An appreciative approach to School Improvement Planning

On Friday I will be presenting to Principals, Superintendants and Managers at the Ottawa Carleton District School Board.  I will present a very short overview of an Appreciative Inquiry event  I helped organize last spring.  Rather than focusing on the details of that event, I wanted to give an overview of the principles of Appreciative Inquiry to suggest that it is a worthy approach to incorporate into School Improvement Planning.  My point is not to offer a step-by-step methodology, but rather an overview of the productive potential behind shifting perspective from one that looks for weakness and aims to find solutions to those problems, to one that looks for strengths and aims to create the conditions under which those promising practices can spread and take hold across an organization or school.  I prepare the following slideshow to share.

a new looking glass

There is no use trying, said Alice; one can’t believe impossible things. I dare say you haven’t had much practice, said the Queen. When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

–Lewis Carol “Through the Looking Glass”

This morning I spent a few hours imagining new possibilities with a group that included parents, school administrators, teachers and our interim Director of Education.  The “Building Relationships” event, co-hosted by the Ottawa Carleton Assembly of School Councils and Ottawa Carleton Immigration Services Organization, asked participants to focus their energy on identifying what is working really well to foster and recognize effective parent and community engagement in our public schools.  The approach, based on Appreciative Inquiry (AI), assumes that every organization holds within itself the kernel of potential for positive change.  David Cooperider explains the generative and constructive nature of Appreciative Inquiry:

In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential.

Appreciative Inquiry stands in stark contrast to traditional strategic planning where the focus is on the problem and the search for solutions.  Instead, with AI, the focus is on what is working really well and how we can create the conditions that will foster more of the positive.  AI asks us to leave behind our preoccupation with all that is wrong and bad within the organization and to direct our efforts towards recognizing the very best of our organization’s activities.

I first began to think through the AI lens when I was planning an event last spring.  The approach really appeals to me because I have witnessed and experienced the stress that comes with zooming in on the negative.  The typical problem-solving approach has, in the past, left me feeling powerless to change a situation because it feels too big, it seems to be external to me, or it doesn’t seem to have a solution.  Since shifting to an appreciative approach, I have seen how it opens space for new possibilities and I have felt empowered to make changes for the better, both in working with students, staff and parents.

The event this morning saw approximately 40 individuals “give up” their Saturday morning to be together to generate the beginning narrative of greater community and parent involvement in the Ottawa Carleton District School Board.  Participants were self-directed in leading, joining and leaving several conversations happening throughout the room.  As I moved from one conversation to another, I heard examples of projects and events happening throughout the District where parents and the community play an integral role and where the students benefit from the partnerships.  One of the sometimes overlooked perks of an AI approach is that once we begin discovering the best of what we are as an organization, the experience becomes truly productive and infectious:  We begin to imagine new possibilities that we might otherwise have missed or dismissed.  A few of the ideas shared during discussions included:

  • approaching the Ottawa Citizen about running a regular column dedicated to highlighting positive events and projects occurring throughout the District.
  • compiling a database of ideas and examples of partnerships between the school and the community
  • principals using synrevoice to send out weekly or monthly announcements of upcoming events and / or recent successes
  • opening schools in the evening to more community use
  • providing opportunities for students to teach technology skills to parents and community members
  • increasing the use of Multicultural Liaison Officers to help break down barriers to immigrant parents

As a wrap-up, our facilitator brought us back together as a whole group to share what we had taken away from the morning.  To me, the AI approach itself fosters greater engagement because it shifts from a view where we are looking externally at problems and searching for solutions to the recognition that we have within ourselves the ability to make a positive impact and bring about change for the better.  In short, it asks us to look into the looking glass first.  The seeds for several new partnerships were sown this morning and it will be interesting to witness the ripple effect as participants go back to their spheres of influence with a renewed commitment and a fresh perspective.

image “sunflowers”  CC by marcomagrini
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Rethinking the Metaphors

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

— Michaelangelo

I recently experienced a moment of serendipity.  I was in typical mid-February reflection mode trying to refocus and appreciate gains made thus far, but feeling a tad frustrated and far too caught up in the busy-ness that can sneak up and swallow entire days.

In previous years when staff members have come to me to express frustration and looking for positives to recharge their efforts with challenging students, I have often recounted the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.  It isn’t that I have spent much time studying the bible, but this story has always appealed to me as a metaphor for perseverance and the reward that comes with fighting the good fight.  You will have to pardon any flaws in my interpretation of the story, but it goes essentially like this:  Jacob struggles with an angel throughout an entire night and in the morning, the angel realizes Jacob’s strength and bestows upon him a blessing.  It always seemed a very appropriate metaphor for the work that teachers do when they persevere with students who present serious challenges within the classroom.  The message is, “stick with it.  Don’t give up.  The rewards will come.”  I think for the teacher the metaphor held some value.  I know that it got me through a few difficult stretches.

But the metaphor wasn’t working for me this time.  It occured to me, for the first time, that the focus was too heavily on the reward promised for “sticking to it.”  Also, the emphasis on the combative nature of the struggle wasn’t sitting well with me – it isn’t a productive or creative endeavour.  I started to feel that the struggle was self-perpetuating.  What I mean is that if I see it as a struggle, it is bound to be so.

I was looking for another way to imagine what it was that we do when we dig in and work tirelessly to make things better for students.  The task is arduous to be sure, but it is constructive and creative, asking us to rethink old perceptions and create space for new possibilities to find ground.  I was reminded of a famous quote by Michelangelo, explaining how he created his masterpiece “David”.  Picking up a project unfinished or cast off by previous artists, Michelangelo states that, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  Now, is this not exactly what we do when we see the potential and promise in each student and work to create the conditions within which students thrive?

Here is where the serendipity comes in.   At about the same time, I was approached to lead the planning of an event to take place this spring that would be based on Appreciative Inquiry and an Open Space Technology format.  In my typical fashion, I agreed without having a clue about either concept.  I knew that I could figure it out and, more importantly, bring together a dynamic group of people who could make it happen.  I started with the book “Appreciative Inquiry:  A Positive Approach to Building Cooperative Capacity” by Frank Barrett and Ronald Fry.  Within the opening chapter, Barrett and Fry use the example of Michelangelo creating David to illustrate the premise of the Appreciative Inquiry appraoch.

Appreciative Inquiry

While wrapping my head around the concept of appreciative inquiry — starting with discovering and valuing what is truly great about what we are doing, I have found a fresh perspective to bring into everything I do.  The timing, coming at the end of February, couldn’t be more welcome.  I have put the Michelangelo quote above the door of my office at school so that I pass underneath it every time I go out into the school.  It serves as a reminder to me to see what is great first, and to look for ways to tap into what is great in order to make things better.  It also reminds me that starting from a position of empathy is key when building the relationships that sustain us and make the school work.  In two weeks we head off for a week of March Break holidays and I cannot wait for the time to relax and quiet my mind a little.  Until then, I will enjoy this new perspective and the process of seeing the angel in the marble every single day.

image “Michelangelo’s David” cc by  J. Mark  Bertrand on flickr

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