Lessons from Liberating (Instruction) Structures

Chart of 35 liberating structure icons - each one is described in Liberating Structures website (linked in post)

On October 21st, Instructor College hosted its first event of the 2016-2017 academic year: Liberating (Instruction) Structures, led by Diana Perpich, Educational Technologies Librarian, and Nabeela Jaffer, Application Programmer. During this workshop, participants were introduced to the concept of liberating structures, which are a collection of microstructures that foster participation and effective communication in group settings. They are intended to be expert-less (easy-to-learn), results-focused, rapid cycling (short time-frame, iterative), fun, inclusive, multi-scale (various sized groups), self-spreading (easy to replicate), and modular-minimalist (easily combined and re-combined for varied purposes). While the Liberating Structures website focuses primarily on job-related settings, such as committee meetings, Nabeela and Diana addressed ways that many of the 35 liberating structures could also be applied in instruction, offering an opportunity to expand our pedagogical repertoire.

Attendees had the opportunity to learn through experience by participating in three liberating structures during the workshop: Impromptu Networking, Min Specs, and Improv Prototyping. In the remainder of this post, I’ll focus on Impromptu Networking. In this structure, everyone was asked to quickly find a partner and spend two minutes addressing the questions on the screen at the front of the room:

  1. Introduction
  2. What is your role at the library/university?

After the two minutes were up, everyone changed partners and spent 2 minutes addressing new questions. With each iteration of the exercise, the questions delved deeper, concluding in round 3 with:

  1. What makes you thrive in your work environment?
  2. Why do you do what you do? Why is it important to you?

Structure was provided by the predetermined  questions, the time limit, and by the requirement to work in pairs. At the same time, liberation was offered by giving each participant the same amount of time (and thus equal opportunity to contribute). Also, the abbreviated time frame offered both a low commitment and an “end in sight” to those who might find the pressure to pair up and talk to unfamiliar people uncomfortable.

A few of the benefits of this structure, as listed on the Liberating Structures website, include

  • attracting deeper engagement around challenges
  • inviting stories to deepen as they are repeated
  • helping shy people warm up
  • affirming individual contributions to solutions

When I think about my own instruction, I can imagine a couple possible applications of the Impromptu Networking structure. I often begin introductory Special Collections sessions by asking the class if anyone has visited an archive or special collections library, and then asking those who raise their hands to tell everyone where it was, what materials they were looking at, and so on. From there, I jump into an explanation of what a special collections library is, what kinds of materials can be found there, and the holdings of U-M Special Collections Library, in particular. As it stands, only 2-3 people are directly involved in the conversation. I can imagine eliciting greater engagement and interest by using Impromptu Networking. The questions I ask would need to change, of course, since the majority of students participating usually do not have previous Special Collections experience. Off-the-cuff, two rounds of this structure might look something like this:

Round 1:

  1. What do you expect to find in the U-M Special Collections Library?
  2. Why do you think those kinds of materials are preserved here?  

Round 2:

  1. How do you typically do research for your classes?
  2. How and why do you think research in Special Collections might be different?   

I could then invite a few individuals to share their conversations with the large group and go on from there to raise any key points that don’t arise organically and touch on the range of U-M Special Collection’s holdings. This would take a couple minutes longer than my usual method, but since each round of networking is only 2 minutes long, the additional time would be minimal.

I can imagine another possible application, in relation to students’ exploration of physical materials. When students do document analyses (example here), I usually conclude the class with a round of quick presentations or by inviting individuals to share their observations with the large group. However, it occurs to me that by “[inviting] stories to deepen as they are repeated,” a triple round of Impromptu Networking could be a useful twist on this exercise. It would offer students an opportunity to practice explaining and articulating themselves to a small audience rather than the class as a whole, and would take advantage of the “warm up” aspect offered by the iterative nature of Impromptu Networking to draw out deeper and more thoughtful responses.  As a very rough draft, three rounds could look something like this:

Round 1:

  1. What is the title, author and publication date of the book you analyzed?
  2. Why did you select it as your object of focus?  

Round 2:

  1. What materials were used in the book’s construction?  
  2. How would you describe the textual content?  

Round 3:

  1. How does this book connect to what you already know about the topic, place, and time period?
  2. What new questions would you like to explore, based on what you learned by examining this book?   

I'm looking forward to trying out these ideas in future instruction sessions., and also to exploring other types of liberating structures and their possible uses.  Thanks so much to Diana and Nabeela for introducing them!