We Passed the Flowerpot from Lap to Lap:

Using Open Space to Create a Learning Community


by Sara Halprin and Herb Long


In Spring, 1996 we co-taught a course called "Human Learning and Development," for the Master's of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies (MAIS) program at Marylhurst College. Given the vast subject matter and limited

time (three weekends) of the course, we decided to hold it in Open Space, a methodology we had recently learned about from Harrison Owen and Anne Stadler. Their continued support was invaluable.


Marylhurst College, located in Lake Oswego, near Portland, Oregon, offers four-year undergraduate programs and several master's programs. Students at Marylhurst often comment that the atmosphere is especially welcoming to

them in all their diversity of age, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and life experience.


The focus of this article is on the ways we used Open Space in an academic setting; some of the problems we encountered along the way, problems which were, at best, transformed into learning opportunities; and ideas we plan

to implement next spring, when we offer this course again.


We want to emphasize the usefulness of Open Space for the particular subject matter we were exploring: theories and practices of human learning and development.


Fourteen students registered for the course. When each student registered, she received a letter from us with the class syllabus including a pre-class reading list of four books. Our intention in providing this list was to prepare students for the approach to learning and development we have adopted. We handed out a more extensive reading list on the first morning. This list offers a map of the vast territory of theories of human learning and development from our particular perspective, one that is multicultural and gender-specific.


We met for three weekends, during the period from March 15 through April 14.




First day notes:


* Setting the atmosphere


We had fresh bagels and cream cheese, coffee and tea, offered on a checkered tablecloth, a rug in the center of a circle of chairs with potted flowers, crayons and paper, signs on the walls and charts indicating rooms and times. We welcomed each person individually. Several helped to set things up.


Herb welcomed the group, asking everyone to say their names and who they are when they're not at Marylhurst. He spoke about his own ways of learning and developing and asked for others'. A few people spoke about learning out of mistakes, by letting go of expectations, etc. Then I introduced the open space format of the course.


* The Stampede


I expected a long silence when I opened the agenda. Just before I did so, one woman said she was feeling anxious, and so was I! But there was a general rush for paper, markers and the bulletin board. I had to stop people putting their topics on the board before they announced the topic, and soon every space was covered and people were starting to negotiate. So we went on to


* The Village Marketplace.


No problems. I did tell one woman she couldn't take the room and time post-it off my sign to put on hers, otherwise it was ripple-free. A couple of people asked permission to do this or that, and I just beamed at them. They all got the idea. Realizing I'd forgotten to announce morning and evening news times, I had to stand on a chair and yell to get their

attention for the announcement!


* The first session.


I was still feeling skeptical. There was only one scheduled session, and Herb and I both went to it. It started slowly, but built magnificently, into genuine open dialogue, very stimulating. At one point I realized I was wide awake and really interested. From that point on the day just built on itself.


* By the end of the day


a group on art learning had constructed several colorful collages out of the brilliant-colored post-its we'd brought and these embellished the walls. One was called "Life's a Rough Draft."


* Evening news


everyone was excited, exhilarated, and also much less tired than usual at the end of a Marylhurst weekend day. People expressed real pleasure with the format and mentioned that they wished all their classes could be like

this one.


* Late night thoughts


Of course, I'm nervous as hell--what if it goes downhill from here? I did mention the need to express any possible grumpiness or whatever, which was well-received, but I do believe this group will just go from good to better. Some conflict may and should emerge, and hopefully, as one man suggested, we can disagree without being disagreeable!




Second day notes


* Morning news


Everyone came in full of excitement and bearing gifts--food, candles, hand cream (!), extra computers...angel cards and hearthstones. But, when we rang the bell for morning news, there was a big silence, which Herb broke by saying, here we are at morning news, etc. There was a tendency to ask us for permission, turn to us as teachers...


* Disagreement happened.


Against the good advice of Harrison and Anne, I convened a session offering an overview of theories of development, and it was difficult.


I had some passion for the discoveries of setting up the reading list, and I wanted to share that. But the role of teacher came up right away, and in speaking about that and gathering responses, evaluation seemed to be a ghost hovering over the group. I addressed that ghost, and right away things got heavy. The discussion went on and on.


Eventually I tried to sum things up and ended up with a woman feeling steam-rollered because I would not take sole responsibility for evaluation. We worked on that issue, and the group seemed relieved, but the discussion continued. In response to a student's request, I announced that it was time to talk about my topic, and I did so, whereupon a hot discussion followed on development, gender, and culture..


I got us to adjourn to lunch by mentioning that I needed to pee and that I was hungry.



* Evening news


People were tired. One woman left early, saying she was getting a migraine and needed to get home to deal with it. I suspect the group is poised on the edge of really taking responsibility for their own learning. They need to be helped along by Herb and me keeping space open for that.


Am I sorry I didn't follow Harrison's and Anne's advice about dropping my presentation? Yes and no, but ultimately no. If it's a mistake, I certainly learned a lot from it, and several people mentioned that the group had come to community in that session. I did follow my heart, and my own enthusiasm for what I had learned and wanted to share. It didn't feel

right to me to cancel the session. Next time I just won't schedule one so early in the proceedings.



Third day notes:


Most people were ecstatic about the weekend, and today was a time of deepening realization. The students were really taking responsibility, even handling the big silence at the start of each large circle. Once someone spoke, everyone spoke, of course. We decided to use the flowers a woman brought as a talking piece--you could speak only if you held the flowerpot. People spoke of how thrilled they are with this format, happy to take a break and really looking forward to the next gathering, feeling they've made real friends and learned a lot.


* Academic standards


Herb said his professorial side feels nervous about how much actual learning is going on and a woman echoed that and asked that Herb and I share more of our passion with the group next session. I responded by saying the professor in me absolutely believes that the only real learning that can happen is happening in this format, which, like chaos theory, seeks the deep structure underlying chaos. While all is patterned, each pattern is unique and unpredictable. Therefore I look forward to seeing how much learning and development will take place as we all continue in open space for the next couple of weeks. (See Herb's journal note on this discussion.)


There is, clearly, still a strong tendency to look to us for learning as well as direction, understandable in such an academic context. There is also interest in working on that tendency, becoming more self-aware.


At the End of the Second weekend


Herb and I are both exhausted, and so were several at least of the students. There was a repeated request for Herb and me to convene more sessions. I gracefully or not declined, and Herb pointed out that he had just convened one!


We moved from debate over learning in this course into a discussion of learning and teaching, based on bell hooks's book on radical pedagogy. The group is showing a tendency to want to be together as a whole group and not split into separate pieces.


Third weekend notes:




Today started with a strained atmosphere and ended quite joyous and lively, with lots of energy for tomorrow. How did we get there?


* At morning news,


Mentioning the atmosphere of the group led us into a discussion of what we have been doing so far. One woman helped by framing the whole discussion in terms of reflections on group work. Another woman brought in her concerns about encounter groups (she doesn't want this class to become one). This led us to discuss the relationships between thinking and feeling in group work and in learning and development.


* Good sessions followed:


one on adult development , then one on safety in groups. A woman brought in two very strong paintings she had done in the aftermath of an anti-gay initiative in Oregon. She spoke of her feelings as a lesbian, then a Latina woman spoke of her anger at feeling repressed by others' requirements that we have a "safe" group. Great discussion of safety, abuse, respect, and other group issues in relation to learning and development.


Sunday, last day of class:


* At morning news


one woman needed a chance to express herself, after having felt attacked by some of the students yesterday. We supported her to speak, which she did at some length, and then she seemed to feel better. This was an example of

providing safety in groups through increasing awareness.


The atmosphere stayed good all day. The group clearly had no intention of splitting up, and at the end of the day several people said explicitly that it had taken time and trouble to form a sense of group and they didn't want

to split up.


Later Herb and I commented to ourselves about how, from initially looking to us for approval and guidance for just about everything, the group got to the place where they could cheerfully ignore, reject, and discard our suggestions and do what was right for them.


* The end of the day


seemed strained as we tried to figure out how to do evaluation, then it got silly and fun as it evolved into writing comments on our colorful post-its and attaching them to each other. We took a class photo, taken by the campus cop, of all of us festooned with post-its. The cop,.camera in hand, grinned at us all and barked, You're all under arrest!


* Evaluating the class experience


Some expressed interest in having an ongoing group. Several said they were sad to leave. Most expressed great appreciation for the whole experience. Harrison Owen's idea of turning outward and thinking of going out into the

world worked well, and we all joined hands and sang row row row your boat, very anarchically. On the whole, an excellent experience for all.


But why were Herb and I so exhausted at the end? How can we do this without being quite so drained? I suspect that the more vigorously we keep the space open, for ourselves as well as for everyone else, the more invigorated we will feel.



The changes we are making in our presentation to next year's class are based on feedback from this year's students, which has been overwhelmingly positive. We are adding Owen's Open Space Technology to our pre-reading list and changing one of the the other titles. We are updating the general reading list, and we have rewritten the syllabus, to be more explicit about the nature of Open Space. We are offering both classes on a pass-fail basis only.


We are also increasing the spacing between weekends, adding a consultation day between the first and second weekend. We hope that students will take advantage of the longer interval to pursue in-depth research on the areas which most interest them.


In terms of the most controversial issue that came up for us, the roles of "teacher" and "learner," I think we are both aiming to feel free--free to be passionate as well as fluid, free to be a teacher when that felt right, in the moment, and to be a learner when that felt right. Modeling what we expected. Hopefully that will leave us with more energy by the end of the course.




It was a stretch for us to use the open space format for a course on human learning and development. This was especially the case for me--after all, with so much to cover and so little time, how could I possibly expect that students would learn anything if I didn't hold forth--summarizing, critiquing, offering gems of wisdom and insisting that the students respond with formal research papers?


My own ambivalence appeared when I shared my "professorial" concern with the students, that maybe serious learning wasn't happening. Coming from me as a facilitator, such a comment might have sunk the whole effort. But it

didn't, because a deeper learning was taking place than any I had experienced before in academe.


This deeper learning was the result of offering an opportunity for students >to reach into their own personal history, and to make connections between that history and the learning process. They could connect their own development with what they were reading, discussing, and thinking about.


The context of Open Space provided an atmosphere in which feeling and intellect could combine rather than split off. In a remarkably short period of time, we became a learning community.


At the same time, my own passion for teaching was re-awakened. That is, open space provided me with the same supportive environment as it did the students. I too could begin making connections between my own lived experience and what I was learning as a result of my passionate involvement in the learning enterprise that engaged all of us. The boundary separating student and teacher became more and more permeable. The same passionate interest in learning transferred naturally into a heightened desire to share what was learned. It's as if we were all being enriched in our very

beings. and when that richness reached a stage of overflowing, teaching followed naturally as we shared with one another out of our own being.


To me, such sharing is the essence of true teaching and it's then that being speaks to being or, as the Psalmist puts it, "deep calls unto deep."




The course was to be about learning and development, so what did we learn and how do we learn? We learn by exploring. We learn by listening. We learn through our families, our culture and our experiences. We learn by

taking risks and stretching our minds. It is a lifelong process and a spiritual process. What we discover as we go along is that much of what we think we need to know, we actually have inside ourselves already. The trick is to accept ourselves and to look inside ourselves to find the teacher within.



Sara Halprin, Ph.D and Herb Long, Th.D are certified Process Work therapists, with diplomas from the Process Work Center of Portland. They bring, in addition to their backgrounds in education and counseling, the wide-spectrum skills of process work facilitation, which have deepened their experience with Open Space. They live and work in Portland, Oregon. Sara is also the author of "LOOK AT MY UGLY FACE!": Myths and Musings on Beauty and Other Perilous Obsessions with Women's Appearance (Penguin, 1996).