Education and Open Space Technology

By Harrison Owen, Founder of Open Space Alumni Circles

It seems to be almost an article of faith among many educators that experience based, student centered education is to be preferred. It is not that students know everything, although some seem to think so, nor that experience is the only teacher, but it certainly gets people’s attention. If one is able to focus on a student’s passion, what they really care about, and do so in a way that intimately involves their own experience, the educational moment may be close at hand. Add to this a resource rich environment in which collaboration with peers and colleagues is almost inescapable and that special moment may well arrive.

Doubtless there are many ways to effect the powerful alignment of personal passion, resources, experience and colleagues, but one of the simplest and most powerful is Open Space Technology. First developed in 1985 and subsequently used in excess of 100,000 times in 124 countries, OST enables groups of people gathered together about an issue of common concern to move from passive confusion to active problem solving in what may seem an impossibly short period of time. In a typical situation, only 15 minutes is required to prepare the group, and after that issues are identified, issue groups established, and active work begins. There is no prior preparation in terms of agenda setting or special training, and only a single facilitator/teacher is required who does essentially nothing in terms of intervention and instruction. The people/students do it all by themselves.

The actual procedure itself is a model of simplicity. The group is invited to sit in a circle and then each individual is invited to identify any issue they feel to be worthy of discussion, which is then posted on a bulletin board. Matters of time and place of meeting are negotiated in a market place environment, and it is off to work. It is completely self-organizing and seems to work every time.

While it is true that the vast majority of Open Space gatherings have taken place around issues of community, corporate and national concern with groups ranging in size from 5 to 2100, OST has also been used to great effect in educational environments at all levels. From elementary school to the graduate level, students have found Open Space to be an effective way to initiate and pursue group projects, deal with community issues, and even pursue life and career objectives.

For example in a community school (elementary) in the (US) State of Washington, each year was commenced with a Open Space for the whole school including all students, parents, teachers, administration and service personnel. The focal subject was, “Where are we going this year?” Over the course of a weekend more than 100 groups convened to discuss every conceivable issue of concern. Some were organized by parents, some by teachers, but the majority was student initiated – but no matter who raised the issue it inevitably occurred that representatives of all other groups were in attendance. Discussions were intense and substantive, and often accompanied by laughter. It was fun, and by the conclusion effective working groups had been established to pursue issues over time, and the net result was that the community as a whole was bonded and ready for a new year.

(Harrison Owen is a resident of Potomac, MD; over 100000 open spaces have been conducted in nearly 100 countries since the origin of the method in 1985).

For Further Information:

 How to do an Open Space?  “Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide” by Harrison Owen (Berret-Koehler) Available through

General Information on Open Space and Your guide editors will happily try to respond to questions –

Open Spaces By Children – Examples

OS1 : Haiti v -

11 year old chairs : how do we children overcome hunger to concentrate at school?

OS2 Ashley Cooper (USA) delights in helping start open spaces for 1st graders up ; contact

OS3 Peggy Holman USA : 1,800 street kids in Bogota, ages

 14-22, gathered with 300 teachers to look at the future of a jobs program.   This story is told from the point of view of what is was like to facilitate such a gathering.

OS4 Many of the youth who participated in this event went on to host open spaces in other organisations such as the YMCA

OS5 Open Space Thailand , Cambodia and Beyond

Street children invited to open space by the World Bank in various Asian countries in 2006 -eg Thailand and Cambodia. At a typical location, 80 children, ages 11-18, took part. Over 100 meetings convened per location, with a dozen actionable projects. Insights were unique mapping the choice between communities rising and globally exponentially crashing