Appreciative Inquiry Summit Gets Results for B.C. School District

Appreciative Inquiry Summit Gets Results for B.C. School District

School District 60, Peace River North, opens forward-edge learning space

School superintendent Larry Espe admits he was somewhat worried an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) summit he'd spearheaded for his community might descend into nothing more than a feel-good, kum ba yah session. But the opening of a cutting-edge learning space this fall is a powerful testament to the effectiveness of the approach for generating real results, he says.

Well before the summit, Espe, now superintendent of School District 60, Peace River North in northern British Columbia, remembers an hours-long visionary conversation with a colleague about what they would do to change education in their district. The AI philosophy, though they used different language, was at the core of their inspired discussion.

In 2007 Espe and the same colleague, now assistant superintendent Lesley Lahaye, attended an introductory AI session in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Facing the need for significant change based on a growing school district and full schools, not to mention the need for something different in education in general, Espe and Lahaye decided they wanted to use AI as the tool for leading that change.

“We thought with AI we could get a lot of voice,” says Espe, recalling they wanted to avoid replicating past and other attempts to engage the community in a change effort where either only the loudest and bravest speak up, or you have a small group of people who have done their research, made a decision, ultimately advocate for the decision and either defend it or give up.

With support from Innovation Partners International partners Tony Silbert and Joanne Daykin, Espe and Lahaye led the organization of an AI summit a couple of years ago.

Unable to shut down schools and convene the community for a three-day event, as is typical of the AI summit, the planning group worked out a schedule where part of the summit took place on several different evenings, with a final wrap-up on a weekend.

About 400 people, including 175 teachers, 80 students, parents and community members participated.

“And they all got to tell a story, which is the power of AI in my mind,” Espe tells Axiom News.

Using the AI methodology, pairs of participants asked each other given questions around their best moments in learning, shared those with their small groups and then presented highlights of the group to the entire body.

Espe says the most powerful question invited attendees to describe a time they were learning and didn't want to stop.

“When you get 400 stories about optimal learning situations – and I don't know if any of them mentioned sitting in a desk looking at the back of their friend's head with a teacher at the front talking – it's really compelling stuff,” says Espe.

From those stories a team cultivated root causes of success for optimal learning, among these hands-on learning, teamwork, collaborating, intergenerational work, out of school learning and a great teacher in some capacity. The power of relationship was a key message.

The next step was figuring out how to turn those root causes into practical results, again, to avoid this being a kum ba yah weekend “where we just told each other how wonderful we were, how excited we were about the future, but never had a plan to do anything about it,” says Espe.

A steering committee of mixed representation eventually targeted eight action items coming out of the summit, based on the larger group's contribution. Amongst the top priorities was the issue of out-of-school learning as secondary space was an immediate need.

To sustain energy around tackling these items, a school administrator was given space to provide relevant information, ensure the action teams were meeting and convene the action chairs.

There's some argument that if prompts are required, the social construction theory at the heart of AI is not as pure as it could be. However, in this case, Espe says, it was decided that with the pressing need for space and in a school system that's accountable, the prompts were important.

This September a project-based, personalized learning campus will open in the city's new sports facility.

One group of about 175 middle school students taught by a team of seven teachers will learn on a site that includes two NHL-size rinks, a running track and an indoor, Olympic-size, speed skating oval.

What's most exciting is the project-based, personalized learning that takes place is largely anchored in the root causes of success identified through the summit. It will be team-based, interdisciplinary and obviously out-of-school.

“The bottom line is (this) all stemmed from those community conversations,” says Espe.

Asked what's needed to lift up AI and generate similar notable results on a growing scale, Espe adds it's important to keep having conversations about the approach.

“We can't get tired of having the conversations; we can't get tired of talking to people and assuming they've all heard it,” he says, noting just recently he attended a major education leaders conference which followed the same old style of cultivating the insights of only a few.

He imagined what would have been different had every single one of the 300 in attendance been able to contribute and tell their story through an appreciative, inquiring context.

November 29, 2011, update to this story: The Energetic Learning Campus is now open. Click here to read a blog by Espe on what's happening now.

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