Using Appreciative Inquiry in School Leadership

W. Stephen Parker
W. Stephen Parker
Middle/high school principal; M.A. in Educational Leadership
‘Appreciative Inquiry’ surrounded by doodles and drawings.

In this ever-changing environment filled with ups and downs, we are constantly searching for the best, newest, most innovative concepts to gain success. Businesses and corporations are constantly upgrading technology and forming ever expanding alliances in and outside their respective companies. Our governmental entities are also looking for opportunities to expand and gain control through various programs and ideas.

The world of education is no different from the rest of the world. Leaders in education are constantly looking for best practices that will enhance student learning and of course “raise” those test scores. As technology continues to upgrade and opportunities in and out of the conventional classroom become available, school leaders must also seek the best possible scenarios for their schools at the time.

One innovative concept that is being implemented in business, government, political affiliations, and yes, education is appreciative inquiry. Like so many other good concepts, appreciative inquiry is not an “end all, be all” concept that replaces everything from before. But when implemented, it can compliment other programs currently in existence.

What is Appreciative Inquiry?

Appreciative inquiry by definition is a way to engage groups of people in self-determined change. It focuses on what is working, rather than what is not working, and leads people to co-designing their future. Basically appreciative inquiry is an approach designed to enhance the work environment by focusing on the good, well working parts of the organization and expanding upon them.

Appreciative inquiry requires that everyone is truly involved. All too often employees invest time and effort into something that makes them feel like an important member of the team only to find out the program is in name only and is being used to “check off a box.”  With this said, it is imperative that if appreciative inquiry is going to be implemented, it must be in more than just name. This does not mean that every “positive” change that stakeholders bring forward should be implemented. Of course some concepts, while good ideas, are just not feasible. With that said, a school leader must strive to make sure every stakeholder involved feels they are an important part of the team.

Benefits of Appreciative Inquiry in School Leadership

Appreciative inquiry implemented correctly and committed to can have positive benefits in an educational setting.

Student growth and achievement of course being our first objective, it is believed that appreciative inquiry can be beneficial. By incorporating all stakeholders in this concept and by focusing on the positives of our educational system, the goal of student achievement will be enhanced.

Another benefit of appreciative inquiry is by focusing on the positives, the negatives that are there will begin to minimize on their own. For example, if low teacher morale is an issue, appreciative inquiry can help by allowing teachers to be a part of growing the strengths, thereby raising morale.

Likewise, if parents or the community have a somewhat negative view of the school or district, by involving them in the concept, not only can the school or district expand on the positives, but it can also increase trust and belief in the educational process. When parent and community leaders begin to share with others the positives of the district, it actually becomes infectious and leads to positive community support of the school or district. Student involvement is of course extremely beneficial to a process such as this. By allowing students to focus on the positives within the school, the hope would be that their morale would increase as well.

How to Implement an Appreciative Inquiry Model in Your School

According to the website “positivepsychology.com”, there are four steps in most appreciative inquiry models. These steps are: discovery, dream, design and destiny or (delivery). Implementing this concept and these steps of the model are essential for success.

For each of these steps, it is important to involve a team of stakeholders including, but not necessarily limited to: teachers, students, parents, community leaders, and district office staff. By involving all stakeholders, you will have the best possible opportunity for success.

Discovery

The first step in the model is to discover those segments of the overall educational system that are positive and working. Upon discovering these areas, the stakeholders will immediately gain positive feelings towards the district and its accomplishments. Discovery can often lead to realizing positives that maybe no one had really considered before. Remember positives do not have to be big and well known. So often the small, relatively unnoticed things are the most important.

Dreams

The second step of implementing appreciative inquiry in your educational setting is to dream. Again, involving the stakeholders and allowing them to share their dreams within the realm of the positives that have been discovered enhances the overall climate of the model you are implementing. Allowing the stakeholders to expound on the possibilities of expanding on the positives will create excitement within the overall concept.

Design

The third step after discovery and dreams is the design of the program. This is a very important step in the process and rightly follows the dream step. After dreaming, stakeholders are generally excited and ready to put together a program for success. It is during this step that the vision of the concept is born. While this step can be time consuming and open for healthy debate, it is all important in ensuring the future success of the program. It is also during the design step that individual and group commitment is agreed upon.

Destiny or Delivery

This step is not strictly defined in terms of how the concept should proceed. As with any individual school or district, the stakeholders must define this step. Basically this is how we are going to implement the program. Again, like design this step can take some time to reach consensus.

The appreciative inquiry model for school leadership is unique in that we so often focus on fixing those things that are not working. This concept, while different from “what we usually do,” is innovative in that it focuses on the positives, not the negatives. After the year (2020) we have endured, maybe a focus on our positives and an open mind toward a positive future is just the “vaccine” we need in our schools for 2021.

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