL International Conference.

The session’s abstract read

Critical Open Space

By constituting identities, both personal and social, language gives us the power to inform and transform our lives. Our education system today, like never before, puts a high premium on information. Unlike twenty years ago, oddly, enough, now we can even say there is a case of ‘information overload’ in some contexts. What about transformation? Is what we experience in the language classroom today nurturing creative and ethical minds who can cope with the changing world and contribute positively to this change?

The possibility to engage in a pedagogy which negotiates identities, critiques information, and strives for social transformation can be empowering, liberating, and invigorating. But it can also be extremely challenging, oppressing, and exhausting.

The Open Space was organised as follows:

  • Participants were encouraged to write How can I/we..? questions on sticky notes.
  • I collected them, read them aloud to the group, asked for clarification when needed, and grouped the questions with the acknowledgement of the participants. (worth saying there were no preset categories/groups)
  • Five groups emerged from participants’ topics and they were given 45 minutes to discuss / share / develop / etc their issues.

After that, I asked each group to nominate a spokesperson. The spokesperson would stay where the group was gathered while the rest would ‘visit’ another group of choice and hear their spoken report (that is, from another spokesperson from a group other than the one they were previously) – we did two rounds of this, 3 minutes each time.


Here are the groups and the questions raised:

(not all Qs are here, some post-it notes flew away somewhere and I don’t have them)

1 Teacher training and development

How can I encourage less experienced teachers to have the confidence to critically evaluate / question what they learn (about e.g. methodology)?

When it comes to critical thinking, how can we genuinely get teachers / teacher trainers to walk the talk?

How do we say “teacher training”, “teacher development”, etc, in Portuguese? Is there really a difference between them? What if I say them in English? What’s behind it? Do names really matter? Do the ways we name them really matter?

How do we get franchises convinced that poor work conditions negatively affects the development of schools?


2 Motivation / Mindset

How can I keep my students motivated and engaged in learning English when they see no relevance or importance in learning it at all?

How can we make more Brazilians want to learn?

How can we change people’s (students’) negative attitude towards learning English?

How can we make the teaching of English meaningful for underprivileged students?

How can I start to motivate students from a public school who haven’t had and probably won’t have continuity in their English course?


3 Standardisation / Evaluation

Schools are organised around conformity and standardisation. How can we empower learners to challenge that?

How can we evaluate in ways that are meaningful to all? Where there are no stakeholders but people involved in a learning process?


4 Perspectives / topics / technology

How do we make good use of technological knowledge students now have to promote learning which is effective, meaningful and produces results?

How can we introduce and allow for discussions about politics in class?

How can I introduce relevant topics in the classroom, moving away from celebrities, etc?

How can I challenge “elite class students” to move away form their comfort zone and perceive other perspectives? (dealing with use of technology, travelling, work and higher education)


5 Materials / coursebooks

How can I best respond to becoming “a content provider”?

How does critical thinking truly impact on ELT materials design?

How can we move past the agreed agenda for textbook writing?

What kind of textbooks do teachers want for their classes, if any?


Three groups handed me a report / summary / notes at the end, here they are:

Like I’ve said before, the open space format allows for participants to jointly construct the agenda of the session / workshop, and address the issues that concern them; this gives conference participants an alternative kind of engagement (and responsibility) to the more frequent top-down presentations and workshops where the who has little influence on the what.

I’d like to thank all the participants who joined the session and were actively engaging with the topics.

Also, a big thanks to Valeria França for conceptualising this with me, and to Pilgrims Teacher Training for sponsoring it.


9 thoughts on “Open Space @ Braz-TESOL

  1. I must admit that just before we entered the groups I was thinking that I had chosen the wrong session to come to as it was all going to be a waste of time with either one or two people dominating or it just being an opportunity to grumble. I was in the Materlals/Coursebboks group and the conversations we had were excellent and thought-provoking, at least for me. Thanks for organising it all.

    • Thanks for taking part, Stephen. I know the feeling, my first open space experience was awful with two people speaking non stop about totally irrelevant things. It is always a risk I take when I propose an open space instead of a conventional workshop, I’m happy it seemed to have worked fine for most of the participants this time.

  2. Isabella says:

    I loved taking part in this, Besides, on visiting your blog, I learned about your interest in complexity theory. It happens that I used two models of complexity to analyze contemporary American literature in my doctoral dissertation. No wonder I loved it!

    • Thanks, Isabella.
      I became interested in open space as a meeting format exactly because I was experimenting with self-organisation and emergence, concepts I first came across when studying complexity theory. It seems to work more often than not, but it’s always good to tweak the enabling constraints and see what happens. This time I did the 3-minute ‘fair style’ report, which was the first for me.

      • Isabella says:

        You’re right. In the group I first joined there were only 3 of us, and though I felt like there would still be more to discuss and problematize, the other 2 very kindly announced that they would like to hear what the other groups (larger groups) were so lively discussing and so we migrated to 2 other groups. I don’t know what happened to the notes that were being taken – and they were being wirtten down. I’m writing this so that you consider that the fact that the notes were not handed out to you does not mean the discussion was not valid. Much the contrary, the format worked well, so much so that it self-organized from 5 into 4 other quite productive groups, as far as I remember. ( i understand this comment is sujected to moderation.)

      • Hi Isabella

        I do not equate producing reports to having valid discussions, not at all, sorry if I gave that impression. What I was trying to say was that it is difficult to know whether the participants are profiting from the discussion, because not everyone will give their feedback, like you’re doing for example.
        And much less use the law of two feet which your group did. I know I could’ve paid more attention to that; thanks for pointing it out.

  3. Tyson Seburn says:

    Sounds like it worked out well, though the instigators of OST always think they do. I’d really love to attend one that goes as meaningful for the participants as they are described to. My experiences, unfortunately, have been so disappointing.

    • Hi Tyson
      Something I always fall short of in OSTs is having the time and the means to collect feedback from participants. I’ve got to figure it out for future events.
      But you’ll notice that here I’m reporting it more than I am promoting it. You may judge, like I do, that from the quality of the questions and the dynamics that it was meaningful for the participants, but you may also judge from the reports (and considering that two groups didn’t hand me one) that it might not have been for some (or most) in terms of advancing the issues. To be honest, I don’t know.

      Maybe one day I can facilitate one OST in Toronto and change your mind (or reinforce your discontent – who knows 🙂 )

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