Appreciative Inquiry in Coaching

How Tony Nicholls & Kathryn Morgan used this reflective model to improve one school’s professional learning culture

This guest post sets out to explore the impact that the principles of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) can have in one-on-one coaching relationships and subsequently on the coachee’s organisation, in this case a TDT Network member, Coleshill Heath School.

We will hear from two perspectives, that of the coach and that of the individual being coached. We will see how the coach refers to ‘useful conversations’ as he challenges the perception that coaching is a didactic relationship. In this case, we hear from Tony Nicholls, an Organisation Development practitioner and Kathryn Morgan, Acting Deputy Head at Coleshill Heath School.

Tony NichollsTony Nicholls: the coach

Utilising principles of AI in Coaching

AI is typically seen as a formal process involving groups or even whole organisations. A five-stage process is deployed with templates and question sets available in support. I’ve heard it said that if you’re not following this five-stage process, you are not doing AI. I disagree with this purist perspective. I prefer to take the principles that AI offers and weave these into my everyday conversations, coaching relationships and facilitation.

In my approach to supporting personal growth, I am genuinely interested in the individual I am in conversation with. This interest moves me towards an inquiry that is informed by an openness to the unique nature of this person. It is not an inquiry built on an assumption that I already know what is going on for this individual.

In this inquiry I use questions, silence and reflection. The questions are sometimes from AI text books in support of more formal processes of inquiry. More often they are spontaneous, flowing from the insights generated through an inquiring conversation. Silence allows time for sensing and thinking. It allows time for fresh insights to be lived with for a moment or two. It also allows both parties to simply be, without the need to talk.

Reflection is a process of calling out what I ‘hear’, feel and sense during the conversation and the meaning I derive from it. It is not simply a repetition of words I have heard. It is an articulation of what is ‘going on for me’ as I enter into this joint inquiry. Coaching using this approach is very much, therefore, a relationship and I am very much ‘in’ the conversation. I am not the ‘man in a white coat’ asking process-oriented questions with no biases or filters.

An additional perspective to this inquiry is to be appreciative of all that ‘brings life’ to an individual. This is not the same as only seeing the positives. It is accepting and appreciating the inevitability of a light and a dark side that are not always easily distinguishable and that both play their part in all the good and not so good that we may do. We explore and preference strengths, but we also explore where and when these strengths may be overplayed and become problematic.

An AI approach to coaching means ‘being’ in conversation, working in the present with what is arising for us both. This conversation is entered into through the lenses of appreciation and genuine inquiry that allows both parties to become more comfortable with whom they are and therefore feel more able to move towards what they might be.

In practice, working with Kathryn and Coleshill Heath School in this way has allowed for a relaxed, informal style of coaching relationship. The conversations are fluid, often flexing between what might be recognised as coaching, mentoring and peer-to-peer exploration and learning. Purist coaches might criticise this approach and I have indeed critiqued my approach often. What allows me to be comfortable with it are the positive changes I see in the people I coach and in me. This is a genuine relationship, where benefits flow both ways. To reflect this view, I recently moved away from using the terms ‘coaching’ or ‘mentoring’ and now prefer to label these interventions as ‘useful conversations.’

Kathryn Morgan: The coachee Kathryn Morgan

How AI coaching has developed our school practice

Prior to January 2016 and beginning the ‘useful conversations’ with Tony, I had only dipped my toe into coaching but believed I had a relatively good understanding of what ‘it’ was. I could have regurgitated basic research acquired whilst completing my NPQML and given some anecdotal information on its impact. I participated in a coaching triad at my previous school through which we supported each other to identify areas of improvement and sensitively shepherded each other to identify goals and measure the impact of changes in practice.

On reflection, I now recognise this coaching was at a very superficial level and less about deep rooted change. The process we used didn’t allow for an exploration of needs, motivations, skills and thought processes to assist us in making lasting change. Isn’t this what we really want? Lasting change to practice that will positively impact upon both pupil and teacher learning? Looking back there was not enough time dedicated to having ‘the conversation’ in which we could observe, listen and ask questions to understand. The conversation is key; time to listen, time for silence and time to talk. As the writer E. M. Forster once said “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?”

My current Headteacher encouraged me to embark on my coaching journey. She helped me recognise that if I’m going to reach my full potential there was a development need centred on self-inquiry. Inquiry is the significant difference between the conversations that I’ve had with Tony and any previous coaching relationships.

Since working with Tony I have come to recognise coaching at its best is a ‘conversation within relationship’ but I sometimes believe that the conversation is the relationship and the two are very different. This relationship is first and foremost with yourself, but is also with the coach. It is incredibly important, therefore, to find the ‘right’ coach, which is principally about finding someone who uses a coaching approach aligned to your core beliefs and values.

Tony’s coaching is routed in AI and is so much more than simply encouraging the coachee to have a more ‘positive mental attitude’. AI is more strategic. It is an underpinning philosophy as well as a methodology. Through a process of inquiry, Tony has supported me to understand my core strengths and to see how these can be used as a platform for self-improvement through ongoing self-inquiry. Ultimately, this coaching relationship has helped instill a belief in my own self-efficacy.

With this renewed sense of self, I have taken the principles of AI into my everyday conversations with colleagues. I have been able to encourage staff to see new ways of reflecting on old problems and offer fresh ways of challenging the status quo. I have also supported colleagues in developing their sense of self-efficacy, which in turn, is creating the foundations for collective efficacy within the school.

As part of our on-going evaluation of the impact of professional development on pupil outcomes and teacher learning, we carry out termly Learning and Standards Reviews. These have been an evolving process, shaped through joint collaboration with colleagues across the school. Now, rather than focusing upon ‘data’, we focus on strengths, capturing the ‘whole’ teacher and the ‘whole’ child.

The single greatest difference has been around mindsets. Teachers are becoming better at shifting the focus from ‘I need to do this because I’m not very good at…’ to ‘This is a real strength of mine, so I’m going to play to this more because I see the impact that it’s having upon…’ The conversations are still focused upon pupil progress, but I feel we have now developed a collective understanding of what Dylan Wiliam meant when he said “Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” We are certainly focusing upon the ‘even-better’.

As a ‘Requires Improvement’ school, we are working hard to ensure that our school improvement is firmly built upon the development of our teaching staff. As an SLT we are planning in quality time to increase the number of ‘useful conversations’ we have with colleagues. Through these conversations, the teaching staff are very much in the driving seat. They are now confidently talking about the children they feel they are having the most impact upon and why. They are also then inquiring into how they can use their strengths to positively impact those children they feel need more support.

This is just the beginning of our exploration of appreciative, inquiring, ‘useful conversations’. Tony will shortly be working with the wider senior leadership team, including with my Headteacher, to support both our individual and collective roles within school. I am currently researching the ways in which the principles of AI can strengthen staff appraisals and also the ways in which it can be used to develop resilience and determination within our children. They, like the adults within the school, have considerable strengths that can be built upon to ensure they reach their full potential. To achieve this, we aim to put them in the driving seat of their own self-inquiry which will enable a powerful shift from the historic ‘done to’ approach to one of ‘done from within’. Given the depth and importance of this work, I am confident and curious to discover both the anticipated and unknown impact that lies ahead.

Kathryn Morgan is a UK EdChat ambassador and can be found tweeting @KLMorgan_2. She will also be speaking at TDT’s upcoming event ‘Securing Effective Teaching for All’ on 8th February 2017 in London – find out more or book tickets here.
To find out more about Appreciate Inquiry, you can read Tony’s previous blog for TDT here, or connect with him on Twitter @TheTonyNicholls.