May 18 2007

Learning from traditional learning practices

In a chat with Mark Kuznicki about his recent work with BarCamps and other open space, wiki-style events, we resonated around the idea that in our observation, Open Space meetings are great at beginning but once people know each other and have a history together, things veer off in other directions, towards other social forms.

That got me to thinking about really old communities of practice and what social practices they use to hand down wisdom and views over hundreds of generations. As I thought about it, I realized that I’ve run across several recently:

  • One community I know of is considering the idea of beginning every meeting with a D’var Torah (a “word from the Torah”) which involves a short talk that brings the group together around its essence, its core text. Depending on length, a D’var Torah (or a variant based of it) could be part of a regular telephone conference call.
  • Another practice I recently heard of in the Jewish tradition is Hevrutah, where two people commit to meeting regularly to read, contemplate and interpret scripture together. It strikes me that this practice is a great way to support ongoing learning and of keeping a text alive. There’s no reason that distributed communities can’t set up Hevrutah, using phone, chat or even email.
  • Another example that I observed recently was a group of Buddhist administrators, struggling with all the details of keeping their meditation centers alive, relatively harmonious, and with all the bills paid. A relatively virtuous group, it ended its conference call (which included people from a half dozen time zones around the world) with the dedication of merit, which is a very traditional way of acknowledging “the rest of the world” at the end of a practice or work session. It was striking to me how people mix and re-mix traditions with a little bit of noise from the ether to make it happen on a global level.

If such elements are part of your tradition, be sure to include them in your community’s repertoire. If not, it might be useful to think about what it is that makes these practices so powerful and try to adapt them to the learning in your community.

What other practices can you think of that have really been proven by the test of time?

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