You’re far too modest: The merits of Appreciative Inquiry

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Appreciative Inquiry is a model that might help schools to know and better understand their strengths, thus supporting your school improvement processes. Fiona Aubrey-Smith explains more

One of the things that I love most about working with schools is the opportunity to visit and learn more about learning communities all across the country.

It is fascinating that even though there are around 25,000 primary schools and academies across England which are all broadly directed by the same national policies, each individual school is unique.

This uniqueness is something that becomes your USP when showing visitors and prospective parents around. However, it is also so embedded in the practice of the school community that even you, and your leadership team, might stop seeing it.

In every walkaround of a school that I’ve had the privilege of visiting, the headteacher has at some point said something along the lines of: “I hadn’t really noticed that – we all just do it.”

Sometimes a fresh lens through which to view your school can be refreshing. Not an inspection lens, nor a monitoring one, but a reflective one: in particular, recognising the strengths of your school and using that as a launch pad for future plans.

This draws upon one approach that John Goodey, the innovative headteacher of St John Baptist Primary in south London, advocates – Appreciative Inquiry. He explained: “Appreciative Inquiry approaches get everyone into a growth mindset. Traditionally, a ‘problem’ becomes apparent and senior leaders thrash out a strategy to ‘solve the problem’.

“Using an AI approach, we might start by identifying what is already working and the values and motivations behind these successes. Staff members across the school collaborate by telling real stories of what has been successful from their own experience. This is followed by a creative sharing of ideas to make things even better and a positive strategy emerges. New ways of working occur as exciting opportunities. A growth mindset is employed by all staff to make a tangible difference to the lives of the children. Staff expertise is utilised and everyone feels valued.”

Headteachers can be the most modest of professionals – with one eye on ensuring the ship stays stable and the other eye on the horizon. The blind spot can often be the school’s strengths and what’s going well. Yet this is a vital foundation stone upon which to build future work – both in terms of sustainability as well as growth.

We talk to the children in our classes about recognising success through marking and growth mindset work, so let’s get better at doing it ourselves through school leadership.

This term, as you start to think about your improvement priorities for the year ahead, I encourage you to prioritise looking for those taken-for-granted strengths. Perhaps, as you do your daily walkaround – moving through each class and shared space – you might try to look at your school through each of these lenses. Try one lens each week:

The lens of engagement

Which learning journeys, topics or themes have the greatest impact on engagement and children’s progress? What is it about those experiences and the motivation that they create that can be translated into other areas of learning? Dig deep, beyond the surface level – look at things like fresh planning, real audience and purpose, novelty or imaginative stimuli – and think about how those projects are affecting both teachers and children.

The lens of the child

As strange as it might seem, just spend some time sat at the height of a child in each of your key stages. If you are feeling really brave try crawling around at the height of your nursery or Reception children. Perhaps even try “being” a child for a lesson (not just observing them – but doing the same things). Sit where they sit, move where they move, do the activities.

This is one of the most effective ways to start understanding why children in certain spaces do what they do. It’s not necessarily about observing teaching, but about experiencing what your children experience. What do they see and hear? What is in, or beyond their sightlines? What is available to them to help their learning? When you join in with the activities hands-on, what do the children want to tell you about? You might ask them some probing and open questions, but try to avoid asking too many, just absorb their narrative.

The lens of communication

Who are your greatest communicators? What is it that they do particularly well when interacting with others (children, teachers, support staff, leaders, parents)? How might that skill be used in other areas of school life? How can that communication become consistent across your people, places, materials – and out into the community?

The lens of presentation

Which areas in your school are the most visually engaging? What is it about those areas that engages children, staff and/or visitors? What impact does this have on how people react and behave in that area? Which of those things are transferable to other areas where learning could do with a boost? How is your environment affecting the learning of children, staff, parents and leaders (including governance)?

The lens of collaboration

Which partnerships and groups that your school is involved with bring the greatest benefits for children’s learning either directly or indirectly? Why is this? Which features of those relationships can help to strengthen other existing partnerships and/or help to seek out and establish new ones?

The lens of the unspoken

What can a new visitor tell you about your school? Staff, children, parents and governors are so familiar with the fabric and ethos of the school that the obvious becomes invisible. Who comes into your school afresh to give you this first impression feedback? What would they see and feel? How do we treat each other around here? What are the intangibles that convey what you value about learning and children?

New perspectives

Once you have spent time viewing your school through these fresh lenses, think about what you have learnt or seen. What have you noticed that was previously invisible? What new perspectives do you have about your own school? What ideas has this focus on the positive generated?

By focusing on what is working well, strengths, successes, great examples of what you love about your school and things you feel particularly proud of, you can consider what opportunities these strengths open up. There will likely be an abundance of ideas, so discipline those thoughts into two key themes:

  • How can you further embed strategies that evidence shows are working well in pockets?
  • What strengths can be used as “enthusiasm springboards” to empower staff and children?

This simple process can be done anywhere, anytime and can make a huge positive difference to how you view your own school. In summary:

  1. View your school through a specific, targeted lens.
  2. Focus only on strengths and successes.
  3. Reflect on how to build on strengths.

Headteachers who would like to find out more about Appreciative Inquiry in education, and would like support from a superb colleague, might like to contact John Goodey, an experienced headteacher and executive headteacher who has led innovative and inspirational research work both nationally and internationally. 

  • Fiona Aubrey-Smith is a former school leader and now Doctoral researcher who facilitates a number of national networks. She sits on several MAT boards and is Chair of Governors at a maintained primary school. Email fionaaubreysmith@googlemail.com

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