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.