Tuesday, February 7, 2023

School visits and appreciative inquiry

Over the past 6 months or so I've done a lot of school visits - some in person but mostly still virtual visits at this point.  It's been a real learning journey for me, as we have been using the new IB 2020 Standards and Practices, and our approach to evaluation visits is now totally different from before.  Gone are the commendations and recommendations, and instead we are using appreciative inquiry.  For me (and for the schools) this has made a huge difference in the general "tone" of the visits - it is much more positive, much more of a conversation about the unique context of each school, where the school is on its journey and where it aspires to go next.  Because of this I decided I would do a little more research about appreciative inquiry and its benefits.

One term I use a lot with schools is "action research".  I think appreciative inquiry is very much like this as it promotes change.  We ask questions to help schools see some of their challenges in new and innovative ways.  At the heart of appreciative inquiry is the understanding that something works well in all school contexts and our aim is to discover what this is, what energises all stakeholders in a school, and what is it that they care about and that motivates them:  everything here is a positive assumption or affirmation as opposed to the previous approach which was more of a deficit model to find and analyse issues or problems in order to help a school move forward.

As I plan for each of the meetings on a visit I draw heavily on my skills as a cognitive coach - asking the right questions is important!  I always like to start with the successes or strengths that the school have already identified, and to acknowledge their achievements and existing good practices that have developed over the past 5 years since the previous visit.  Of course we do acknowledge the challenges they have faced as well - every single school I have visited recently has spoken about the impact of Covid and school closures on students' communication, social and self-management skills.  A focus on what they have achieved despite these difficulties creates a feeling of enthusiasm and hope, and helps people to expand their thinking into what could be possible.  

The model of appreciative inquiry has sometimes been called the 4D model:

  1. Discovery - exploring "the best of what is"
  2. Dream - articulating and discussing "what might be"
  3. Design - working together to develop "what might be"
  4. Destiny - collectively experimenting with "what can be"
Just as in cognitive coaching, appreciative inquiry focuses on what people think, not on what they do.  The idea is that change comes from discussing new ideas and collaboratively creating new knowledge.  If there are challenges that need to be discussed, then being open-minded and sensitive to different ways of seeing things will encourage people to consider possibilities that may address the problem.  In this way problems are not seen as threats:  instead the focus is on what is working well and what more needs to be done to make it even better.  

When an IB team visits a school we have just 3 days to collect a picture of the learning and teaching there so it's really important to focus on building relationships right from the start, so that there is a sense of trust and safety in all our meetings and classroom observations.   We ask curious, non-judgemental questions.  I often use sentence stems like, "Tell us a little more about ...." or "Help us to understand ..."  These questions encourage people to talk about the things that matter to them, and also to share some of their hopes.  In our meetings I also like to ensure that all voices are heard - so that all perspectives can be considered.  For example if there is a teacher who isn't saying much I might ask the question, "What does this look like in your classroom/subject/section of the school?"

At the end of our visit we have a Conclusion Meeting where we share our thoughts and give some suggestions the school might like to consider as opportunities for future development.  We stress these are considerations, not recommendations like before, as the school needs to feel agency and ownership of their own next steps.  One thing I'm always looking out for in this meeting is that the schools recognise themselves in the strengths and opportunities we are sharing.  Often people will say "You've only been here a few days but it seems like you have a real understanding of what we have been through in the last five years."  When I hear this I always feel that the school feels acknowledged and that they recognise their strength and existing good practice and now know how to build on these in order to grow and change. 

Image Credit:  Peter Durand on Flickr shared with a Creative Commons licence

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