An Ode to Open Schedule

I’ve been wanting to post but been a bit busy. I’m at a meeting/workshop of Sudbury schools in Berlin (at the TING School) and something has come up here that is probably worth writing and thinking about a little: meetings, conferences, and workshops need a schedule — but not necessarily too much of a schedule.

At this workshop as well as some others I’ve been to, the organizers decided not to make any kind of schedule in advance. Within democratic education this isn’t necessarily a problem — we’re used to making decisions in a group and discussing things to death, and democratic education is strongly connected with the notion of being free to decide, for yourself or within your group, what you do. But it’s not necessarily productive to spend the first two or three hours of an all-too-short weekend on planning how to use the rest of the time. After all, the weekend doesn’t have to have the perfect schedule. It doesn’t have to have sessions on every single topic on the participants’ minds. It just has to have a good schedule that covers a few key subjects; after the first session, people will know one another and be talking and talking and talking.

Which brings me to the bit about not having too much of a schedule. I’ve noticed in conference and workshop after conference and workshop that after a few sessions (workshops, lectures, or whatever), great discussions develop that are actually hindered by the restrictions of the schedule. Of course, nobody was really forced to attend sessions in any of the conferences I’ve been to, but the existence of sessions on other interesting topics means people end up going to sessions about something else instead of continuing their conversation.

Scheduling democratically at the beginning of the meeting doesn’t solve this problem. It just means the sessions that are encroaching on spontaneous discussion have been planned collectively, rather than centrally. The only solution I’m aware of is Open Schedule. I first experienced Open Schedule at IDEC 2005 (also in Berlin), which was an amazing event. During the organization of EUDEC 2008, we decided to replicate the system, and it worked well. It’s a very simple idea. You start with an empty schedule spread across a large wall, divided only into time-slots, and optionally for the available rooms. Then participants can just come up to the schedule and pin up sessions they would like to have. They pin up the sessions in time-slots when they have no other plans, meaning nobody has to worry about coordinating the schedule to avoid conflicts — it just happens on its own. Open Schedule also means when a discussion begins during one session and some of its participants want to continue it, they are free to set up an extra session for it.

Of course, Open Schedule is not necessarily the best model for all events. But for conferences with a range of topics, it’s an excellent way to balance between individual mobility, variety of topics, and limitations of time. It’s a system that lets the participants self-organize in a really good way. Not a perfect way — good is better than perfect.

3 thoughts on “An Ode to Open Schedule”

  1. I think one of the problems … seriously … is the word Open … which means if you talk alternatively you get labelled … of being in favour of Controlled … or Closed. Which is of course not usually true. So the proponents of Open right away have this rather significant emotional, ‘superior’ advantage … REALLY.

    So let’s call them Random Schedule and Focussed Schedule. Then you have a more neutral playing field.

    It’s simple … if you go into a conference and you want to give the event a real chance of moving from A to B … B being some movement toward significant decisions about essential topics and perhaps decisions that will move an organisation quite specifically ‘forward’ in the outside world … then you need some type of Focussed Schedule.

    If you want to go into a conference and wander intellectually and emotionally around in many ‘improvised’ areas then Random is fine … GENERALLY with random, on a personal level, many people WILL feel more emotionally and even intellectually fulfilled.

    However, the realisation of hard action results can never be counted upon by Random Schedule … how could they, since there is no guarantee anything in particular will be discussed.

    Random Schedules are generally feel good enterprises… and I don’t mean that negatively… but it is why many people prefer them. To a degree, they are also self indulgent exercises … what sweets do you want to taste this weekend? And there is nothing at all wrong with sweets. Random Schedules also fit more snuggly into many an adult’s definitions of ‘free schools’. NO TEACHER GONNA TELL US WHAT TO DO.

    This is gonna get me in hot water BUT … it has been my, hopefully objective, observation over 35 years that quite a number of Dem Ed people have emotional authority issues … and Random Schedules do not stir up such internal conflicts, and so are ‘easier’ to attend.

    Random Schedule Conferences rarely ask for much sacrifice. They are happy events. Which is why many people prefer them.

    Focussed Schedules are for organisations that know what they are and that have a plan regarding, GENERALLY, where they want to go. If you leave on a ship from Portsmouth on Random Schedule you may not actually get to New York at all. Focussed Schedules are generally harder work, involve choice but also the sacrifice of exactly what one may want to do on any given sunny afternoon … I DON’T WANT TO DISCUSS LOBBYING TODAY MOMMY, I WANNA CONTINUE WITH … also, they don’t have that Christmas Morning Charm … when you wake up each morning and don’t know what is in the package:)

    The chance of a Focussed Schedule being boring is SIGNIFICANT … and Focussed Schedules require a lot more hard work before a conference … and a lot more democratic negotiation .. to make them a success.

    IDEC’s don’t need Focussed Schedules because IDEC is not an organisation. At the end of an IDEC nothing needs to be done, no one is expected to follow through on anything, there are no worries … except where the next one will be held.

    It’s very simple, actually, and a bit tiresome that it needs repeating (because both Random and Focussed are very valuable) … the simple thing is that you use the tools you need for any particular job.

    If you want to make a practical chair you probably should have the basic materials and tools you need to make a chair … not just let anyone bring a few paving stones, a dvd, some ice cream and a pair of shoes.

    There never needs be a conflict … Random, Focussed or a mix of the 2 in the proper percentage can all be fine.

    The conflict arises when a group of people do not clarify what the purpose of any given get together is supposed to be.

    Or if a group of people allow their emotional needs … one way or another … to cloud the decision concerning what type of even/schedule needs to be chosen to accomplish an organisation’s aims and objectives.

    I may have pressed a lot of buttons here. If I have then what I have said might be true :)

    1. First of all Leonard, you’re an old agitator and we love you for it, no need to apologize for pushing buttons! Most of your observations seem astute, as always.

      I’m not sure I have any problem with the connotations of “Open”, and I have a feeling for many people “Random” has connotations that are at least as negative. However, as this is a topic that is rarely discussed, the name may not matter all that much.

      I think you’re right about matching the tools to the purpose… But getting from A to B needs a focussed schedule only if getting from A to B is a relatively linear move. In the case of EUDEC Assemblies and Conferences, which is perhaps the main context in which this discussion is relevant to you and me, getting from A to B is realizing the vision of democratic education across Europe, a motion that definitely won’t be achieved in one or ten conferences. It seems to me that the goal of these meetings is actually to collaboratively develop a game-plan, not to carry one out. So the mix of a little bit of Focussed Schedule and a lot of Open Schedule is actually very powerful, because whenever people are on to something that seems to them like a potentially fun and useful part of our Community’s campaign, Open Schedule allows them to work on that in-depth. We don’t know how our campaign will succeed, we just know we want to make it happen. Success will likely come as a *combination* of good philosophy (for propagating our ideas), good practical thinking (for making things happen), and people finding unusual ways to have fun (for making things happen in a popular way.) So letting the plan get developed more or less at random seems like a good way of getting from A to B. :)

  2. I just wanted to suggest avoid calling it “democratic education”. We don’t need “education.” Society and environment “educate”. We, when our turn comes, should create a proper environment. School should be democratic. Values, social justice and democracy included, must be learned through experience as Aristotle said: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” For this purpose schools must encourage ethical behavior and personal responsibility. In order to achieve these goals schools must allow students the three great freedoms—freedom of choice, freedom of action and freedom to bear the results of action—that constitute personal responsibility.

    As for “Focused Schedule”, as Leonard calls it, in schools and in “education,” and sometimes even in conferences, I would call it adult manipulation and indoctrination.

    But as Daniel Greenberg says, in school we have to recognize the dual sides of the culture. The technological side of time when it’s applied to technological issues. On the other side, not to make routine demands in the areas of creative work.

    Maybe also in conferences. And accomplishes an organization’s, including schools, aims and objectives.

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