New Learning OpenTogether The Deep WIth

Stop making guidelines and ground rules. Make practices instead.

We’ve been taught that a cornerstone of good teaching, workshop, and group practice is creating community ground rules or guidelines. The theory is something like: If we create some rules together, we’re more likely to stick to them, and we can do better at creating a safe space. The approach is something like:

  1. Collectively discuss and agree on a common set of rules.
  2. If we don’t follow these rules, someone (typically the authority figure) will “hold us accountable.”

However well-intentioned, such a system rarely works. Here’s a few common problems I’ve seen arise:

  1. The rules tend to be underspecified. What’s “Respect” mean? What’s “Active Listening” really look like in our space? What’s “Make room for different opinions” look like? The literature on Brave Spaces addresses this issue.
  2. Rules tend to be made and then set aside. They aren’t regularly seen. They are treated more as a backstop against really bad behavior than as a way to guide the community toward something it wants to make. We pull them out when we’ve really messed up.
  3. Rules tend to be based on spaces participants have been in before. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but many of these spaces were also not really inclusive, anti-racist, or anti-oppressive. We reproduce what we know, even if we intend to do differently.
  4. Related to 2 & 3… some (perhaps many) of us tend to avoid conflict. For many of us conflict is scary, so our rules tend to be ones that would push aside disagreement. We create rules that promote ease and comfort – especially for people who have historically benefited from these kinds of spaces.
  5. The whole process ends up feeling rote. There’s a quiet, collective sigh that happens when we bring it up. Like… do we need to do this every time? We never really use it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the idea that we are collectively shaping our space. I love the idea that we need to create spaces that engage us in ways that are both challenging and supportive. I love, as a facilitator, having something to return us to in moments of high tension. So if not this practice, then what? I’ve been experimenting with something a little different in my class this semester.

I think the folks who’ve proposed Brave Spaces did some important work to advance this kind of conversation. Rather than simply accepting “agree to disagree”, they want us to collectively unpack how such a phrase gets deployed and who benefits from it. Yes! We absolutely need to do that. And I think that kind of conversation helps us to fill out a more robust set of ideas about how we want to be together.

I want to offer a “Yes, and…” sort of proposal to the Brave Spaces approaches I’ve seen. This semester in my class, I invited our group to consider practices they might want to enact – concrete, specific actions they wanted to take to build a learning community that supports and challenges them. A few examples:

  • Name it out loud (to another, group, or community) when things are hard.
  • Speak from your own experience.
  • Give people space to finish their thoughts uninterrupted (AND, in a contradictory way, sometimes intentionally and transparently create spaces where this form of speaking/listening is recognized as a particular cultural form of speaking/listening and not privileged)

Do each of these have an analogue with the typical rules that are created while making ground rules or guidelines? Absolutely. But they are also things we can actually practice – and that we can easily recognize in a way we can commonly agree on when they aren’t practiced.

I also loved, because this wasn’t the default we were expecting, that we got to make this conversation really rich in the ways I think Brave Space practitioners are also doing: by getting into the ways that privilege, white supremacy, and oppression give shape to what we think of as “respectful”, and so on. For example – is good listening always done by letting one person talk at a time? Or is that a particular cultural view of respectful listening – one that we should try to change up sometimes? We got to name that we might intentionally swap practices sometimes to “try on something different” and see how it worked for us. Our practices were both valuable and open to experimentation and reassessment when they didn’t work for us.

Some practices might also simply be questions we want to remember to continue to ask of each other and our community. Questions like: “How do we embody now the world we want to create?”

Finally, as a teacher in Social Work, I love that we could consider adding practices that are parallels to things we’d practice in the field. Could we add practices supporting self-determination? Practices supporting us to try to examine things as “the forest” and “in the trees”? Practices to move through Head, Heart, Hands: A mini-framework for praxis?

So maybe I’m proposing Brave Spaces, with an eye toward Brave Practices. Let the practices we choose and use make the spaces we inhabit.

Practice “holders”: I also invited our community to hold certain practices, with volunteers from the community offering to hold specific practices in mind and draw us back to them. This could be done with guidelines too, but the “what do I actually do with this?” is a little less clear. With practices, these volunteers have a clear route to action.

Evaluation: I aim each class (though don’t always succeed) to do some evaluation of how we are doing with these practices. Sometimes it is a simple “take a stand” exercise, asking students to stand on one side if they think we’re doing great and on another if they think we need to do better. Or somewhere along the spectrum in-between. Then we talk out why we are standing in a particular place. There are many ways to do this evaluation, but publicly discussing how to improve keeps these practices on our radar.

Integrative thinking & Iterative practices: I have yet to do this, but would like to: This could also be part of your Classroom Assessments of Teaching and formative learning work, if you asked how whatever we’ve discussed in class could turn into further practices for us to try as a community. This might be a nice way to do some convergent / integrative thinking and to apply that thinking directly to our practice together.

Future directions: When I do this in the future, I’m intending to bring a list of practices in advance that might help us make this an even richer conversation. I foresee drawing from practices in Emergent Strategy, Hospicing Modernity, and The Quaking America, as well as older texts like Community: The Structure of Belonging and Many Voices, One Song.