World Café methodology has a powerful resonance with the values of today’s universities on so many levels. It is collaborative, conversational, participative and global in outlook. More than that, there is an emphasis on equilibrium and shared ownership, echoing values such as those found in Cedric Taylor’s article on Cooperative learning in an African context. Therein, the focus is on ways of empowering those whose voices have been marginalised as a consequence of colonisation.
Presently, as universities are working similarly hard to bring such marginalised voices to the fore, the World Café approach has much to offer. This methodology is based around principles of encouraging dialogue amongst equals. As such, it can be used with either staff or students and there is a place for it in so many of the conversations that we are having in HE right now. Potentially it can be used as a means of teacher development or as a spark for discussion about pedagogy, curriculum, equality, diversity, inclusion and countless other areas of contemporary relevance. Significantly too, the seven principles which lie at the heart of this methodology are equally applicable to online delivery.
Essentially, as the name suggests, a café environment is created, which looks just like a scene of people at tables in any hospitality setting, such as a bar or a coffee shop. This classroom or delivery platform serves as a social space in which participants can move around and converse on topics or questions generated by a host. The role of the host is not to be a traditional lecturer but to be a facilitator of discussion. Essentially, they are there to stimulate rather than dictate the direction of conversation. As such, this has echoes of Vygotskian ideas (1978) about how knowledge is developed and reinforced on the basis of social interaction following on from an initial stimulus of exposure to expertise. An example of what this might look like in practice is shown in the image below.
After the host has spoken and the context is created, the audience are then asked to discuss a set of questions as shown in Image 2.
There are different ways of the host facilitating discussions with some asking only a single set of questions and others giving directions or theory to a greater extent. Whatever approach is taken, the end goal is to have generated some form of written output as a result of discussions and conversations, as shown in Image 3.
Effectively, the findings of the discussion are shaped by responses from the audience rather than presenting the audience with a pre-determined or finished set of assumptions to begin with. This allows for a greater sense of equilibrium and all voices being heard in some manner. Just as with Cedric Taylor’s example of cooperative learning, everyone is being given a chance to express their opinions and shape the discussion.
On the whole, a World Café methodology is an excellent means of fostering dialogue in the workplace or in any professional development setting, such as in our wider professional communities of practice. It is a creative and innovative way of changing the nature of staff development sessions and giving a greater weight to the voices of participants. By fostering and eventually adopting such cultures of equity and inclusivity at staff level, it becomes easier for participants then to purposefully enact the same principles in their classrooms.
Just as many of us are moving away from traditional lectures to shaping our courses around newer, interactive pedagogies, staff development is also becoming more personalised and discursive. Methodologies such as the World Café approach allow teams and communities to develop through the sharing of ideas in respectful, inclusive and non-hierarchical environments. At the same time, the role of theory and expert knowledge is not diluted in any way. Rather it is re-packaged, condensed and delivered differently. Everyone gets a chance to speak and equally importantly to mix with as many people as possible. That can only be a positive thing in large workplaces where staff are often very busy and want to get as much as possible out of developmental opportunities.
Paul Breen– Senior Lecturer at The University of Westminster and author of Developing Educators for the Digital Age
Special thanks to Susie Cowley-Haselden now at The University of Warwick for providing the pictures and organising the event that first introduced me to this approach to presentation and development.
Taylor, C.A., 1995. Cooperative learning in an African context. International Journal of Educational Research, 23(3), pp.239-253.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (A. R. Luria, M. Lopez-Morillas & M. Cole [with J. V. Wertsch], Trans.) Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. [Original manuscript, c.a. 1934].