Co-Creative Conversation deconstructed: Comfy Café or outcome-driven classroom?

Deductive or Inductive? Freedom or control? More facilitator intervention, or less? Lessons learnt during the first Co-Creative Conversation on student engagement at University of Roehampton’s Business School. Thank you, all delegates.

[5 min read]

Conversation as an end in itself

The Knowledge or “World” Café originally envisaged by Juanita Brown in 1995 has since been adopted in different formats by bodies ranging from mega-corporations to local community groups. I am convinced the reason for its universal acceptance is that, at its heart, the café is a rare chance for adults to breathe freely. Aside from a trigger question posed and a bit of shuffling between tables, it is completely organic, unstressed and explorative.

This especially holds true when compared to the surgical precision of the approach to Cooperative Learning which I promote in schools. The exemplary café that I attended earlier this year with David Gurteen and Hillary Gallo was an eye-opening experience for me, because I saw the explosive power of more unregulated conversation.

“World Café conversations touch the heart of what “human being” or “being human” means. By cherishing and including diverse voices, this book models the very nature of collective knowledge…”

–Sara Cobb, Director, Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University on The World Cafe: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter, by
Juanita Brown, 2005.

Coming almost straight from a teacher training session in a primary school, it was a shock that a café attended by high-level execs had no “target outcome” at all. Except perhaps the rare chance for them to have a multi-noded, safe and unstressed conversation around the question: “How do you feel about fear?”

It slowly dawned on me that the café explored an emotional topic where the target outcome was nothing exceptthe transformative personal experience itself. However, in any education setting, that can only ever be part of the picture – and not one that carries much weight in the current school climate. But if you have any doubts about the value of such a conversation, just consider David’s list of clients.

Master at work: David Gurteen in session. More on Donald Clarke here.

I am still struggling with a better name for the concept, but until I nail the actual process, ‘Co-Creative Conversation’ will have to do. What I do know is that I want to combine the best the Knowledge Café with the best of Cooperative Learning. The short list looks like this:

  • Unstressed conversation about controversial or complex topics
  • The transformative personal experience of honest conversation
  • Equal participation and individual accountability
  • Specific target outcome(s)

I could include things such as assessment opportunities and feedback as optional points, but those four are the core of it. The question is whether such and amalgamation is even possible?

Or conversation as a means to an end

To an educationalist, the organic, self-organising nature that is the strength of the Knowledge Café is simultaneously its greatest weakness:  There is nothing to stop an entitled, dominant male from hijacking the entire conversation. There is no way keep Mrs Know-It-All from zoning out because she has heard all her teammates’ trivial ideas before. There is also no way delegates will be guaranteed the opportunity to benefit from an introvert team member – and introverts are often goldmines if you can get them to open up. See article on introverts.

In summary, the approach of the traditional Knowledge Café is inductive. In yesterday’s session at Roehampton, we started with a single, specific question: “Why is engagement so low?” This conversation then detonated in all directions.

Which, of course, runs directly contrary to the deductive process of moving from generalities to arrive at clear-cut solutions, results and ‘action steps.’ But, though at first glance it seems the very antithesis to my wish to achieve a predefined ‘specific target outcome’, this initial ‘open-ended-ness’ is vital in the Co-Creative Conversation to avoid the classic trap of coming up with solutions before defining the actual problem, which seems to be the scourge of our era. (See The eternal recurrence of the ‘New Initiative’).

I wanted to thank you very much for your excellent management of what has turned out to be a successful and highly stimulating teaching & learning workshop yesterday. I am sure that everyone must have told you this.

Premkanth Puwanenthiren, Lecturer, Business School Centre for Organisational Research

As one would expect with engaged academics in a business school, I had to redirect several teams who were fast-forwarding to solutions. Such facilitator interventions would be unheard of in a “proper” Knowledge Café, but is a direct consequence of the Co-Creative Conversation driving discussions towards a specific target outcome.

So, how do you get the best of both worlds?

Fig 1

Mixing oil and water

You can get a sense of the balancing of free versus controlled interactions in the way I had organised engagement with each of the two questions of “Why is engagement so low?” and “What should be done about this low engagement?” These three steps took roughly 20 minutes after each of the questions were posed (Green dots on Figure 1 above).

  1. We approached the question with two minutes of individual writing in dead silence in their log books. This served to preserve individualise starting points, deflect “stage fright,” and provide baseline assessment, among other things.
  2. Writing was followed by a 2-minute presentation from each team member (8 mins total). Only if invited by the speaker were other team members allowed to comment or question. This secured individual accountability and equal participation, the two consensus elements in all schools of Cooperative Learning.
  3. A ten-ish minute open and free discussion then captured and amalgamated the shared ideas, in this case on a central A3. It is my hope that the individual presentations did support bringing everyone into the conversation, but without a control group that is difficult to assess. While the logbooks track the individual’s journey, the communal products do the same for the teams.

Teachers who have worked with me will of course recognise this as a classic Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern Meet-in-the-Middle, now used in hundreds of classrooms on a daily basis. It was good to see it was just as effective with academics from 30 to 70+ years of age as with primary kids. (Except perhaps, that primary kids are easier to manage).

2-minute individual presentations in turn secures equal participation.

It was only after sharing, comparing and negotiating these ideas across teams that we were able to move to the deductive element of the session. This indicates a reversal of the process where the myriad of generalised problems that have identified are organised, priorities, pinned down and tackled.

Or, at least, that was the idea. And this is where Peter and I learned some lessons of our own. I am very grateful to Roehampton’s Business School for this opportunity to have some of my suspicions confirmed before the great event on 20 May, where no failure or oversight can be allowed on my part. If delegates on that fateful day cannot leave the session with a communal and convincing vision for Participatory Budgeting in Schools, the programme risks ending up as yet another top-down fad – no matter how well-funded or promoted by the “right” people. It must work for schools.

So, if you are curious about the concept of Co-Creative Conversation and you have any stake in education whatsoever, do not miss the opportunity to play a part in what is likely the single most promising opportunity to combine subject knowledge, student agency and community engagement in schools – and, lo and behold, is consistent with the 2019 framework.

Some further reading


Empowering KS2-5 learners through Participatory Budgeting

  • DateMon, 20 May 2019 10:00 – 14:30 BST
  • CostFree.

Secure your free seat on Eventbrite now.

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This event would not have been possible without David Gurteen.

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