Ask yourself if this really makes sense

14th April 2006 at 01:00
The new interest in appreciative inquiry is more smoke and more mirrors, says Bob Holmes

Teacher Support Scotland aims to trial and evaluate "appreciative inquiry"

techniques within schools in two authorities. It has the support of the Scottish Executive in a project entitled "Creating the Conditions for Ambitious Schools". One of the aims of this project is to "provide support for teachers, build their resilience and competence". It claims there has been some pioneering work using appreciative inquiry - but it has not been evaluated.

For the past 30 years, schools in Scotland have been deluged with initiatives. Is this another fad and fancy, or does it offer something appropriate, practical and constructive?

Appreciative inquiry was developed in the United States some 20 years ago by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva, who were trying to find ways of reconfiguring action research. They assert that existing forms of problem-solving approaches to action research are limiting and that appreciative inquiry represents a practical alternative. It allows organisations to generate theory and to develop. Good theories are one of the essential ways for organisations to grow and to effect change within themselves and within the wider community.

It has been accepted for quite some time that reality is a social construction. Accordingly, we see what we believe. Given that what we believe results from talking and sharing ideas, we can then suppose that we see what we talk about. In a school, for example, teachers will talk about the poor behaviour of some pupils. That is what they then see. They talk about it some more and they see it some more and it becomes a crisis: pupils are badly behaved and unruly.

It may be simple conjecture, but might the fact that teachers have been talking about bad behaviour influence the way they then act? Could it be that they are more sensitised and that there is something about their actions and responses that then leads to a deterioration in pupils'


Might it also be that, in continuing to talk about pupils' poor behaviour, the school is unable to see beyond that? The school wants the pupils to behave better - and it is a fair guess that the pupils want the pupils to behave better. However, because the school is preoccupied with poor behaviour, it does not know how to begin to address the problem in such a way that positive outcomes will be achieved. The school does not know which are the correct questions to ask. Without the right kinds of questions, the right kinds of discussion - and solutions - will not be found.

The same kind of process can be applied to almost any aspect of the school's enterprise: examination performance, attendance and truancy, homework, uniform, staff absence. If you do not know which questions to ask, you will not arrive at the answers you are looking for. There was something like this in Alice in Wonderland, wasn't there?

It is not quite that simple. It never is. People will normally head for their own comfort zone, the place where they feel comfortable, knowledgeable and in control. Given that it would be beneficial to change the way people talk about problems, the first step is to winkle them out of their comfort zone - no easy task. As a generality, people do not like to be challenged; they do not like to feel that their beliefs are being questioned - even worse when they are asked to question their own beliefs.

So providing a secure and non-threatening challenge is key: help people talk about the things they are avoiding.

The principles of appreciative inquiry are therefore about looking for and discovering all the positives in an organisation and focusing on them. The aspects of the organisation that work well give impetus to people and, at the same time, develop and maintain the momentum for change. That's the appreciative part.

The inquiry part is about deepening understanding through questioning and through inquiry. Questions are always positive and the language chosen is affirming and supportive. The general idea is that all of this gives confidence to people to do their best. To face the unknown with certainty means that there will be benefits for all.

Appreciative inquiry's proponents also suggest it can incorporate team-working. It can develop creativity and produce new ideas, reduce conflict and enhance relationships. Importantly, appreciative inquiry does not preclude negatives.

Can appreciative inquiry offer schools new insights and new ways of working - at a time when more and greater demands are placed on schools? Will it help foster positive relationships between pupils and teachers and the school and its community? Will the adoption of appreciative inquiry principles and practice reduce the pressure and stress of teaching and empower teachers so that they will feel more competent and resilient?

Teachers themselves have a professional commitment to being competent and resilient. They need to have something to say about their own workload and stress levels. Who, if not teachers, will take responsibility for creating and building positive relationships - with each other and with pupils? Teachers have to challenge each other as well as challenge pupils to learn effectively. Teachers are required to provide structures which are ordered and where pupils feel safe and valued.

In that enterprise, teachers can expect to be supported by their managers.

Managers are charged with creating the conditions where teachers can work as effectively as possible. Managers provide challenge and support in equal measure so teachers feel empowered and respected. Management is about setting the vision and the tone so that all learners are valued and are challenged appropriately.

At the same time, all teachers are responsible for speaking out for themselves, the pupils and the community. Teachers need to respect themselves enough to take on and carry out these responsibilities.

Schools must identify their needs and ensure these needs are met. If these responsibilities are shirked, teachers are in danger of surrendering the profession to modern day carpetbaggers, consequently losing control of their own destiny. Initiatives such as appreciative inquiry are symptomatic of that loss of control.

Appreciative inquiry? More smoke, more mirrors.

Bob Holmes was depute headteacher of Hawick High.

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