story: learning circles OST (long)

Chris Weaver chris at
Sun Feb 18 01:03:51 PST 2001


Another story to share, about a somewhat unusual OST event.

In sharing this story, I invite feedback - in general (as always), but also
in a few specific areas:
First...well, I guess I have to admit it...I facilitated a hybrid event!
(does my radar pick up virtual incoming rotten tomatoes?)  I'll explain how
and why below, and I'd love to hear from others: was this a good or a bad
Second:  Fewer topics were posted than either I or the sponsor expected.
How come?
Third:  Are there special considerations for an event around a "learning for
learning's sake" type of theme?
Fourth:  How might one do reports for a "learning for learning's sake" type
of theme?
and Fifth:  Do other facilitators feel it is sometimes appropriate to
participate in discussion groups?  If so, under what circumstances is this

Up front, I want to express my gratitude to Alan Stewart, my favorite
Professional Conversationalist, for his insights on this particular event.
Particularly helpful was Alan's article called Conversation as the Energiser
of New Ways of Being and New Ways of Doing.  It's delicious.  Here's the
(Reworking Tomorrow. The Slim Book. 1998.)
alan.stewart at

The event was called a Transformational Learning Festival.  The sponsor was
the Learning Circles Program of the North Carolina Center for Creative
Retirement.  It was held in a conference room at the university.  50 people
attended.  9:30 to 4:00 pm, three 75-minute sessions, potluck lunch, no
convergence.  The theme:  Living on the Edge of New Growth:  What Sort of
Learning is Relevant in Our Lives Right Now?

Here is how it developed into a "hybrid" event.

The Learning Circles Program has been developed by an amazing Think Tank of
ten free-thinking elders in our community.  For three years now, several
Learning Circles have been held each season, around topics of interest to
the Think Tank members.  The Circles are "expert-free."  They consist of
twelve participants and a facilitator, and they run for five weeks, two
hours each week.  These Learning Circles developed out of Study Circle
methodology, but have been simplified in a lovely way.  The facilitators
have one primary role: to begin with an idea or concept and craft it into
questions that evoke stories from the participants' direct personal
experience.  So the central philosophy of these Learning Circles is, "Speak
your truth, from your experience" -- and the facilitator artfully guides
discussions back to this practice, as needed.

The Think Tank approached me to ask:  Could OST be used for a day-long
celebration of spontaneous Learning Circles?  I said,

But when we considered the theme, I felt a bit in uncharted waters.  The
Think Tank wanted people to come and do Learning Circles.  When I asked what
a Learning Circle can be about, the answer was, "Anything that engages
meaningfully with someone's life experience."  That makes for a pretty broad
theme.  I really liked "Living on the Edge of New Growth" when we came up
with it.  Broad, indeed.  Like the Tar River in flood.  Swampy?

In further discussions with the sponsor, I realized their investment in the
subtle methodology of Learning Circles.  They did not want groups to convene
in open space to engage in the abstract debate of issues.  When this
happens, I was told, the magic is lost, and it's not really a Learning
Circle.  Which made sense to me.

So, in the eleventh hour, I wrote a preamble to opening the space, which was
intended to give the participants a sense of Learning Circle practice -- not
to confine discussions or to be overly prescriptive, but to guide them into
the special magic of storytelling, staying with questions, open listening.
In case you're interested, I'll paste in this preamble at the end of this

So that's how it was a hybrid event.  After the sponsor's welcome, I spent
ten minutes delivering this description of Learning Circle philosophy.  Then
I proceeded to open the space in my normal way.  The rest of the event was a
straight OST, as follows.

Oh, one more "experiment."  The day before the event, as I was mulling over
the notion of a book of proceedings, I decided that inviting a report to be
generated from each group was not a good fit.  It seemed that, since the
meat of the discussions would be personal stories, that reporting would be
difficult and perhaps a bit invasive.  Instead, I decided to invite each
person to fill out a "personal reflection" page, to share highlights of
their learning during the day, and that these pages would become our book of
proceedings, along with a contact list.  I spread these blank pages out on a
table with black pens, and left it at that.

When it was time to create the agenda, people moved very slowly and
cautiously.  When I opened the marketplace, there were eight topics on the
wall.  Two more were added during the ten minutes before the first session

So, given my sense of this as an inspired and risk-taking group, I wondered
why so few and so slow.  Was the hybrid opening too long?  Was the theme too
muddy?  Was the personal aspect of the theme scary for people?  Or did the
theme simply lack the fire of a burning issue?

Yes, I know, Whatever Happens...   And in truth, I was not anxious about the
slow pace.  I'm just curious and wanting to understand it.

After this opening, the day unfolded in a lovely way.  Four of the topics
were posted for the first session, and people were evenly distributed.  We
were all in the same large room, and it was wonderful to hear the sound of
thoughtful, ever-deepening conversations unfolding, punctuated with

About half-way into the first session, after picking up all the coffee cups,
I decided that in this case it would be okay for me to participate in the
discussion groups.  I bumblebeed on in to a group on What our dreams mean in
our lives.

I spent the whole day participating in groups, and they were absolutely
marvelous.  Each of the groups had a similar development, starting with
stories close to the topic, then breaking through, based on fresh insights,
to deeper and more personal levels.  Even in one group with over thirty
participants, I was amazed by the intimacy that developed.  A great deal of
the joy for me was the honor of being with so many people over sixty with
such profound life experiences to share.

There were several instances of deep learning due to diversity.  One of the
groups convened around the topic, "Building an Ideal Community."  The
convenor was interested in actually developing an intentional community, and
was focused on the physical, built environment.  But part-way through, a
woman named Janice, of Cherokee and African-American heritage, raised the
issue of what "community" means to the "old settlers" as compared to the
"new settlers" of this region.  The convenor shared that, as a transplant to
the Southern Appalachians, she had not really considered the existing
culture in her ideas about developing a community.  From this respectful
flashpoint the discussion went to remarkable depths of stories about culture
and culture clash.

Janice sought me out after the event.  How I love that moment when I hear
someone say, "I want to learn how to facilitate one of these things."  She
went home with my copy of OST - A User's Guide in her bag.

If the closing circle is any indication, people left the festival with their
appetites for learning well-satisfied, beyond their expectations.  The
"personal reflections" idea for a book of proceedings flopped; no one wanted
to take the time to write anything, with such richness of conversation
happening all around.  However, I want to know how to make reports work for
this type of event, since I love books-of-proceedings, and an OST event
feels incomplete to me without one.

This event has an exciting epilogue, too.  When I debriefed with the Think
Tank on the afternoon following the event, they spent a long time talking
about the "old settlers/new settlers" issue that had arisen.  And one of the
members said, "You know, there's a part of me that leaves yesterday's event
and asks, So What?  If we do an Open Space again, and for that matter, with
our Learning Circles -- How are we carrying our learning into engagement in
our community?"

Someone else offered that Learning Circles are a part of the Paolo Freire
tradition, and that engagement with the community is a natural, powerful
outgrowth of this kind of interaction.

By the time our debrief was done, we had a draft on the flip-chart for a
quarterly 1.5-day OST, between each seasonal cycle of Learning Circles, that
would include a half-day convergence:  How will you carry your new learning
and engage in your community?  I don't know if it will come to pass, but the
thought of an ongoing infusion of empowered elders into the life of our city
is a fine thought indeed.

That's how it was, and that's how it is.

Chris Weaver

S   P   R   I   N   G   B   R   A   N   C   H

Opening the Space for Inspired Collaboration
P.O. Box 8234 / Asheville, NC 28814 / USA
Phone: 828 225-0007 / Fax: 828 225-0303 / chris at

F   A   C   I   L   I   T   A   T   I   O   N

BELOW:  The notes for my "preamble" to the Learning Circles OST.

THANKS:  NCCCR staff.  Carolyn.  Think Tank.
Thanks to each of you for coming, even to an event with such an esoteric
name.  This morning I imagined a conversation between a teenage granddaugher
and her grandpa.  The granddaughter asks, SO WHERE ARE YOU GOING ALL DAY
We chose the name simply to indicate that the learning we invite you into
today is learning on the edges of what matters to each of you the most at
this time in your lives.
I am going to walk once around this circle.  As I do, I invite you to follow
me with your eyes, and to look at the people gathered here.  Consider the
depth of life experience that is gathered in this room this morning.
Consider also that this gathering today will happen only once - these people
will never all be together in the same room again.  Consider the depth of
the learning opportunity we have over the next few hours.
Carolyn and I had a number of discussions to try to get at the essence of
the kind of learning that takes place in the Learning Circles program.  This
type of learning is on the one hand familiar, deeply etched in the human
experience.  On the other hand, it is subtle, and runs against the ways we
have been trained in our education in this society.  We came up with four
ways of participating today that I offer you now, not as prescriptive
guidelines, but as a suggestive invitation.
The first way of participating is by LISTENING.  Please know that your
participation today will be entirely self-directed.  You do not need to say
anything today.  You could move from group to group and listen all day long,
and your contribution would be deep and profound.  Our listening is the
foundation of all that we will learn today.  Being here at the university
might tempt us into the academic training many of us share, which involves
listening in order to analyze, form opinions, rebutt, critique, debate.  But
I invite you to let that kind of listening go.  Today we will listen more in
the way of a quilting group, gathered around a tapestry that we are creating
together.  And as anyone who has been in a quilting group knows, it is good
to grow into comfort with silence.  Listen for the layers of truth in one
another¹s stories, and feel the resonance with your own truth as the stories
The second way of participating is STORYTELLING from our personal direct
experience.  The learnings we will share today are at the edge of new growth
where the life around us in the world engages with our own life as whole
people.  The meanings will travel easily across the categories of truth:
emotional truth, intellectual truth, intuitive truth.  And the most ancient
and best way of sharing these truths is through our real stories.  The door
is open to your stories, when and if you choose to share them.
A third way we might engage today is through IDEAS and concepts.  Many of
our discussions will begin this way.  There are ideas that serve as doorways
into our lives, and as stairways between our stories.  I invite you to
articulate these ideas and patterns as they emerge, but not to tarry long in
the world of the abstract.  Let our concepts and ideas serve as doorways
into new layers of experience.
And fourth, we have the realm of QUESTIONS.  A man named John Ralston Saul
once said, ³Answers are a way of avoiding questions.²  A man named Rainer
Maria Rilke once wrote, ³Have patience with all that is unsolved in your
heart, and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms or books
written in a very foreign tongue.²  In the Learning Circles program, strong
questions become the center around which conversation dances.  So articulate
the big questions, stay with the questions, hold onto the questions, with
So how will we enter these conversations?  In a few minutes, I will explain
the mechanics of that.  I will be inviting those who choose to come forward
to convene a discussion group about an idea that has strong personal meaning
to you right now. But first, let me share a couple of example ideas, and
describe the interplay between ideas, questions, stories, and listening.
There are people among us in this circle who have facilitated Learning
Circles over the past few years.  They have developed the wonderful skill of
crafting questions that take us from an idea into storytelling.  Let¹s
practice this artful turn for a moment, and see if our Think Tank members
have had enough coffee yet.
Let us pretend that I am sitting in the circle.  I realize that I have
recently had powerful learning experiences having to do with cultural
diversity.  So I convene a discussion group around that topic:  CULTURAL
DIVERSITY.  When my group meets, we might begin by turning this concept into
a question that evokes stories from the group.  Who in the circle can help
me to turn CULTURAL DIVERSITY into a question?
Let¹s say my topic is TAKING LEAPS OF FAITH.  Who can turn that one around?
You can see how these questions are so evocative and inviting, how they
ground the abstract idea in the realm of stories from experience.
You do not have to be good at this to convene a discussion group.  The other
participants in your group will help you.  Again, this is not meant to be
prescriptive: let your discussions unfold freely, while keeping these
practices in mind.
This event today is an experiment.  It is a marriage between two fascinating
practices:  Learning Circles, and Open Space Technology.  Everything I have
said thus far has been an attempt to illuminate the philosophy of Learning
Circles, which is new to me, and is a great gift I have received from
Carolyn and the Transitions Think Tank.  Have I done okay so far?
What I am going to do now is to introduce the process of Open Space
Technology.  So take a deep breath while I shift gears.  (bell)
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