In this series looking at ‘effective participators’, in this issue we look at a technique known as the World Café – another form of cooperative investigation that can be used to encourage students to engage actively with the issues that affect them

What is ‘the World Café’?

The World Café is an intentional way to create a living network of conversations around questions that matter. It is a methodology that enables (12 to 1,200!) people to think together and intentionally create new, shared meaning and develop collective insight into issues they see as important. Although people have been meeting in ways that share the same spirit of the World Café for centuries, the actual methodology was ‘discovered’ and formalised by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in 1995. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have been meeting in World Café style across the world, in order to explore a wide range of social, educational, political, economic and cultural issues. The purpose of this bulletin is to offer an overview of the approach, supported with a practical example of how it has been used to engage staff and students in a joint enquiry.

The World Café approach makes use of the café metaphor quite literally. The room is actually set up like a café, with people sitting in groups of four or five at different tables, for deeply participative, high-quality conversations. They are guided to move to new tables as part of a series of conversational rounds focusing on questions that matter to them. With each move, a table host remains behind, sharing the essence of his/her table’s conversation. The others separate and move to new tables to consider a new question and connect to what other tables have talked about – in this way networking and cross-pollinating the conversations. The café format, with its ability to weave and further build insights, new ideas or new questions, enables collective intelligence to evolve within a group. The approach is based on a core assumption that the knowledge and wisdom that we need is already present and accessible. Working with the World Café, we can bring out the collective wisdom of the group – greater than the sum of its individual parts – and channel it towards positive change.

Four conditions to create café ‘magic’… with examples from a case study school

Many people who have participated in a really energetic and effective World Café speak of the human ‘magic’ that arose in the conversations and exchanges, as they moved from one conversation to another generating deeper understanding with each move. Four conditions have been identified that enable ‘café magic’ to occur:

1) Clarity of purpose: Before convening a World Café, the organisers need to be crystal clear about their intention: Why are we bringing this group of people together? What is it that we are hoping to change or develop? What do we hope to achieve? The purpose needs to be attractive for all participants. It is wise, therefore, to avoid overly explicit objectives and specified expectations as these have the tendency to become quite dominant in the process, which can deter openness and dialogue.

Case-study example: A High School in Northumberland convened a World Café around the theme of ‘home/school partnership working’ inviting representatives from the staff, student and parental body. It was felt that previous attempts to foster better partnership working had been too ‘school-led’ and had not sufficiently engaged all stakeholders – staff, parents and the young people themselves – in authentic conversation. It was hoped that the World Café approach would enable different perspectives and needs to be shared, would stimulate innovative thinking, and help to strengthen relationships and mutual ownership of outcomes.

2) Questions that matter: Identifying compelling questions is crucial to the process. Ideally, these will be identified by the World Café participants themselves at the start of the process. These questions will focus on the issue/theme that has drawn the participants together. Alternatively, the questions can be drawn up in advance by the organiser after some consultation. The power of a good question cannot be underestimated. Often we arrive to meetings with answers and expertise, statements to be discussed, or positions to be advocated or negotiated. But in dialogue, questions are in many ways more powerful than answers. Questions pull people towards the future, while answers refer to the past. A question that has meaning to the people involved can ignite the whole process of learning and change. It stimulates thinking, curiosity and the desire to engage with meaningful issues. Bill Isaacs describes genuine dialogue as a ‘conversation with a centre, not sides’, and that ‘centre’ is often created by one or more good questions.

Case-study example: The Café kicked off with a simple exercise that everyone had to join in – participants had to draw a simple picture to express what they wanted to achieve through better partnership working. From here, they began sharing their ideas and insights which they were then asked to turn into enquiry questions. Examples of initial questions posed by participants included:

  • What’s already working?
  • What gets in the way of better partnership working and how might this be overcome?
  • What can parents do that teachers cannot?
  • What should schools be for?
  • If parents and teachers forged better relationships how would this benefit students’ learning?
  • How can parents best support young people’s learning at home?

After a sifting process in which participants looked for overlap and duplication, 12 questions were chosen – one for each table.

3) A safe and hospitable space: Often meeting spaces are not very inviting. Here the café metaphor gets played out, and care is taken to create an inviting, warm environment. When people step into a World Café they immediately know that this is not just another formal meeting. In addition to the physical environment, though, is the creation of an actually safe space, where people feel comfortable enough to contribute what they are thinking and feeling.

Case-study example: The organisers covered each table in a paper table cloth (paper, so that ideas and responses to each question could be recorded on the table cloth itself), each table was also furnished with an arrangement of fruit and other refreshments. As there was a mix of staff, parent and student participants, care was taken to invite honest contributions, while conventions such as ‘no names’ were also agreed.

4) Clarity of process: A well organised process will be as ‘invisible’ and seamless as possible so that participants are not distracted from the job of sharing ideas and deepening understanding. Things to think about in advance include:

  • The number of groups of 4/5, and therefore tables, you will need.
  • The number of questions you will need – one per table.
  • How you will support groups to formulate their questions (or whether the organisers will
  • design these in advance).
  • The duration of each ‘conversation round’.
  • How groups will rotate around the tables and clear instructions to help them do this smoothly.
  • Whether you will create different roles such as ‘host’, ‘guardian’, ‘scribe’, ‘time keeper’, etc.

Case-study example: Before each conversation round began, each table was asked to quickly assign key roles:

  • a ‘host’ who would stay behind sharing the essence of his/her table’s conversation;
  • a ‘scribe’ who noted down the key ideas/insights generated by the group, adding to the ideas already noted there by previous groups;
  • a ‘time keeper’ who (in this case) ensured that all ideas were captured and the conversation brought to a close in the allotted time of 15 minutes.

5) Mutual listening: This condition emphasises the importance of listening over talking. It connects to the underlying assumption that the knowledge and wisdom we need is already present in the room. Collective insight will only emerge if we encourage and respect each person’s unique contribution. As each participant offers his or her perspective on a question, they are contributing to the increasing intelligence and insight of the whole, often in surprising ways.

Case-study example: As well as the roles described above, each table was also asked to choose a ‘guardian’ who would pay particular attention to whether the group was straying from the question or showing a greater desire to be heard than to listen – the guardian could interrupt the conversation to offer his/her observations and suggest a moment of reflection or silence.

6) A spirit of enquiry: In the World Café, a spirit of enquiry is key. This means that people are truly in exploration together. They bring what they know, think and feel about a given question to the table, but are willing to go beyond that, to work together to uncover new insights, different perspective, and deeper questions. We can all always learn more. Fostering a spirit of enquiry and curiosity for what is not known will help overcome resistance to new or different thoughts.

Case-study example: Before the conversations began, the following ‘Café Etiquette’ was shared with participants (taken from the World Café home page – see below):

  • Focus on what matters
  • Contribute your thinking and experience
  • Speak from the heart
  • Listen to understand
  • Link and connect ideas
  • Listen together for deeper themes, insights and questions
  • Play, doodle, draw – writing on the tablecloth is encouraged!

Each café group was encouraged to take a bit of time for reflection towards the end of the allotted conversation time, to notice ‘what’s at the centre of our conversation’ so that new insights could be recorded before the group disbanded.

Mid-way through the rounds of café conversation, participants also came together for a whole-group conversation in order to share the significant themes that were arising and to refine the initial questions posed.

Conclusions

The World Café is a strong tool to ignite and engage a large group of people through meaningful questions and an inviting, safe space. The process of bringing diverse perspectives and ideas together can give a group a sense of their collective intelligence and wisdom that is larger than the sum of the parts. The approach can be used within as little as an hour, or be convened as a gathering of a day or more. As a stand-alone tool, the Café is stronger in opening up possibilities than in converging around plans or decisions, and so, if it is part of a longer gathering, it is often used in combination with decision-making tools or voting mechanisms so that next steps can be clearly identified.

When used to bring different stakeholder groups together, the World Café can be great for equalising power because people sit in diverse groups at small tables. In the case study example, a year 7 student, a year 13 student, a parent and a senior manager might sit together and the tables were small enough to ensure that everyone would feel comfortable to participate. As in this case study, it may be important sometimes to give instructions about who people need to sit with, or to put marks at the tables symbolising different types of participants, so they can deliberately sit together.

Meaningful questions are absolutely essential for a successful Café and it must be remembered that questions that may matter to the organisers may not be as compelling for the participants. Where a designer of a World Café process is not sure of the questions that will ignite the passions of a group, he or she can simply ask an initial question which seeds further questions. For example: What question, if answered, would make the greatest difference to the future of the situation we’re exploring here?

Where can I find out more?

  • www.theworldcafe.com
  • The World Café: Shaping Our Futures through Conversations that Matter, Brown, J. and Isaacs, D. (2005)

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2010

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of the award winning ‘Thinking Through School’. Previously a teacher, PGCE tutor and head of ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, she now works as a freelance education consultant and writer.

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