Creating Meaningful Learning Communities: Applying Art of Hosting in Mid-Career Public Affairs Education

Jodi Sandfort

Students begin to trickle into the room, some visibly surprised to see it arranged differently than the conventional theatre-style classroom. Tables are clustered in the front, but there are also thirty-five chairs circled around a centerpiece of flowers, wicker baskets, bright cloths, and books. As the room fills slowly, some students walk around the room, looking at the brilliantly colored quotes about leadership sprinkled on the walls; others pick up the books from the center and realize they are the required readings listed on the introductory materials received two weeks ago. Some help themselves to morning snacks and hot coffee, enjoy the jazz music playing, or share worries with othersSandfort_AofHPhoto1 about their ability to “come back to school” after all of these years. When a light bell rings, the instructors invite them to join each other in a circle for introductions.

Such is the beginning of the mid-career Cohort in Public Affairs Leadership at the University of Minnesota, a class built to encourage active learning among today’s professionals rather than evoking the traditional “sage on the stage” model of higher education. The course is designed to achieve a number of learning objectives: understand leadership theories and strategies; conduct public policy analysis and develop viable solutions; master several data analysis methods. Students gather for a one-week program launch in the summer and return monthly for two full-day face-to-face sessions over the next nine months. In this hybrid course, they also interact online, studying policy analysis, basic quantitative analytics, and leadership through discussion forums, small group assignments, and action learning projects. The resulting 12 credits can be used for a graduate certificate in public affairs leadership or as the core, required courses for the Humphrey School of Public Affairs Master in Public Affairs (MPA) degree.

All students have ten or more years of work experience; they represent a broad array of political perspectives and come from diverse parts of the globe. Some work in corporate finance, lead IT start-up firms, or work in small law practices. Others do political advocacy for nonprofit causes or lead research departments in large, public agencies. Some have held elected office and many are parents. They turn to public affairs because of a yearning they have to do more, offer more, be a more potent force of change in the world. As instructors, our opportunity is to leverage the talents and motivations of these professionals and push them to build new knowledge and skills. Our use of The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”) techniques enables us to deliver on this promise.

In this chapter, I include three brief videos to directly share student and instructor voices about how the Art of Hosting approach influences the classroom. However, I also want to offer my own description and analysis of how I, as designer of and an instructor in the cohort, try to holistically apply Art of Hosting. We certainly use Art of Hosting techniques to create an active learning classroom, as the methods enable deep classroom around our diverse content.  However, given our topic of public affairs leadership, we also teach the Art of Hosting frameworks, as one set of models for understanding group dynamics, planning processes, and systems change.  Even more significantly, the theories underpinning Art of Hosting inform our overall course design and implementation.

Experiencing the Techniques

One important dimension of the Art of Hosting is the engagement techniques focused on inviting diverse perspectives to be heard and supporting dialogue. Research reveals these types of social interactions are essential for learning (National Research Council, 2000; Fink, 2003; Thomas & Brown, 2011). Talking with others, posing questions, exploring intuition, and providing evidence creates more engagement among students and allows them to more deeply integrate content into their understanding. In fact, neuroscientists are increasingly documenting that this type of social process alters the functioning of the brain, allowing learning to be accelerated (Cozolino & Sprokay, 2006; Zull, 2011).

As those familiar with facilitation models will note, most Art of Hosting engagement techniques are available through other independent sources; yet, through training and my own use of the methods in other projects, I have developed more insight about the strengths and weaknesses of various techniques. Along with other course instructors, we use this knowledge to creatively design particular class sessions.

For example, in the classroom, World Café can be applied to dense or extensive readings. By engaging in a series of small-group conversations focused on relevant questions from the readings, students develop new insight about written materials and apply new concepts and theories to daily problems or common concerns. Peer Circle is used in the course to start and end each class session. This technique both helps students prepare for deeper learning in community and reflects the instructors’ philosophy that leadership can be offered from every chair. When used in the classroom, Open Space Technology enables students to translate ideas stimulated from cases or readings into other settings, like work challenges or avenues for professional growth. We encourage students to use some of these engagement techniques in their workplace or community, providing written materials to reinforce what they have experienced in class.

In the cohort, while we draw upon other pedagogies, such as case studies, videos, didactic, and interactive lectures (both face-to-face and virtually), the Art of Hosting engagement techniques provide a manageable number that can be deployed easily to facilitate interactive learning around any particular content. Students appreciate the diversity of approaches and see explicitly how the methods contribute to building their leadership skills, enriching their understanding of others, and deepening their learning experiences.

Click here to hear four students from different walks of life talk about how his or her experience in the interactive classroom impacts their learning.

Teaching Useful Frameworks

The Art of Hosting approach includes explicit frameworks developed by the international community of practitioners about group dynamics and systems change (Sandfort, Stuber & Quick, 2012). These conceptual models provide concise descriptions of dynamics that are often elusive.

For example, when people gather to discuss issues and decide subsequent action, there is a recognizable pattern in the process—many divergent ideas are offered, the group goes through a period of indecision and strife, and then often experience convergence on the most appropriate action. This pattern, termed in the Art of Hosting model as divergence/convergence, resembles other formal theories of group dynamics, yet is presented in a simple, almost intuitive way easy for mid-career professionals to recall when they face challenging group situations. Similarly, Art of Hosting is particularly well suited for tasks where groups need to share information to better understand a complex system and decide, collectively, how to respond to it. One framework shared, the Cynefin Framework, differentiates between simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic systems. Again, while there are other models representing similar ideas, the Art of Hosting version enables mid-career professionals to access language to characterize diverse systems. This heuristic allows for analysis, helping them to better match their interventions to the problem at hand.

In the course, we present an array of frameworks relevant to statistical analysis, policy analysis, and leadership. Seeing and understanding patterns is a well-known dimension of professional education, essential to developing expertise (National Research Council, 2000; Shulman, 2005).  We share Art of Hosting frameworks as substantive content in the course because of how they help clarify patterns in an array of situations confronting public affairs leaders.


Employing the Art of Hosting “Worldview”

There are many ways Art of Hosting significantly influences how we implement this course, orienting us toward practices that enable significant learning. As implied by its name, the Art of Hosting approach emphasizes the significance of creating a welcoming and inclusive environment through attention to space, food, visual stimulation, and artistic expression. In the Cohort, we attend to those details, providing visually enriched power points, flowers to brighten the room, and snacks for daylong sessions. We also provide materials that support the learning experience of students, by making large paper, markers, and other communications tools available during activities.

Click here to hear a student talk more about her understanding of the importance of these details.

Art of Hosting is built upon fundamental assumptions about change in individuals, groups, organizations and systems. Rather than being controlled, Art of Hosting posits that significant change comes as a response to an authentic invitation to engage in reflection, dialogue, and analysis. This awareness helps remind us that while our work as instructors involves providing our expertise, structuring activities, and assessing performance, we are more fundamentally engaged in something more significant—inviting people to develop their core, their unique potential to provide leadership on important public affairs challenges.

The approach also highlights how all individuals can claim expertise. Applied in this course, it alters how we shape face-to-face classroom time and rules of online engagement. For example, we invite students to share responsibility for creating the learning community, asking them to volunteer to host the opening and closing of class sessions. Some are invited to teach their peers specific content in skill-training sessions, called “Knowledge Camps,” during monthly meetings. Facilitated by our course-management software, Moodle, we also invite students to bring relevant content into the course, reflecting our expectations that learning about policy analysis and leadership accumulates throughout the nine-month program from many “real world” applications. Reflecting on these adjustments, one of the co-instructors concludes, “It fundamentally challenges the role of student and instructor, and what is supposed to happen in the classroom environment. It enables students to engage each other and the materials at a depth that comes alive for them…It breeds an environment where they can be a learning community.”

Finally, central to the Art of Hosting worldview is the Four-Fold Practice that stresses the importance of self-care, participation, and community learning as essential elements to hosting others. Our instructor team routinely considers the application of these ideas to our teaching practice. We hold each other accountable for our own self-care, recognizing that it takes considerable intellect and stamina to teach the two-day monthly sessions. We also must work closely together as a team, stepping up to support each other when needed. This helps ensure content and processes are aligned to create a high-quality experience for students. We participate as learners in course reading discussions and check-in circles, as well as openly sharing our significant learning about teaching in this environment with each other.

This intentional application of the Four-Fold Practice fundamentally shifts the teaching experience. We have moved from being solitary teachers to working together on a collective creation. We have stopped focusing our attention only on content to rather considering the subtle ways content and process inter-relate in significant learning environments. These shifts are certainly important in shaping this particular course focused on public affairs and policy leadership. But it has significance for many disciplines and suggests a pathway for changing how teaching is practiced throughout higher education.

Click here to hear one of the instructors reflect on how this worldview has shifted her own teaching practice.

Implications of Hosting for Higher Education

It was important for me to share this story and analysis of our application of Art of Hosting to graduate education because of how directly is has altered my teaching philosophy and practice. A range of engagement techniques that easily improve the social interaction of classroom learning supports my colleagues and me. We draw upon practical frameworks to assist students in understanding complex situations to enable wise action. We also pay closer attention to our own roles in a learning community. As scholars of public affairs, this work is central to our need to provide meaningful experiences for citizens charged now with reshaping the practice of democracy (Palmer, 2011).

I hope sharing this account inspires others to consider how modest alterations in our teaching methods and worldview can create significant results. By laying down the old model of the brilliant professor able to transform lives with an astute and perfectly paced lecture, we open up new options for innovation. The 21st century classroom offers an array of methods for creating significant learning experiences. Supported by the process expertise of the Art of Hosting community, instructors can create new ways to engage the diverse learners seeking the transformation of mind and action that becomes possible when higher education is effectively applied to that task.