This week we will look at an approach known as Appreciative Inquiry – another form of cooperative investigation that can be used to encourage students to engage actively with the issues that affect them

This e-bulletin continues our focus on the final key competence of the QCDA Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills framework – developing ‘effective participators’. We are exploring a range of different approaches and strategies that have been used to help young people play a full part in the life of their school, college or wider community.

Appreciative Inquiry is a versatile enquiry method that has been used in schools on different scales for a range of different purposes. In this bulletin we will look at how it has been used to help students to explore and improve the social dynamics of a single classroom. You will also find a link to another example where the approach has been used as a visioning strategy involving the whole school community – students, teachers, parents, governors and administration.

What is Appreciative Inquiry?

The traditional approach to change is to look for the problem, do a diagnosis, and find a solution. The primary focus is on what is wrong or broken; since we look for problems, we find them. By paying attention to problems, we emphasise and amplify them.

Appreciative Inquiry takes are rather different approach; it suggests that to achieve change we should focus on identifying what works in a group or organisation and what can happen to promote change, rather than focusing on difficulties and problems. It works on the premise that in any group there is potential for growth and that investing energy into exploring what to do next is more likely to promote change and development than focusing on the difficulties and problems that are preventing progress.

How does it work?

As it has evolved, there are a number of ways in which to conduct an Appreciative Inquiry but the processes all tend to follow a common path of four phases:

The Appreciative Inquiry ‘4-D’ Cycle
Discovery: The Appreciative Inquiry approach to organisational change begins by looking for what is working – appreciating and valuing the best of ‘what is’. This stage involves conducting appreciative interviews in order to discover what gives life to a particular classroom, team or school when it is most alive, most effective and most constructively capable.

Dream: The next stage is to envisage ‘what might be’. Participants develop provocative propositions for the future.

Design: At this stage, wishes for the future are integrated with plans for needed changes to structure, systems and processes.

Destiny: This final stage involves taking action towards achievement – making it happen and making it sustainable over time.

The tangible result of the Appreciative Inquiry process is a series of statements or visuals that describe where a group or organisation wants to be, based on the best moments of where it has been, together with a plan of action for how it will get there.

The approach is based on the following set of assumptions:

  • simultaneity – enquiry and change are not separate;
  • listening to and sharing experiences enables everyone to feel part of a community with shared stories, values and aspirations;
  • the process helps to build positive relationships within a group or organsation;
  • visualising a positive future helps that future to occur; and
  • momentum and sustainable change require the energy that stems from positive emotions and relationships.

A case study: Enhancing skills for inclusion – using Appreciative Inquiry to improve classroom dynamics

This case study reports on a project, Growing Talent for Inclusion (GTI), which used an Appreciative Inquiry approach to improve social dynamics in mainstream classrooms. The project was a collaboration between the University of Northampton and Northamptonshire County Council, and originally grew out of the researchers’ work with children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. The GTI project identified ‘talents’ that existed within a class, and worked on nurturing these. Examples of talents included ‘Likes to get things done’ and ‘Helpful’.

Having found that the GTI project improved the social dynamics in a Year 8 class, the researchers expanded the project to a number of other classes, in primary schools, middle schools and secondary schools.

What is the basis of the Growing Talent for Inclusion project?
The main emphasis of the Growing Talent for Inclusion (GTI) project was recognising strengths that existed within a class and building on these. Students were also enabled to reflect on their skill development through watching video of their project sessions.

The project was called Growing Talent for Inclusion because it assumed that the talent was already there but needed identifying and nurturing. Once talents had been identified these were defined collaboratively, to help students recognise and understand desired behaviours.

An important part of the GTI process was a final feedback session in which information from the interviews was reported back to the students. As part of the process of recognising and acknowledging strengths, feedback concentrated on the positive progress that had been made.

What is the process of Growing Talent for Inclusion?
Existing talents, such as ‘being helpful’, were identified collectively by the students and teacher. These talents were then nurtured and grown through the 4-D Cycle of Appreciative Inquiry (see stages above).

1) In the ‘discovery’ phase, a class teacher, through a process of affirmative questioning, helps students to identify positive behaviours that contributed to social inclusion within their class. For example, in one project, students identified the talents of speaking kindly, forgiving and caring for others.

Students were asked two key questions:

‘What strategies have you already tried to improve working relationships?’

‘What do you like about being a member of this class?’

Students also completed a Social Inclusion Survey at the beginning and end of the project, which asked which students they preferred to work with, those they felt ‘OK’ about working with, and those they would prefer not to work with. To assess whether the Growing Talent for Inclusion project had changed relationships among the students, data from the survey was quantified and used to supplement qualitative perception data drawn from interviews with teachers and students at the beginning and end of the project.

2) In the ‘dream’ phase, the teacher visualised the way they wanted the class to behave. Optimism was important; one of the principles of Appreciative Inquiry is that envisaging a future can help that future to occur. The researchers likened this to the situation in medical research, where participants who are given a placebo still experience a positive effect because it is what they expect. The students then created their own whole-class vision – their own picture of what would happen in the ideal classroom, such as working together more often, listening to each other and being more thoughtful towards others. Results from the four projects have indicated increased capacity in the talents identified as pertinent to improved working relationships.

3) In the ‘design’ phase, the teacher described her preferred alternative, and explained the advantages of this for the class. The students were then encouraged to describe in more detail what their class would look, sound, and feel like if their whole-class vision was being realised. Individual student interviews were also held and students were invited to work together on developing their talents, negotiating a programme and a timeframe for exploring effective team working.

4) In the fourth phase, ‘destiny’, the teacher and her class began to work towards realising their joint vision. The talents they had identified were explored through a number of multi-sensory sessions – typically eight sessions over a period of six to eight months. The sessions involved fun activities, but no writing, and positive rewards such as a celebratory cake at the end. An example of one of the activities was ‘Make a monster’, in which students were allocated specific elements of a group task, made body parts, and then came together to create a group monster. Similar tasks occurring later in the programme involved negotiating to obtain all the necessary materials.

What were the researchers’ findings?
In the interviews at the end of the project, students’ comments generally indicated that they had a greater sense of being a member of a social group. They were also able to recognise their strengths and areas which still needed development:

‘Before we blanked students if we didn’t like them – we are listening to them now.’

‘We could have a bit more respect for the teachers – by listening to the teachers and each other.’

This change in behaviour was also reported in feedback from staff:

‘There are less reported incidents of misbehaviour in lessons. Class 8 used to be the most difficult in the school; they are now cooperative more of the time.’

In three of the Growing Talent for Inclusion projects, students began with a negative view of why they were grouped together. Giving the students an opportunity to agree democratically on a task provided them with a common purpose and motivation to work together.

In all four GTI projects that had been completed, the Social Inclusion Surveys showed:

  • an increase in the number of students with whom other students are happy to work; and
  • a reduction in the number of students identified as excluded by other students.

By identifying talents, students were helped to reflect on their own skill development and view differences from a new perspective. In one class, a student isolated by his musical and dress preferences at the beginning of the project was not isolated at the end. ‘We now respect other students like different music’ one student commented during feedback towards the end of the researchers’ involvement in a Year 8 project.

What are the implications of this research?
Teachers might like to consider some of the following implications:

  • Appreciative Inquiry focuses on recognising the positives that already exist within a situation, and building on these. Could you begin with analysing the balance between positive and negative feedback in your classroom, and then experiment with using only positive feedback within your classroom, to build on the good behaviour that exists?
  • The researchers also suggested that Appreciative Inquiry could be used in a range of contexts. Are there other challenges within your class that could use Appreciative Inquiry? Can you identify other talents that could be developed?
  • This project focused on improving social inclusion in classes. This was done by identifying behaviours that promote inclusion. Could you, with your class, identify behaviours that exist in your class that promote social inclusion? It might help if you present a situation to the class, such as was envisaged in the ‘dream’ stage of the project. How might you nurture related behaviours within your classroom?
  • The dynamics of a group can be improved if there is a common purpose, like the class project in GTI, which involves working with the class to democratically choose a class project that the students plan and carry out themselves. Can you think of an opportunity arising soon that would allow your students to work on a project in this way? How could you make the most of students’ emerging collaborative skills?

Head teachers might like to consider the following implication:

  • The researchers found that Growing Talent for Inclusion helped to improve relationships within individual classes. How might Appreciative Inquiry play a part in focusing discussions about enhancing citizenship and emotional literacy as part of the Every Child Matters agenda in your school?

Where can I find out more?

For a case study example of how another school has used Appreciative Inquiry – this time as a whole-school visioning strategy, you might find the following link helpful. This includes a video and example interview frameworks.
Heathside School – A Play in Two Acts (Accessed on 24/05/10)

Lessons from the Field: Applying Appreciative Inquiry, Cooperrider, DL et al (Eds), Thin Book Publishing, 2001

Here is an extract from the above volume:

“[Appreciative Inquiry] deliberately seeks to discover people’s exceptionality – their unique gifts, strengths, and qualities. It actively searches and recognizes people for their specialties – their essential contributions and achievements. And it is based on principles of equality of voice – everyone is asked to speak about their vision of the true, the good, and the possible. Appreciative Inquiry builds momentum and success because it believes in people. It really is an invitation to a positive revolution. Its goal is to discover in all human beings the exceptional and the essential. Its goal is to create organisations that are in full voice!”

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2010

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of the award winning ‘Thinking Through School’. Previously a teacher, PGCE tutor and head of ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, she now works as a freelance education consultant and writer.