The unConference
  • They are scattered about the steps and lawns. A knot of people puzzling over the relationship between education and politics. Sari-clad women practicing Brazilian martial arts. A group of home-schooled 10-year-olds selling handmade paperweights. A young man recounting with artistic precision his transformative experience on the front lines of the Egyptian revolution.

    There are workshops springing up on dozens of topics, from organic farming to quantum physics. Someone’s dorm room becomes a nightly meeting space for an intergenerational dialogue on intimacy. A monk hosts a fieldtrip to witness an ancient form of Buddhist debate. Tibet’s Prime Minister-in-exile shares his struggle to bring spiritual authenticity into his public role. People huddle in every corner, planning, designing, problem-solving, searching. Collaborations begin. New projects are born. Rescued street dogs lie prostrate – belly up and grinning – blissfully ignorant outliers to it all. Paragliders drop featherlike from the sky.

    Over six days last week, 150 people of all ages and from many walks of life gathered in Himachal Pradesh, India to explore possibilities for moving away from factory schooling models and toward more multi-dimensional, self-organizing approaches to learning that could be integrated into our communities and our lives. The sixth Learning Societies unConference was held at Deer Park Institute in Bir, a small Tibetan colony in the foothills of the Himalayas. Not far from Dharamshala, the seat of Tibet’s government-in-exile, Bir is a patchwork village, home to Buddhist monasteries, tea farms, paragliding launch points, retreat centers, closet-sized shops, and a steady flow of monks on motorbikes.

    Like many self-organizing gatherings, the unConference relied heavily on Open Space for developing the agenda. Open Space processes are often lively enough, but something at the unConference really bloomed. Somehow, the qualities that we had come to explore in the hope that what we discovered would feed our work in the world, managed to come directly and experientially to life right during the gathering itself. The conference became its own generative learning community – the social goal in microcosm, the values in full expression.

    We’ve been thinking about the hows and whys of this experience during the last few days. There are undoubtedly many reasons that the unConference became immediately expressive of what it was trying to create, but a couple of things particularly struck us.

    Any Open Space with engaged people will generate a variety of conversations and activities, but here the diversity was unusually palpable because of the physical layout. Stretched across a large, multi-level courtyard and garden, most of the groupings were visible to each other. You might be quite intent on whatever you were doing, but still you couldn’t help tuning in to the jury-rigged learning ecology pulsing around you. The gathering spilled over its own boundaries. The distinction between ideas and relationships, philosophies and practices, vanished.

    In some way you felt like you were participating in everything. Maybe you were in no mood to work on a collaborative drawing or learn a martial art or engage in a two-hour conversation about home-schooling, but the artistic, physical, and intellectual energies at work marked you all the same and put you in touch with those dimensions of yourself. Walking past meditative faces bent over scissors and felt, however dim your personal taste for puppet making, you took in some of that peaceful, handcrafted spirit and were glad for it.

    The place felt full. Being in touch with so many dimensions of human community, and of yourself, you felt full. And this fullness flavored the ways that people connected to each other. It was easier to be authentic. It was easier to risk the messier parts of yourself. It was easier to be compassionate toward that messiness in others. As in many engaging organizations we have known, it wasn’t that people necessarily shared more personal details about their lives (some did, some didn’t). It had more to do with the quality of interaction than the content. Even the most glancing encounters had a generosity to them, a compassionate recognition that learning is about growth and that growth doesn’t come in the neatly contained categories we have become used to. People felt free to talk to each other about and to host Open Space sessions on the things they actually cared about and struggled with.

    The unConference was also explicitly framed around four qualities: contemplation, compassion, creativity, and courage. In the weeks before the gathering, people were asked to reflect upon how those qualities related to their own learning and unlearning experiences and to post their reflections to the conference list-serve. Then on the second day of the conference we spent some time trying to connect to those qualities in ourselves as best we could. This emphasis seemed to contribute subtly to the vitality of the conference. Something shifts when we focus on the experiential qualities we want to explore instead of simply on abstract ideas or external outcomes.

    For these and other reasons, the unConference wasn’t just about understanding deep values but about creating them. Expressive organization, whatever the form, is fundamentally a generative process. When we explore compassion in an experiential way, we create more compassion. When we commit to the experience of collaborative growth, we create more space in the world for such growth to occur. Expressive organization occurs when we remember that the human spirit is primarily concerned not with being or doing but with becoming.





    April 14th, 2011 | Warren Nilsson & Tana Paddock | 11 Comments

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Warren Nilsson & Tana Paddock

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11 Responses and Counting...

  • bonnie donnelly 04.14.2011

    Ren and Tana,
    Lovely spiritual sustenance for me to read this morning. It is a much needed boost. Loving India as I do, I am delighted to read about your experiences. I love the ideas and thoughts you have written about. I will be striving to incorporate more of the 4 C’s in my daily life.
    Be well and be happy,

  • Dear Warren and Tana

    To me it was a wonderful excitng exposure of wide variety of individuals and families involved seriously in thinking about learning, free choice and the role of every one; including individuals, families and communities to respond to save ourselves through saving our children from devastating schools and governments in total control of Markets and Profits. In the process many of us have totaly lost many C’s of which four are mentioned in the conerence. I hope it is a great begining to share the joy and meaning of learning, living and becoming togather to realise spread of happiness, peace and free space for communities to join and appreciate good for all. Cheers!

  • i wish i attended the unconfrence

  • Twice in the same day I’m presented with the C words. Once by you guys and again by a student whose paper I just graded. In that paper he refers to a Tedx talk that I found really moving and addresses the underlying issue of vulnerability. The V that underlies the Cs…Hmmmm??? VCs…

    Happy listening. Great to read you guys.


  • Sounds great, given the fact that the setting looks very beautiful, it would have added its own energy to the whole process.


  • thanks for this blog. Open Space is an amazing process, scary because it is NOT controlled or controllable. But self-organizing shows ultimate respect for every individual’s contribution.

  • Thanks for sharing this, Louis. Rennie and I were just reflecting on the power of vulnerability this morning…I’ll file this link away for a moment when our internet access is a bit better. Miss you!

  • Oh, and I just remembered that I wrote this post a while back on “vulnerability” that you might enjoy reading:

  • So true! I’m still here at Deer Park soaking in the setting.

    When we were at Kufunda Village in Zimbabwe we were a part of a gathering to explore the “powers of place”. And there’s actually an international group focused on understanding the transformational qualities of powerful places and building a list of these places so that they can be hosts for important, earth and society healing conversations. Here’s the website if you’re interested:

    And here is a blog post Rennie and I wrote that was inspired by the Powers of Place gathering:

  • Hi Susan, I wish you guys could have been there. You would have loved it. It was the most powerful example of open space I’ve ever experienced. I use the approach a lot in my work, but this really took off in a way that I’ve never seen before. Part of it probably has to do with the fact that many of the participants had had a lot of practice with open space before and so were really able to jump in wholeheartedly. xo Tana

  • Dear Tana and Warren,

    Meeting both of you was certainly one of the vital highlights of the unConference.
    And you have captured the spirit and details so well.
    I have a lot to learn from your what I may say ‘professional’ impeccable blogging.

    I will certainly be visiting this space more often and also hope to meet you guys soon.
    At the speed of life!

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