Francis Laleman: Resourceful Exformation

A Systems Library, Vol. 26

Philippe Vandenbroeck
6 min readMay 1, 2022
Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

Those who are put off by yet another fancy-sounding neologism can be reassured. It’s really quite simple:

“Information is an activity of making things known (…)
Exformation is an activity of making things unknown.”

Or, more precisely: “Exformation implies a transformation of the already known into the possibilities enshrined in the as yet unknown.”

Therefore: “Resourceful exformation seems to be a facilitation method by making the perceived limitations of our resourcefulness unknown.”

Or, finally, in other words: resourceful exformation suggests itself as a way of helping people to really learn.

In his short foreword George Supreeth introduces a felicitous expression: “ … learning is a latticework of experiences.” It sounds commonplace, but one senses the poetic force that binds the latticework together. It suggests a journey that is characterised by contingency and genuine not-knowing. I’m reminded here of novelist Nicholas Mosley who writes: “ It was as if we were dancing on this riddle; bits and old pieces of us fell through: we were supported, delicately, on bars of light …”

How to learn? How to rekindle that effortless capacity to absorb novelty we all (without exception) had when we were infants? Yes, we need a little bit of help to recapture that experience of boundless trust in a boundless universe. But it’s not rocket science. The essential contribution of an exformative facilitator is to design a space that invites us to lean forward into the possibilities embedded in the as yet unknown and rewards us with a flow of learning value increments. Expressed as such one senses the nature of this learning process is user-driven, ad hoc, agile, iterative. One also senses it goes against the grain of institutionalised learning, whether at school or in a professional environment, oriented to predefined learning objectives and agendas.

Francis Lalemand summarises the approach of exformative learning design as follows:

The quest, then, for the exformative learning designer, is difficult.

The quest, then, for the exformative learning designer, is simple.

It is to collect learner’s user stories and find common areas for exploration.

Send out invitations, probing for voluntary participation by a group of individuals or a team as diverse as can be.

Offer nagenda, opening doors for a transformation of knowns into unknowns, urging relentless curiosity and sharpening the mind.

Enter the learning space.

Make it a safe and holding space.

Offer an array of learning structures, fitting into each other like tessellations, motivating and aesthetically appealing, in quick iterations, nearly a continuous flow, interspersed with reviews and retrospectives.

Get learning done. Get more learning done.

And keep learning going.

In exformative learning the role and disposition of learner and facilitator do not differ that much. Both pledge themselves to bring to bear a sustained and benevolent attention to the joint learning process. (Probing, listening, expressing respect and gratitude for the courage and curiosity manifested by their co-learners). And both open themselves to the contingencies of becoming. The facilitator is not comfortably ensconsed in her role of expert. She merely facilitates the process of co-facilitation of activity-and-relationship-centered learning by bringing to bear her skills of intent observation and gently prompting the collective with a range of learning structures.

Structures are constraints. But they can be designed and put into practice in such a way that they liberate curiosity and engagement. In their 2014 book Lipmanowicz and McCandless zoom in on the affordances offered by microstructures: tangible and intangible elements that determine how control is exercised over a group of people who are working together, including:

  • The invitation to collaborate;
  • How space is arranged and what materials are used;
  • How participation is distributed among participants;
  • How groups are configured;
  • The sequence of steps and the time allocated to each step.

Francis Laleman gives his own spin on this notion of microstructures by offering a typology of five carriers of creative expression (borrowed from Belgian writer and theatre educator Herman Teirlinck): space, plane, shape, time and word.

Space comes first as “right from the moment we start to exist, it is from the space around us that we learn the most.”

And word comes last as many of the learning structures “are meant to be temporary placeholders, offered in order to keep possibilities or concepts or ideas in place for a certain time — with the ultimate aim to be a gateway, a medium, by which stories will emerge and will be told, which would remain out-of-reach or would not get to being told, if the placeholders and their gateway function would have remained absent.”

However, there is a danger here as verbalisation can tempt the facilitator into a teaching mode, causing the exformative learning process to collapse into mere transmission of information. Theatrical structures, therefore, are powerful aids to consolidate learning takeaways in an improvisational and multi-sensorial way.

Exformative learning is an artful and artistic practice. It’s artful because it demands a sophisticated attunement to when and where affordances emerge for what to do next in the unfolding latticework of learning. And like art, it demands an existential commitment to embrace the contigencies that are thrown up in the friction-rich experience of interacting with material and in relationships. Like art it has nothing to do with convincing people to think and do anything in a particular.

Back to Nicholas Mosley: “The discipline is in the faith: you do not know what, but you know that: there has to be also, I suppose (how can you say this!), courage, skill; the skill being perhaps in knowing how to say — Ah, skill, how can you say that! So you let yourself go; with diligence, with pain, and then suddenly — by neither accident nor design; you have been blown round some corner — there is this extraordinary landscape.”

If you are intrigued by Laleman’s exformative approach I also recommend to read up on Lois Holzman’s development-oriented social therapeutics, featured in Vol. 16 of our Systems Library. There are many resonances between them, despite their distinct first-line sources of inspiration. While Newman has been inspired by Vygotsky, Wittgenstein en Marx, Laleman leans on activist educators such as Augusto Boal (Theatre of the Oppressed) and Paulo Freire. Additionally he takes his cue from contemporary problem solving and quality improvement approaches such as Agile, Design Thinking and the Toyota Way.

Plentiful info on the website of Francis and his associates. Laleman’s Medium channel offers a collection of carefully crafted essays that are a delight to read. The book can be purchased via the website

More to read in the Systems Library:

Vol. 25: Keller Easterling: Medium Design(2020)

Vol. 24: Ian Cheng: An Emissaries Guide to Worlding (2018)

Vol. 23: Janis Birkeland: Positive Development (2008)

Vol. 22: Michel Serres: The Natural Contract (1990)

Vol. 21: Henk Oosterling: Resistance in Times of Ecopanic (2020)

Vol. 20: Ray Ison & Ed Straw: The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking (2020)

Vol. 19: Andreas Weber: Enlivenment (2019)

Vol. 18: Luc Hoebeke: Making Work Systems Better (1994)

Vol. 17: Donella Meadows: Thinking in Systems (2009)

Vol. 16: Lois Holzman: The Overweight Brain (2018)

Vol. 15: Hanne De Jaegher: Loving and Knowing. Reflections for an Engaged Epistemology (2018)

Vol. 14: Judi Marshall: First-person Action Research: Living Life as Inquiry (2016)

Vol. 13: Jocelyn Chapman (Ed.): For the Love of Cybernetics (2020)

Vol. 12: John Morecroft: Strategic Modelling and Business Dynamics (2007)

Vol. 11: Antoine de St Exupéry: Flight to Arras (1942)

Vol. 10: Edgar Schein: Humble Inquiry (2013)

Vol. 9: Peter Block: Community. The Structure of Belonging (2008)

Vol. 8: Valerie Ahl & Timothy Allen: Hierarchy Theory (1996)

Vol. 7: Herbert Simon: The Sciences of the Artificial (1969, 1998)

Vol. 6: Donald Schon: Beyond the Stable State (1971)

Vol. 5: Barry Oshry: Seeing Systems (2007)

Vol. 4: Béla Bánáthy: Guided Evolution of Society. A Systems View (2000)

Vol. 3: Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh: The Path (2016)

Vol. 2: Stafford Beer: ‘Designing Freedom’ (1974)

Vol. 1: John Law and Annemarie Mol (Eds.): ‘Complexities’ (2014)



Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?