Appreciative Inquiry and observation feedback

A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to be able to host a Q&A session with Sarah Mercer, who, amongst other things is an expert on teacher wellbeing.  (I thoroughly recommend her book on that very subject, pictured below – OUP 2020).  You can watch the video here

wellbeing sarahAnyway, among other things in the wide ranging discussion on ways to support teachers and managers in this current pandemic situation of emergency remote teaching, Sarah talked about how to give feedback to teachers in this period and she mentioned the idea of “Appreciative Inquiry” as a potential method for this.  Soon afterwards, I was training a course for department heads on “remote leadership of teaching teams”, and as a group we discussed teacher observation and feedback.  I had heard of appreciative inquiry before, through a webinar that LAMSIG had run earlier in the year presented by Ralph Rogers on the use of appreciative inquiry for change management (LAMSIG members can watch that here).  But I was intrigued by Sarah’s comments to read more into it – it’s touched upon in her book, but I was able to find quite a lot about the subject online.

The key thing that we have to note in this current online teaching/learning process is that none of us are experts.  Well, a few people are experts but most of us are not. In most organisations there is no emergency remote teaching expert on staff – either among the managers or in the teaching team. When a supervisor or an academic manager observes a lesson and provides feedback afterwards in normal circumstances there is an understanding that the observer can act, to an extent, as a mentor – an expert or guide. Even if the teacher being observed has more experience, the observer is perceived as being an expert who can offer guidance and support.  But in the current situation, the observer is a novice, just like the teacher.  Both are exploring and finding their way in this new form of teaching and learning.  As a result, the conversation between the two is more appropriately seen as a coaching interaction – helping the teacher to find ways to improve through dialogue and questioning.  (This is a very simplistic rendering of the coaching/mentoring difference – for more depth, see the website of my friend, colleague, and fellow LAMSIG committee member Loraine Kennedy)

This is where appreciative inquiry comes in.  It offers a way to structure a feedback conversation which is far more like a coaching conversation than the possibly more usual mentoring one.

Appreciative inquiry is presented as being “asset based” rather than “deficit focused”. That is to say starting the investigation with what is good and what is working well, and building from that, rather than trying to decide what is missing and what gaps need to be filled. That’s how it is used in the model for organisational change.  But what of feedback after an observed lesson?

The appreciative inquiry conversation follows the “4D” model shown here.  The headings and brief outlines here are not especially helpful to my mind, so let’s go through them.

1. Discovery

“What’s already working?” The teacher you observe will have had some successes in her online teaching. Some things that she’s tried out and that have worked and seem to have been successful.  What are those things?  Can she talk through the things that she feels positive about?  What was there in the observed lesson that is part of this success story?  This is the appreciative part of the appreciative inquiry.  As the coach, make sure you keep the teacher to this script, don’t let the conversation drift onto all the stuff that teacher is unhappy with. Build up a picture of all that is working well. Some possible other questions:

  • What is going well?
  • What do you feel confident doing?
  • What do you feel competent doing?
  • Where do you feel success in your remote teaching?
  • What positive stories from these last few weeks do you have?
  • What did you particularly like about the lesson I just observed?

2. Dream

This is the forward looking part of the process.  Asking the teacher what she wishes she could do better.   Getting her to think specifically about where she wants to develop and improve her online teaching.  Questions like

  • What are your goals for your online teaching?
  • If I observed you in one month from now, what would you want me to see that has developed?
  • Can you name TWO areas that you’d like to develop in your online teaching?
  • What do you wish you could do?

This part is “dream” but it pays to give space for specificity.  We’d all love to be delivering amazing perfect lessons every time, but we’re all beginners (did I mention that?), so choose a couple of things that in particular would be good to focus on.

3. Design

This part of the cycle is about coming up with a plan.  Given what we already have (discover) and what we want to achieve (dream) how can we get from here to there?  Ask for suggestions and ideas from the teacher as to how they can achieve what they plan to achieve. Brainstorm ideas. Share contacts and connections who might be able to help. If there are other teachers on staff who may be good at a certain area, suggest they link up and work together (perhaps by the teacher in this conversation observing the other teacher with their agreement, and seeing how it works). Again you can use specific questions, such as What are two steps you can take right now to start moving towards the “dream” we just talked about?”.  

4. Deliver

(Sometimes I’ve seen it, including in the image above, as “Destiny“).  This is the experimentation/application phase.  Trying out new approaches, applying what was learned in the previous stage.  Taking opportunities to try new things and to see what works.  As the manager here your job is to check in from time to time. “You said you were going to try out that new online vocabulary teaching activity – have you had the chance to do so yet? How did it go?”

Obviously this approach isn’t necessarily limited to observation feedback. It could be the structure of a performance management interview conversation, as well as any form of professional development or reflection.  For example, when I started reading around the subject I came across this article by Carolyn Shemwell Kaplan in “The Language Educator” on An Appreciative Inquiry Approach to Reflecting on Teaching 

And maybe, you can use it for yourself.  How have you done in managing your team over these weeks of lockdown and emergency remote teaching? What’s gone well? What have you got better at? What positive stories do you have? And, as a result, what do you wish you could do?  How are you going to make that happen?

Good luck!


Image by Jan Alexander from Pixabay 


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