Appreciative Inquiry

Should schools adopt an ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ model of thinking?

School approaches that focus on identifying weaknesses, fixing ‘problems’ and white-knuckle change tend to cause a great deal of anxiety and don’t do much for staff morale. It drains energy, willingness and motivation.

When we want to improve something then we tend to look at what’s not working.

A different and more uplifting model for strategic thinking is to embrace ‘Appreciative Inquiry’, a whole system approach that focuses on the strengths, positive attributes and potential of a school or person rather than flaws, faults and failings. In other words, look at what is already working and leveraging an organisation’s core strengths, rather than seeking to overcome or minimise its weaknesses.

AI is a systematic, holistic, and collaborative approach using a strengths-based  model of change in order to unearth the positive core of an organisation.

Appreciative Inquiry is attributed to Professor David Cooperrider who believes in the simple idea that assets and strengths transform and that we need an eye to appreciate “the true, the good, the better, the possible”.

AI follows the strengths-based leadership philosophy of Peter Drucker and Cooperrider sees AI as making conscious choice to study the best of an organization, its positive core.

Appreciative Inquiry says “the essential task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make a systems’ weaknesses irrelevant.” It says that managing and leading change is ALL about strengths: elevating strengths, magnifying strengths, and creating new combinations and chemistries of strengths in ways that propel innovation.

The AI philosophy takes the view that focusing on the flaws of a concept or intervention or strategy is stifling. Why waste time on a “deficit-based” approach to problem solving when an   “affirmative” approach breathes positivity into the system? It is a unique and refreshing approach for schools to take.

A recent article in the TES by Nick Rose urges us to think about finding the success in failure. He says that if we don’t analyse why things have gone pear-shaped then we won’t ever “truly know what success looks like.” He says we have a “flawed fascination with success stories” where we superficially reproduce the elements of an effective school or system “without understanding the deeper causal reasons for that success.”

My view is that so-called outstanding schools or schools that enjoy success don’t go looking elsewhere and start cherry-picking but they look at what they are good at and focus on their core strengths.

They don’t waste energy on life-sucking weakness-spotting – why would they? They don’t see themselves as the problem but the life-centric solution.

They don’t waste time with SWOT analysis but build their efforts on SOAR which is the systematic study of signature strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results. AI is aspirational, expansive and inspirational.

AI helps school teams to look at different ways of being and doing through trust, dialogue and mutual understanding. It sees growth as something that is nurtured from the foundation of  strengths.


In AI, people from across the school become part of an investigation process that seeks to find the strengths in a system and to use those assets as a platform to generate change. Staff are enabled and given agency to plan, make decisions, and act in the change process by inquiring appreciatively into what gives vitality to their workplace, what works best, and what is possible.

AI happens in 4 phases:

  1. a discovery phase during which staff explore “the best of what is” by looking at the positive core of the school
  2. a dream phase in which staff build on the themes developed from the discovery phase to imagine the future
  3. a design phase during which staff construct positive “possibility” statements that capture their vision for the future
  4. a destiny phase in which staff develop detailed action plans to turn their vision into a reality

This 4D cycle is used to engage all school staff by systematically inquiring into strengths, successes, positive stories, resources, and capabilities.

The positive nature of the AI process fires up the cooperative capacity of school staff and promotes collegial working relationships by stimulating optimism, hope, gratitude and pride. AI breaks down the silo mentality and enables schools to be ‘positive institutions’.

Research by Dickerson (2011) has found that AI promotes a non-coercive change process that feeds inclusive collaborative relationships and that,

the positive and empowering aspects of Appreciative Inquiry provide a powerful framework for taking the first steps toward developing a collaborative culture in a school, one that offers the time and relational space for stakeholders to interact and self-organize to pursue cooperative projects that they select.

Similarly, Waters and White (2015) found in their study, “when members of an organization unite around an appreciative topic, it can serve to break down traditional barriers and create new networks.”

Pamela Buchanan (2014) says that “AI provides a method to inspire educational transformation” something that a  esearch report by the NFER concluded in 2009 when it said that AI “could be a useful method for schools and LAs to use to bring about change.”

As Cooperrider and Whitney (2005) say, leaders embracing Appreciative Inquiry “send a clear and consistent message: positive change is the pathway to success around here”.

Why not change the way you do things and adopt AI?

Share the following animated video with your colleagues and discuss the potential of adopting AI in your school:


See the following book to learn more about AI:

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