The best coach in class

15th September 2006 at 01:00
Building on players' strengths is a winning tactic used in Scottish rugby. Why not in schools too? asks Robin Shohet

Earlier this year, almost by chance, I watched the Scotland-France rugby game. Before the match Frank Hadden, the Scottish rugby coach, was being interviewed. He said he believed in bringing out the best in people, playing to their strengths.

I was impressed by the simplicity of his approach. It had a lot in common with appreciative inquiry which I have been using in schools throughout the UK and especially Scotland. This method looks at the strengths in an organisation or team or individual, and builds on them. It focuses on successes rather than problems.

Frank was a natural at recognising what people had to offer. I imagined he would build a strong team spirit. And he did. I am sure many of you will remember that Scotland beat France, and went on to beat England. Their team spirit was palpable.

I use Frank as an example when I teach appreciative inquiry. With the same players as the previous coach, he had taken them from the bottom to beat the two supposedly best teams.

Taking the analogy to schools, even in the most difficult schools, there is plenty to build on.

So what is appreciative inquiry and why do I believe it has so much to offer schools? It is a way of discovering what is already working well in an organisation. We focus on the 95 per cent that is working rather than the 5 per cent that is not. In helping people to appreciate what is already there, they are able to go into the future more positively, with a sense of achievement and optimism.

This approach is in contrast to many of our learning experiences which focus on shortcomings.

A session takes people through various stages. The first is the discovery phase where we appreciate what is already working. People tell stories of times when they felt good about themselves, their work, their students, colleagues, their school. These stories are often very moving. People report seeing another side of colleagues with whom they had worked for many years.

This is a vital part of the process. Sometimes, there is an impatience - a desire for some action. I liken it to growing plants where we must tend the soil first.

The second stage is to begin to imagine a future based on the best of what is already there, to move into this future with a sense of optimism. By discovering what is already working, we can hold a positive image of what could be, and in this way begin to create it.

There is a sense of being on the same side, and so there is also a much greater ownership of any future projects and commitment to working together.

Finally, we look at how to implement any project for maximum ownership and effectiveness. In other words, we are not satisfied with a feel-good factor alone, although it certainly helps.

To go back to the rugby, we want team spirit - but we also want to win our matches.

I have been working at Lossiemouth High for the last year. The headteacher is sympathetic to this approach and has a natural ability to see strengths.

I suggested we ask Frank Hadden to come and talk. He generously agreed and, at the end of last month, he talked to third and four year students. His theme was the developing of self-confidence.

He stressed how crucial it was that players really enjoyed their training, and the importance of hard work and setting goals. He described how players supported each other and used peer pressure creatively to build team spirit. It was inspiring and very relevant to creating confidence in schools as well as on the rugby pitch.

This appreciative approach is being piloted through Teacher Support Scotland in six schools in two Scottish local authorities. It is being thoroughly evaluated and, if proved effective, we may be seeing much more of it in the future.

I hope so. We could be on our way to Scotland winning the World Championship.

Robin Shohet is a freelance management consultant. He is organising a conference using appreciative inquiry, September 30-October 2. Details: www.findhorn.orgschoolsTeacher Support Scotland:

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