How Liberating Structures and Learning 3.0 Are Complementary

Barry Overeem
Jul 9, 2019 · 9 min read

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Sao Paulo (Brazil) for the facilitation of the workshop “The value of Liberating Structures for Agile Organizations”. This public workshop was an initiative by Alexandre Magno and his company Emergee. Together with 15 participants, we explored how Liberating Structures are valuable for organizations that aim to increase their agility.

Around the workshop, I had lots of interesting conversations with Alexandre. We covered a wide range of topics: family, football, food & drinks, but also Liberating Structures (my passion) and Learning 3.0 (his passion). This blog post is focused on both topics and answers the question:

How do Liberating Structures and Learning 3.0 complement each other?

This means I’ve already answered the first question: do they complement each other? The answer to that question is a clear yes! But how…

Image for post
Liberating Structures workshop at Emergee in Sao Paulo (Brazil)

Liberating Structures

Liberating Structures are a collection of 30+ interaction patterns that unflatten, enrich, and deepen interactions in groups. With strong roots in complexity science, and collected by Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz, all Liberating Structures implement five design elements and ten principles. This means that Liberating Structures are not a rigid, static set of formats. New structures are being developed all the time and existing structures are modified, adjusted, or removed. With Liberating Structures, it’s possible to start shifting entire organizations by tweaking the way groups and individuals interact.

“Liberating Structures are a collection of 30+ interaction patterns that unflatten, enrich and deepen interactions in groups.”

Learning 3.0

Learning 3.0 is a concept that enables you to create an environment in which everyone can feel safe to collaborate and to share experiences in order to harness the power of collective knowledge. Alexandre describes this concept in his book “How Creative Workers Learn”. In learning 1.0 the expert defines the questions and answers. In learning 2.0 the learner defines questions, the expert provides the answer. In learning 3.0 the learner defines questions and answers. The motto here is “sharing is the new teaching”. It’s up to the facilitator to create an environment where participants are invited to share experiences and to create a learning space.

“Sharing is the new teaching”

Complementary Structures & Design Elements

The Five Design Elements of Liberating Structures

The five design elements of Liberating Structures offer a structure in which creating knowledge, gathering information, and sharing ideas can occur.

  1. The invitation is the question or topic you want people to explore with the Liberating Structure you have in mind (e.g. “What opportunities do you see to move forward?”).
  2. How space is arranged and what materials are used refers to all the options you have tangible and intangible elements such as tables, chairs, projector, paper, flip charts, or how to use the space e.g. face to face or sitting in a circle.
  3. How participation is distributed clarifies how much time every participant will be given to contribute (e.g. “Divide 10 minutes between the four of you”).
  4. How groups are configured refers to the composition of a group (e.g. first pairs, then groups of four)
  5. The final design element is about the sequence of steps and the time allocated to each step (e.g. 1 minute alone, 2 minutes in pairs, 4 minutes in groups of four).

The Learning 3.0 Flow

In a way, Learning 3.0 offers “design elements” as well, it’s called “The Learning 3.0 Flow”. In the Learning 3.0 flow, the creative workers are the protagonists of their own learning. They problematize what needs to be learned; integrate this with their real-world and share what they have learned. The construction of knowledge begins taking as it’s based on a problem or challenge from the real world, which is what is called problematization. From this follows a sensemaking process, which gives meaning to the organized material or results that will collide with your real world. The learning cycle is complete only after sharing the knowledge that has been built.

Image for post
Image for post
The Learning 3.0 Flow by Alexandre Magno

Learning 3.0 is about emergent learning over-prescriptive learning. The latter is based on knowledge and skills that are pre-determined for the learners — not based on their own needs. Learners are like empty containers into which experts deposit knowledge. Emergent learning happens when it is self-organized. It arises in unpredictable environments from relationships among a number of people and resources within a context in which learners organize and determine to some extent both the process and the learning destinations.

“Learning 3.0 is about emergent learning over prescriptive learning.”

The whole idea is that learning is best done by people acquiring ideas from various sources, running experiments in their own context, and then sharing insights with their peers. It’s about creating your own knowledge, by gathering, experimenting, and sharing.

Given the design elements of Liberating Structures and the flow of Learning 3.0, it makes sense to combine them. Liberating Structures enables ‘problematizing’, supports ‘sensemaking’ and encourages ‘sharing’. To make this more tangible, I’ll offer some concrete examples.

Image for post
Image for post
Creating a learning canvas during the Learning 3.0 workshop in 2016

How to combine Liberating Structures with Learning 3.0?

Although Liberating Structures and Learning 3.0 can be combined, not every structure fits only one of the Learning 3.0 phases. For example, Critical Uncertainties can be used for both ‘problematizing’ and ‘sensemaking’. Conversation Cafe is ideal for ‘sensemaking’ but offers space for ‘sharing’ as well. I’ve taken the freedom to connect it to the phase in which I think it can be used ideally.

Also, when doing the ‘problematizing-phase’ individually, it doesn’t make sense to use Liberating Structures. Therefore, I’m going to assume you’re doing the problematizing-phase as a group.

Image for post
The Learning 3.0 Flow & the collection of Liberating Structures

Using Liberating Structures for ‘Problematising’

Take a challenge from the real world and select material and results that help clarify the problem

  • Wicked Questions: Articulate the paradoxical challenges that a group must confront to succeed. What opposing-yet-complementary strategies do we need to pursue simultaneously in order to be successful? Having a clearly defined Wicked Question will help you with the sensemaking process.
  • Impromptu Networking: Rapidly share novel ideas, challenges, and expectations while simultaneously making personal connections. By sharing the challenges with each other it will reveal patterns and help sharpen your own idea about how to formulate the problem.
  • TRIZ: Stop counterproductive activities and behaviors by inviting ‘creative destruction’ and making space for innovation. The outcome of the clarified counterproductive activities and behaviors, can be used as input for the sensemaking and sharing parts of the Learning 3.0 flow.
  • Nine Whys: Dig deep into the root causes of the problem you’re facing by answering questions like “Why is this problem important to you?”, “Why is that important to our customers?”, “Why is it worth spending time on?”.
  • Drawing Together: Reveal insights through nonverbal expression. Sometimes you get stuck describing the challenge you’re facing if you can only use words. By visualizing the problem, you can share ideas that otherwise wouldn’t surface.
Image for post
Impromptu Networking — sharing ideas and making new connections

Using Liberating Structures for ‘Sensemaking’

Give meaning to the gathered material that will collide with your real-world by doing research, making connections with others and simply practicing

  • Myth Turning: What is a belief or an assumption that has shaped or guided you during this journey, but that you are starting to question, maybe a false notion or may be holding you back? Myth Turning can be helpful in personal/organizational development or in a biased/toxic environment where one is searching for ways to come together again. It can also help with making sense of the problem you’re facing.
  • Critical Uncertainties: Develop strategies to quickly respond to future challenges with Critical Uncertainties. What are the uncertain factors beyond your control when starting or stopping an activity? What are plausible future scenarios that might evolve? What do these scenarios mean given your problem? What strategies, practices, and experiments can you try in order to be successful in these scenarios?
  • Ecocycle Planning: Bring focus to what you’re doing in order to achieve your purpose. Explore what it is that you’re keeping in the air (but shouldn’t), and what it is that you are not doing (but should). By making all the activities that relate to your problem transparent in an Ecocycle, you can define the next steps to make progress on your challenge.
  • Discovery & Action Dialogue: Discover, invent, and unleash local solutions to chronic problems. Make sense of the challenge and determine next steps by asking questions like: “How do you know when the problem is present?”, “How do you contribute effectively to solving the problem?” and “What prevents you from doing this or taking these actions all the time?”.
  • What, So What, Now What: Encourage sensemaking by exploring the challenge in a structured way with What, So What, Now What. Step 1: “What have you seen, heard or observed?”, “What did you notice? What facts stood out the most?”. Step 2: “So, what do these observations mean to you?”, “What seems to be important?”, “What patterns and conclusions are emerging?” Step 3: “Now what actions make sense? What is a good next step?
Image for post
Image for post
Pictures of Critical Uncertainties being used at Swisscom

Using Liberating Structures for ‘Sharing’

Share the knowledge and insights that have been built

  • Shift & Share: Share novel ideas and creative solutions across groups. Participants showcase their ideas or products and gather meaningful feedback in short cycles. In one hour or less, it’s possible to include everyone in a large group and make every voice heard in a structured, constructive way.
  • Gallery Walk: Use Gallery Walk to have participants arrive at their own conclusions & interpretations by making sense of their challenges. Afterward, let them share what confused them the most, they felt strongest about or was most insightful for them.
  • Conversation Cafe: Engage everyone in making sense of profound challenges while discovering how different perspectives lead to a richer understanding instead of division. It encourages people to listen and understand each other’s perspectives on a profound, shared topic or challenge instead of trying to convince or persuade others to see it your way.
  • Open Space Technology: With Open Space you don’t have pre-defined topics. Everyone has the opportunity to bring their own ideas & challenges they have and address topics they consider important or interesting. Having co-created the agenda people will take responsibility quickly for solving problems, sharing ideas, and moving into action.
  • UX Fish Bowl: Unleash local know-how with a ‘User Experience Fishbowl’, identify patterns, and build on them. By focusing strongly on listening and asking questions about experiences, you can use UX Fishbowls to create an environment where people can learn together (rather than get solutions imposed on them).
Image for post
A UX Fishbowl in full-swing


The book “How Creative Workers Learn” by Alexandre Magno has had a massive impact on my professional life. Inspired by the ideas in this book, I started to change my view on how to provide training, facilitate workshops, and offer consultancy. However, I did struggle to put the concepts and ideas of Learning 3.0 in practice. By discovering Liberating Structures it all fell in place. By combining Learning 3.0 and Liberating Structures the whole idea of self-organized emergent learning was unlocked and took off rapidly! It enabled participants in our workshops to create their own knowledge by gathering, experimenting, and sharing.

My intention with this blog post was to clarify how Learning 3.0 and Liberating Structures complement each other. By offering tangible examples, I hope to have encouraged you to give it a try!

Interested in learning many different Liberating Structures in an intense 2-day workshop? Check out our agenda for upcoming Immersion Workshops. If you want to learn more about Learning 3.0, check the website of Emergee.

Image for post
See how you can support us at

The Liberators

The Liberators: Unleash The Superpowers Of Your Team

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store