A World Cafe in a school – a step-by-step description

??????????World Café’s are interactive, inclusive group processes that encourage conversation-like discussion of things that matter. (It might help to read an overview of World Cafés available HERE.)  I recently facilitated a couple of sessions at my daughter’s school to help create a vision for the school. This is a step-by-step description of how we went about it.


We created a leaflet to promote the World Café (available HERE) which was emailed to parents 3 weeks before the event and a hard copy was sent home with students a few days later. We didn’t mention World Café because we guessed that it would not mean much to most people. We included three of the four questions – can’t remember why I decided not to include the fourth one. I think it would have been better if I had, and it was included in material in the newsletter later on. I wanted the leaflet to emphasise that everybody was welcome, and to start creating a sense of inclusivity. On Thursday morning three mothers came with their children and I doubt they would have come if we hadn’t said that was OK. (Parents are used to having kids around and I find they generally cope well with kids being at events. Yes it can be disruptive or distracting, but that’s OK and it might allow people to participate who might not otherwise.)

The conversations were promoted each week in the (mainly electronic) newsletter through the P&C News and on the front page the Monday beforehand, and was on the calendar of events on the school’s webpage. We also created a facebook event and some of us promoted it through our facebook networks.

On two days I spoke to parents (especially fathers as early nearly all the early RSVPs were from mothers) as they arrived for the school drop off. I think this helped encourage quite a few people to come.

The event was also put on the school notice board although, presumably because of space limitations, “Conversations” was changed to “Talk” (i.e., it became “What do we want for our school: Talk sessions” ). I think “talk” has quite different connotations to “conversations”. I suspect it didn’t matter, but it highlights some of the challenges of promoting these types of events.

Setting up

World cafe set upWe held the conversations in the school hall which gave us plenty of space. I’m not great at creating a physically welcoming space. I could have asked for help from people on the P&C for help with this and maybe we could have made it more appealing. I think it is important that the conversations are in small groups. (I once went to a World Café that was at tables of 8 or 10, and I felt that there were too many people for a good conversation.) We thus used small tables which worked well. (If anything they were a little bit smaller than ideal.) If we had to use larger tables (e.g., the fold up rectangle tables often find in halls) I would have set them up so there were two people on each side.

The ??????????Canteen organised tea, coffee and supper which people could help themselves to at any time. Most people only got tea or coffee at the start and we took the food around a few times through the session.

Each question was on display (on flip chart) as people arrived, as was a poster on Café etiquette, not that I called it that during the session. (As you will see, posters are not my strongest skill!) We had a sign-in sheet so we knew who was there (with Name, Year their children were in, and email if they wanted the conversation notes.)

Setting the context

We started about five minutes after the advertised starting time to allow for people running a bit late. After a quick welcome we started with introductions (just our names and what year our kids were in). I think it is important to have these introductions whenever possible. I’m amazed at how often I go to consultations or workshops where there are less than 20 people and there are no introductions. It doesn’t take long but allows everybody to know who is there. It can also help break the ice a little bit for those who might be hesitant to say much.

I gave an overview of the process and tried to set the tone for the discussion (available HERE). I think this was very important. We wanted people to be open and honest but we didn’t want to allow the discussion to be bogged down in negativity or complaints. A few parents commented that setting the tone early on did help.

The Questions

??????????We had four questions:

  1. What do we want our children to gain from being at the school?
  2. What do we value about our school?
  3. What do we want our school to be in the future?
  4. How can families and staff work in partnership so that our children and the school reach their full potential?

As we had decided to make the sessions only 90 minutes each, this was quite a few questions to get through. It meant that we didn’t have all that long on each question. I struggle with deciding whether it would have been better to go with fewer questions and to have a bit longer on each, or to have less time but explore the four questions. If I was doing it again, I think I would keep the four questions. There was valuable discussion on each of them, and I don’t know which question I would have left out. (If I had to leave out one, I probably would have tried to combine Questions 1 and 3.)

The design of questions is very important. I much prefer strengths-based questions to needs-based ones, but it is also important that people feel heard if they have concerns. I was once involved in a national gather of parents connected with the one organisation. The organisation had decided to become more strengths-based and so only wanted positive questions (e.g., What did families have to offer the organisation and the community? What was good about being a family in the organisation?) As this was the first time people within the organisation had been brought together as parents, the co-facilitators and I were worried that there was no opportunity for families to feel heard about some of the challenges. As the World Café was most of the day (in a multi-day gathering) we felt there was time for a range of questions. The organisers really wanted to keep the positive approach and were concerned that things could get out of hand if we took a different approach. After the first session, it was clear that the parents were very frustrated. The organisers agreed that we could include a couple of different questions so we asked so “What does management need to hear about families in the organisation?” and “What could help address these issues?” These questions led to some great discussion without being too negative (we didn’t actually ask what was wrong), and allowed the rest of the day to go smoothly because the parents had felt heard.

Because only hDSCN3225ad 90 minutes for the conversation at the school, I didn’t feel we had enough time to have a question that specifically explored concerns. I also knew that the parents could express concerns during the conversations, even if they were invited to do it in a way that focused on what they wanted rather than what wasn’t working. (Which is why I think the overview was important in reassuring people that there was a way for them to address any concerns they had.)

If we had wanted to include a question about concerns I probably would have used “What time is it for the school?” To be honest, the first time I head this question I was sceptical about it, but the more I’ve used it, the more I’ve liked it. It allows people to say something along the lines of “It’s time for management to listen to staff” but it also allows people to say positives. (And we do normally get 10:40 or whatever time it is!) I’ve used it quite often to gauge how people are feeling about their organisation or community.

The Process

After the overview we got straight into it. On Wednesday night we had 27 parents (6 tables of 4; 1 table of 3) and on Thursday morning we had 11 parents and 2 teachers (3 table of 3; 1 of 4). As explained in the overview, after each question we asked each table to share 2 or 3 pieces of gold. The pieces of gold are not necessarily the most important points; they might be something unexpected or a different perspective. In a World Café I ran for some residential colleges at a university, we were exploring ways of engaging the student body in a planning process. For the pieces of gold we asked them to come back with one idea that was a “must do”; one that was creative or unusual, and one which would help engage hard to engage students. I don’t normally direct it this much, but it worked well in this context.

The process (based on Thursday) went something like this:

DSCN3226Question 1:

  • 7 minutes conversation
  • Identify pieces of gold (about 5-7 minutes)
  • Report back pieces of gold (Each table was give a large post-it note for them to write their pieces of gold on, and these were placed on the flip chart with the question)
  • One person stayed at each table and everybody else moved to a different table (The person who stayed wasn’t asked to be a host or to provide an overview of what had happened, although this sometimes did happen.)

Question 2

  • 6 minutes conversation
  • Identify pieces of gold (about 5-7 minutes)
  • Report back pieces of gold
  • One person stayed at each table and everybody else moved to a different table

Question 3 (Because this was the central question we had two conversation about it)

  • 5 minutes conversation
  • One person stayed at each table and everybody else moved to a different table
  • 5 minutes conversation on the same questions
  • Identify pieces of gold (about 7-10 minutes)
  • Report back pieces of gold
  • One person stayed at each table and everybody else moved to a different table

??????????Question 4

  • 6 minutes conversation
  • Identify pieces of gold (about 5-7 minutes)
  • Report back pieces of gold

Next steps and thanks

It was quite fast paced and sometimes it would have been good to have had longer, but mostly it worked well and nobody seemed too frustrated that there wasn’t enough time.

Other considerations

??????????The principal and P&C president came to both sessions which was great. I wasn’t sure whether or not it would be best for the Principal to join the groups or not. She felt that the parent would be able to talk more freely if she wasn’t in a group. In hindsight, I agree but think it was great that she was there so parents could see that she was listening to what they were saying. I probably could have explained this better so that it was very clear why she wasn’t taking part.

At times I felt having the two teachers changed some of the discussion and some of the pieces of gold, but I think this was quite appropriate. There was real value in them being involved and they provided a different perspective. It also meant that they heard directly from the parents. Both the parents and teachers thought it was great they were there.

To be honest, I was bit disappointed that we had under 40 parents. I hoped that we would get 50-60 parents. In a school of over 360 students I think we could have done better. At the same time, it was the first time we had held something like it, so maybe next time there will be more. We had quite a good range of parents, but there were no parents whose language background was other than English (16% of our student) and I wasn’t aware of anybody from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage (4% of our students). Next time I would make this more of a focus of our recruitment.

??????????Despite these limitations, I think it would be fair to say that it was not just the “usual suspects” and that we received a range of views.

It would have been great to have longer and to have had more than one conversation about more of the questions to allow for more cross-pollination of ideas.

Overall I think we had some great discussion, we have some useful ideas to work on, and now we need to make sure that parents see some outcomes from it.

I encourage other schools to give this process a try; I am happy to talk about how you could use it if you want to contact me.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

  1. What is a World Café?
  2. Setting the context for a world cafe
  3. World cafe on steroids
  4. Parent engagement @ school
  5. Making parents feel welcome in schools

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Facilitation & teaching, Schools, Working with communities and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to A World Cafe in a school – a step-by-step description

  1. Sonia says:

    Hi there, just wondering if you are still working in this space? Thank you 😊


  2. mokendeh says:

    Thanks for your generosity in posting step by step world cafe program. This post enable me to have access to numerous interesting post. Than you once again. I am young and dynamic youth worker from the Gambia and i would like your help in terms of mentoring me to learn this skills so as to effectively contribute towards the socio economic development f my community. i look forward to hearing from you soon


    • Thanks for that Mokendeh. I’m not sure about being in a position to really be a mentor from such a distance. I’m sure there are many very skill people much closer to home. I’m glad you found some of the material helpful.


  3. Anonymous says:

    Congratulations Graeme on 1) the initiative and 2) the honest reflections on what worked well and what could be done differently, including awareness of what help you think you need to enhance the experience. I love the way as a Community Engagement educator and practitioner you are providing such rich examples for others to discuss and learn from. Great too to have responses from the US where I think the whole idea of school community engagement is very strong.
    Acting Director
    Family Action Centre,
    University of Newcastle


  4. Thanks Caleb, I’ll keep an eye out for those books.
    As I parent I will be encouraging the P&C to followup the issues and suggestions from the World Cafe and I’m sure that staff will also consider the implications of the conversations. I hope that discussions like this will become part of what we do at the school and that this will be part of an ongoing process that engages families and the broader community.


  5. calebwinebrenner says:

    I love this. World Café is a great way to have those critical conversations. I find the work of D. Marilee Adams really helpful for this too, especially in schools (her book for teachers comes out in a week), for fostering a sense of curiosity and openness to learning. Wiser Together is Juanita Brown’s initiative for intergenerational conversations, which is great to use with parents and children, too.

    I agree with you that the cross-pollination is so important. Will you be able to do a follow-up? How do you assess impact with such a short time? Would you do another WC exploring how the school fits in with the community ecosystem?


  6. Dave Ellis says:

    Great to here and read about your exploration. I have been utilizing World Cafe in schools in Minnesota as part of preparation to understanding of and/or becoming a trauma informed school. The target population is the entire school staff. It has been very well received as it allows for all the participants to be involved and heard.

    With a co-host, we spend about 6 hours total going over brain development in children prenatal through 3 years of age, the impact of toxic stress on that development, the Adverse Childhood Experiences study and individual and community resilience.

    Great to hear about your World Cafe strategic planning process.


    • That’s interesting Dave, sounds like an important initiative. I’d be interested in hearing how you use the Cafes in your program.
      Are parents involved or is it just staff?
      I have found that World Cafes are a great process. I’m facilitating a workshop this week at Uni on how to use them in teaching.


I'd love to hear what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.