Data, democracy and the Dialogic Café

Creativity and innovation are fundamental to early childhood education. Educators are required to be creative in their daily practices of building relationships with children, families and each other. They constantly need to apply innovative solutions to challenging problems. And they gain diverse perspectives through critical inquiry. Creativity, diversity and innovation have sustained me throughout my rich and interesting career in early childhood education, so when it came to designing my PhD research study on leadership, I put my imagination to work.

Leanne Gibbs shares her research as a PhD candidate and will be presenting on her findings next week at the 2019 AJEC Research Symposium.

My research—on the practices that support the emergence and development of leadership— investigates a particular aspect of the early childhood leadership phenomena. I’m interested in how ‘leading’ is nurtured for the purpose of preparing and developing leaders in our early childhood settings and our sector.

I’m using a range of methods in this ethnographic case study, and one of those methods is the Dialogic or World Café method (Steir, Brown, and Mesquita da Silva, 2015). The method developed almost by accident after Brown’s plans for a strategic workshop went awry. As a result, the participants were prematurely cast into multiple unstructured conversations in an intimate café-like setting. People became curious about conversations at other tables and so they moved around the small room sharing thoughts and ideas. The approach was so productive that the ‘hosts’ resolved to use it again and again. It has gone on to become a method used in organisational change processes, and predominantly in action research.

The Dialogic or World Café is a powerful, collaborative method that engages participants in dialogue around critical questions. It is, by nature, participatory and emergent. As a structured conversation, Dialogic Café democratically creates knowledge for collaborative learning and participants pose questions that form the basis for critical dialogue. This approach contrasts with interviewing and focus group techniques, which place the power in the hands of the interviewer. In keeping with Brown’s original approach, the event is ‘hosted’ rather than ‘facilitated’;  the themes are emergent, power is shared and learning is collaborative.

My own Dialogic Cafés begin with a provocation developed from the observations and conversations I have had at the case study sites. I invite participants to join in and pose questions. They select questions that interest them and hold conversations while recording emerging themes and ideas. As each Dialogic Café closes, ideas and collective discoveries are harvested. This collaborative dialogue allows for the sharing of emergent themes, ideas and knowledge, and encourages action. At one of my sites, I had a graphic illustrator to record our conversations. This provided more data and themes for future reflection. We all enjoyed seeing our thoughts distilled into creative images.

The outcomes of the Dialogic Café are affirming and unexpected, and always richer than anticipated. Participants ask far more interesting questions than I have planned, and their responses are meaningful and personally beneficial. I chose the Dialogic Café for a few reasons. The method was theoretically aligned with my research; it augmented my other methods of observation, interviews and document analysis; and it was familiar, as I had used it before—although not for research.

I’m an enthusiast for methods like Dialogic Café. When we want to develop new understandings and mine the clever minds and ideas of our sector, what better way to investigate knowledge and practice than to unearth the answers to questions we never knew we had!


Steier, F., Brown, J., & Mesquita da Silva, F. (2015). The World Café in action research settings. In H. Bradbury (Ed.), The SAGE handbook of action research (3rd ed., pp. 210–218). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

The 2019 AJEC Research Symposium will be held in Melbourne from 14–15 February 2019. Click here to secure your ticket or see the program overview here

Leanne Gibbs

Leanne Gibbs has worked in the early childhood education and community sector for over 35 years and is currently Senior Manager with Early Start at the University of Wollongong. She has a PhD, along with qualifications in education, public policy, politics, leadership and management, and is a Graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Her roles have included teacher and director of long day care and preschool programs, adviser and manager with local state and federal government, teacher and lecturer within early education, management and leadership programs for TAFE and Universities. She has been a manager of professional development programs for major providers and Chief Executive Officer for an Australian sector peak organisation. Leanne is an active member of Boards and advisory groups on ECEC workforce and science within ECEC. She is an author, researcher, and podcaster. Her research interests are leadership, management and governance and their influence upon social justice and ECEC quality.

One thought on “Data, democracy and the Dialogic Café”

    Anne Kennedy says:

    Thanks Leanne for sharing with us this interesting research approach. Appreciate the idea of ‘mining’ and respecting the incredible depth of knowledge and wisdom of leaders within the sector and the inquiry questions they want to discuss with you and each other.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top