Holding the Space

A guest blog from Paul Gorman, from Hidden Giants

Paul Gorman (source: https://hiddengiants.org/about/)

Hidden Giants collaborates with teachers, practitioners and policy makers to re-imagine their curriculum by placing innovative, creative and critical thinking at its heart. It is led by its Creative Director Paul Gorman and regarded as one of Scotland’s leading creative learning organisation.  Its work is delivered across Scotland and Internationally in Nurseries, Primaries, Secondary’s, Further Education colleges and Universities.

Paul has been a long term collaborator with the Fire Starter Festival and reflects here on how he was inspired to do nothing but hold the space. 

Hidden Giants has always welcomed the space, invitation, and permission presented by the Fire Starter Festival.  It asks us to think beyond our traditional and known approaches to work by challenging us to consider how else we could be working differently together.  One of the key events from last year’s festival, that I was involved with, was called the Future of Education.  This event started a process that ended up with the creation of a new festival championing creative bravery and how it reimagines education.  This all sounds like a lot of work but I have learned that quite often doing nothing other than holding the space is exactly what is needed when the world feels out of control.  This is a story of how I learned to hold the space in the digital world . . . 

A while ago a Head Teacher gave me some feedback, “Paul” she said “you do nothing and yet everything.”  I was pleased, I think she had noticed that I had avoided spoon-feeding and over-crutching her staff and, as a result, lots of good things had happened.  As I sit staring at my face beaming back at me from my laptop screen I wonder if that Head Teacher would be thinking the same thing now. Today, as I sit and do nothing, I have 40 people in Zoom breakout rooms busily discussing what has emerged this week and what feels urgent.  I have pressed the appropriate button so I sit back and wonder. .. 

Sometimes doing nothing is the hardest, yet most important thing we can do.  Maybe doing nothing is an unhelpful description of my role but curating a virtual space for people to come together feels like a small gesture when so many in society are doing so much more.  Perhaps referring to my action as ‘holding the space’ would be more accurate.  My understanding of this phrase refers to a relationship that does not carry judgment, attempts to ‘fix’ someone, and doesn’t have a set outcome.  It is a space that is weak and risky as it invites participation, revels in unknowns, and demands acute listening.  Like a swan: effortlessly gliding along the surface whilst out of view the legs and feet are frantically moving at pace.  This is the story of how Hidden Giants created a collective, that would spark off  The Creative Bravery Festival,  and my learning that came from it.  

Creative Bravery Logo Animation

It all started the first week of lock-down when I decided to pull the Hidden Giants associates together in a one-off zoom call to explore how we respond to the emerging Coronavirus crisis.  There were originally seven of us little rabbits looking into the zoom headlights.  It all felt very new, and very different.  When you invite someone into a space there is an expectation that you should know what to do: what content needs covered, what exercises you will employ, what theories should be in play etc etc.  This all dissolves when you are panicking about pressing the right button.  It felt like learning to drive a car all over – lots of component parts that need to be working in harmony to allow safe travel to occur. 

We stumbled through that first session and agreed we would continue.  We thought there might be others who would value the space for conversation so started to invite our networks.  As the weeks passed the group grew steadily in numbers.  In my head I was curating a club night for those that required sanctuary and community.  By May we had a steady 25 participants joining each week.  The format was simple:  after an initial discussion I posed the question ‘what has emerged this week and what do we need to discuss?’ Breakout rooms opened and after 15 minutes we would return and open-up the conversation.  This one simple question offered people the opportunity to remove their label and jump into urgent, non-agenda, and collective conversations.  When the world was moving at such a fast paced with new decisions being made daily, we managed to slow everything down by offering a space to pause, stop, and pay attention to what we deemed was urgent. 

Creative Campfire Animation

Each week brought a new mistake; the pushing of the wrong button, forgetting to change the time allocation, not allowing for silences.  Learning to facilitate in a virtual world allows you to reflect on the values and practices that define your uniqueness as a facilitator of a room.  My high tempo manic facilitation style of the physical world was tamed – probably for the better.  My willingness to hold and grow unknown spaces continued.  I saw value in communities of strangers and explored my role in creating a safe but disruptive space for them to play within.  It was light touch, maybe even lighter than the physical world – I had almost stopped. 

This tension between fast/slow became a regular theme to the conversations.  On several occasions people had observed systems making decisions in haste that were a rehash rather than a reimagining.  We explored the idea of ‘well-intentioned adults’ attempting to do the right thing but actually making it worse.  Again, the idea of stopping emerged as a key provocation.  Is it possible to truly stop when decisions needed to be made?  We spoke about how else decisions could be informed through different methods, more democratic channels, or including different voices.  The #BLM protests fuelled this conversation – diversity, inclusion, equalities.  Another complex and wicked problem that required a ‘stopping’ and not tokenistic temporary responses. 

As Biesta suggests the ‘active act of meaning making allows for Education to occur’ felt very relevant within our groups.  It requires an awareness of the processes of meaning making when you are playing with a subject that is unknown, subjective, emergent, complex, societal, geo-political, and domestically highly political.  It felt democratic to be with a group of people to discuss and better understand the complexities of the society we were living in and through.  Our agency was being enhanced at a time when other aspects of our control and autonomy were being eroded.  Being with a community centred our attention and we started to see glimpses of the future in the present.  

As the weeks progressed, we started to see new connections and collaborations emerge.  These were obviously not dictated by me as I was still doing nothing holding the space.  During the breakout rooms people had forged links and started to connect independently of the group.  They were hatching plans, exploring ideas, and wondering what they could offer as a response.  All too often we make the mistake of ‘putting’ people in teams or allocating them a role.  We were demonstrating the power of belief, agency, and horizontal team structures.  We had created an open space with no central decision maker, no hierarchy, no task list, no KPI’s. As a result, good things were happening.  

Participants asked to present their emerging ideas to the group.  The collective became a sounding board to support these raw and unformed projects.  The space allowed for vulnerability by championing weak and risky thinking and avoided powerpoint presentations of the ‘right answer’.  This bravery was recognised as empowerment, an expression of agency, and a growing belief in the power of a collective. 

The group is focused on education and learning so has members from very diverse backgrounds and lived-experiences: teachers, artists, lectures, early-years practitioners, creatives, senior leaders, and local authority creative learning teams.  This blending allowed and enhanced an appreciation of otherness.  Through conversations people developed empathy and an awareness of the lived-experiences of others resulting in shared dialogue, a challenging of assumptions, and a willingness to move forward together. 

One of the key learning that has emerged is the understanding that people are willing to see beyond their job title and feel restricted by the role they are told to adopt.  Members started to bother themselves in business that wasn’t included in their job description – we spoke about politics, history, philosophy, theory, and self.  No one was paid to be there, no one was told to attend by their manager, no one wanted to make a financial gain from attending.  When spaces emerge beyond our allocated silos, we see people play with another form of self, no longer teacher, artist, manager.  The breakout rooms challenged people to create spaces to make mistakes, muddle through, and, as a result, find their new voice.  


Hidden Giants would like to invite you to a Zoom call on Tue 4th August at 11am.  We will explore:

  • The benefits of doing nothing other than holding the space
  • The tension between fast/slow decision making
  • The need to meddle beyond our given silos
  • The joy of collaborating with complete strangers 

If you are interested, please sign up to this session via the link below.

After this initial session Hidden Giants would like to invite you to participate in ‘AOB/What next?’. Each Thursday at 4pm I sit back and press the ‘open room’ button.  I would like to see you there. If you are interested, please let me know via paul@hiddengiants.org. Come and experience our collective, you might even want to stay! 

“At the start everything felt very separate but now I see them as being very much connected.  To me, I think the AOB group plays a huge role within that.  It’s like the central HUB where everyone comes together, ideas spark and then people connect with each other in different ways and go off and take action elsewhere.  This is how I see it anyway.”  

AOB Participant

We will then come together again on 1 September at 11pm to unpack what has happened when we enter into an experience that is currently unknown and emerging. You can already sign up for this session via the link below.

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