There is no use trying, said Alice; one can’t believe impossible things. I dare say you haven’t had much practice, said the Queen. When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
–Lewis Carol “Through the Looking Glass”
One morning a few Saturdays ago, I spent a few hours imagining new possibilities with a group that included parents, school administrators, teachers and our interim Director of Education. The “Building Relationships” event, co-hosted by the Ottawa Carleton Assembly of School Councils and Ottawa Carleton Immigration Services Organization, asked participants to focus their energy on identifying what is working really well to foster and recognize effective parent and community engagement in our public schools. The approach, based on Appreciative Inquiry (AI), assumes that every organization holds within itself the kernel of potential for positive change. David Cooperider explains the generative and constructive nature of Appreciative Inquiry:
In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential.
Appreciative Inquiry stands in stark contrast to traditional strategic planning where the focus is on the problem and the search for solutions. Instead, with AI, the focus is on what is working really well and how we can create the conditions that will foster more of the positive. AI asks us to leave behind our preoccupation with all that is wrong and bad within the organization and to direct our efforts towards recognizing the very best of our organization’s activities.
I first began to think through the AI lens when I was planning an event last spring. The approach really appeals to me because I have witnessed and experienced the stress that comes with zooming in on the negative. The typical problem-solving approach has, in the past, left me feeling powerless to change a situation because it feels too big, it seems to be external to me, or it doesn’t seem to have a solution. Since shifting to an appreciative approach, I have seen how it opens space for new possibilities and I have felt empowered to make changes for the better, both in working with students, staff and parents.
The event this morning saw approximately 40 individuals “give up” their Saturday morning to be together to generate the beginning narrative of greater community and parent involvement in my District. Participants were self-directed in leading, joining and leaving several conversations happening throughout the room. As I moved from one conversation to another, I heard examples of projects and events happening throughout the District where parents and the community play an integral role and where the students benefit from the partnerships. One of the sometimes overlooked perks of an AI approach is that once we begin discovering the best of what we are as an organization, the experience becomes truly productive and infectious: We begin to imagine new possibilities that we might otherwise have missed or dismissed. A few of the ideas shared during discussions included:
- approaching the Ottawa Citizen about running a regular column dedicated to highlighting positive events and projects occurring throughout the District.
- compiling a database of ideas and examples of partnerships between the school and the community
- principals using synrevoice to send out weekly or monthly announcements of upcoming events and / or recent successes
- opening schools in the evening to more community use
- providing opportunities for students to teach technology skills to parents and community members
- increasing the use of Multicultural Liaison Officers to help break down barriers to immigrant parents
As a wrap-up, our facilitator brought us back together as a whole group to share what we had taken away from the morning. To me, the AI approach itself fosters greater engagement because it shifts from a view where we are looking externally at problems and searching for solutions to the recognition that we have within ourselves the ability to make a positive impact and bring about change for the better. In short, it asks us to look into the looking glass first. The seeds for several new partnerships were sown that morning and it will be interesting to witness the ripple effect as participants go back to their spheres of influence with a renewed commitment and a fresh perspective.