Listen, Darn, Ask: Three lessons from OPPI

by David Hamilton, Creative Director.

What is OPPI?

I just returned from Criel, France, where I was once again lucky to take part in OPPI, the most impactful education “conference” I’ve ever attended. “Conference” is the wrong word. It makes me think of towering convention centers, keynote speakers, and hundreds of people droning in and out of the breakout spaces. OPPI is the exact opposite. It is a community, a festival, and a celebration of learning that is challenging, joyful, and connected.

At a typical 2-day conference, I hope to take home one, maybe two good ideas. After OPPI, I have at least a dozen. Here are the first three:

1- Listen in silence for 10 minutes.

Though they are master storytellers, the storytelling workshops by Dan Milne and Jane Nash of Narrativ focus as much on listening as on telling. As they reminded us, without a listener, there is no storyteller.

This year, they offered a revelatory (if not a little uncomfortable) challenge:
Find a partner and spend the next 10 minutes listening to each other in silence without actively communicating. (No sign language or charades).

Staring at each other for ten minutes felt too awkward, so my partner, who runs a London-based PR firm, and I opted to take a 10-minute walk.

Without speaking, we moved outside, descended three steps to a crushed stone courtyard, and paused. I felt self-conscious. Should I start walking first? Should I let her lead? Would she follow me if I started walking? Were we supposed to stay together?

Try this quick exercise with your leadership team. So many of the questions and feelings I had in those 10 minutes relate directly to leadership. I took the first step, and she followed, but I next wondered if I was taking us in the right direction. The constraint meant I couldn’t say, “look at that” or ask what she was seeing. We listened to each other more intently and noticed more subtleties about one another than we would have in 10 minutes of small talk.

2- Learn how to darn.

This year’s OPPI invitation asked us to bring a favorite item — something soft and needing repair. I brought a fleece pullover I had purchased at a running store, only to catch it on a chain link fence while walking back to my car. It’s had a 1-inch hole in the left shoulder ever since.

Before taking this workshop, if I wanted to fix a hole like this, I would pinch the fabric on either side and run it through my sewing machine. This works but leaves a permanent wrinkle and disrupts the garment’s shape. When you darn, you use a needle and thread as a miniature loom and weave a new piece of cloth over the gap.

What’s a workshop on darning doing at an education conference? Maybe everything. First, the darning process is remarkably meditative. I have tried and failed many times to meditate. Clearing my mind feels impossible. Yet, for two hours, I thought of nothing else. Second, the darn is often more robust than the original fabric. In the design process, iteration — the way we fix what breaks — continually strengthens the work. Darning also reminded me of my colleague Ross Peter’s writing about how schools must move past resilience to become anti-fragile.

Finally, I was struck by how the darn is a formative visual assessment. If you look at my running stitches from one side of the darn to the other, you see steady improvement — increasingly even spacing and more careful weaving. The darn documents the process. What other artifacts could students create that similarly demonstrate learning and growth with such simple information design?

3- Ask better questions.

In my final workshop, I joined a head of school from London, an innovation technology director from Kenya, a school designer from Denmark, and the CEO of an international arts program for what our facilitator, master coach and question-asker McKenzie Cerri, described as the “hero’s quest.”

Here were our instructions: You have a fortress of safety: the caves. Find the caves. Make a safe space. Ask yourself: What is your fortress of safety? What is most important about a fortress of safety? What is the challenge?

(Not exactly the questions you get during three-minute talk-and-turns at the end of a typical plenary session.)

Our merry band set off, and despite being strangers, within minutes, these questions fostered a deep connection. I learned how our Kenyan’s fortress is his mother. Though she has passed, he regularly returns to his childhood village to be near her. I learned how the head of school’s fortress is her family and how all nine of her siblings meet yearly at their parents’ home in Jamaica to reconnect and recharge.

We discussed how schools are (or should be) fortresses of safety for our students and how we might design for that. Among the key ingredients, “Teachers must want the students to be there, and the students must know it.” Perhaps this feels obvious, but it prompted us to ask our own good questions: In what ways do your students energize you? Challenge you? How do you show your students you want them to be there? What else could you do?

These are the first three OPPI things I’m still thinking about. I could have just as easily described what I learned about myself by feeding a carrot to a horse, the joy of following dessert with a full cheese plate, or how five simple pillars can create an authentic culture of gratitude in your school. I could have described the importance of a welcome or how the best thing to do might be to do the least you can do. Until then, please check out OPPI and this selection of some great organizations I learned about this year:  Project Everyone, The Bina School, and Slam Out Loud. And if you’d like to try darning, start at Stag & Bow and ask for Pascale Spall.