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Transforming Education – Starting the Dialogue

23 April 2012 No Comment

As we prepare for the World Appreciative Inquiry Conference (WAIC) 2012 presentation, we have received questions, what is the WAIC 2012? What is AI? What is the World Conference? Why in Belgium? What will the presentation include? Where is Bibb County? What happened at the Bibb County Schools Summit? We know many of you are interested in this conference and what to know more – this is fantastic news. This is the first conference that we are attending. We are so grateful for the opportunity to be selected as presenters! We feel so fortunate to have so many of you asked us to share what we learn. We will update this blog post with more information as we go. Our plan is to share our experiences and what we learn in Belgium.

What is AI?

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is not intended to be a tool or a strategy for a narrowly focused intervention. AI provides the ability to change our focus from problem-solving and deficit-based (find it and fix it) to a process of seeking out what has been successful and what is working well. Then, asking how can we do more of this? In this case, how can we capitalize on the strengths of teachers, staff, students and administrators? It is a change in the way we see the world. This is not as easy as it sounds.

What is the WAIC 2012? Why Belgium?

This 5th World Conference on Appreciative Inquiry emphasizes AI as a theory and practice of connecting people and generating new possibilities. As no other process does, AI helps us to understand, to build and to enhance interconnectedness. Based upon the principles of AI and social-constructionism, new business models and organization types will emerge, more powerful and more needed than ever. It is our common challenge to bring these experiences into mainstream business, transcending and transforming old structures into coherent, resilient networks of professionals that bring out and connect the best of their capacities. (From the WAIC 2012 website) This global conference is held every two years. The last one was in Kathmandu, Nepal.

What will the presentation in Belgium include?

The Bibb County Public Schools (BCPS) Appreciative Inquiry Summit will be presented at the World Appreciative Inquiry Conference in Ghent, Belgium. We are going to tell the story of the Summit, not the outcomes of the Strategic Plan. The Destiny phase of AI is always the mucky one for people. The plan of action coming forth from the ongoing dialogue is emerging as more stakeholders join the conversation. What will be included in the presentation: What was the call to action? How instrumental was the Core Team? How did ten people facilitate a Summit of more than 4000 people? What were the high points for the Facilitators? What did we want more of? What did we learn? What would we do differently? We will share great stories impacting education in a positive way directly from the Summit and after.

Why is this story so important?

While the story has just begun, we believe the future opportunities are incredible. The economy melt-down of 2008 created a new normal for all school districts, cities and states in the U.S. That change yielded new opportunities to rethink and reform how public agencies operate. This seems like a time of “do more with less”. What the new leadership of BCPS saw was the urgent need to transform, to seek out the best we can be, should be and will be. As one person exclaimed at the need to radically change the system “We are saving children’s lives”.

School districts are not islands that stand alone and succeed at random. Rather, schools are the center of each community. We are all responsible and accountable.

Schools are the single most important thing a community can do. It is about the quality of the experience, we have great teachers and the system does not allow great things to happen. It takes leadership who looks beyond their tenure to tackle the tough stuff to build for the future. (excerpts from the Charlie Rose Show, Mayor’s Roundtable, April 16, 2012).

BCPS has begun is that partnership, the necessary collaboration. No one believes it will be easy or quick. This decline in education has been ignored for too long. Tough decisions are ahead, what are the options? What are the costs? More importantly, what is the cost of kicking that can down the road again for the next generation? The dialogue has begun. The new transparency has brought new voices to the table. A good sign for BCPS.

What was the AI Summit?

Our work with Bibb County Public Schools began with an orientation and two day training with the Core Team consisting of approximately 60 employees. What I value about AI is that the people involved in the outcomes are involved in the planning from the beginning. We asked for people from all segments of the District – parents, students, teachers, principals, bus drivers, administrators and more. People stepped up; they offered their time and commitment for students, for the future. Working with these employees we designed the focus of what they wanted more of. It was decided, due to the time limitations to go into the interviews without any training or orientation on the process of Appreciative Inquiry.

On Day One of the Summit, participants paired up with someone new or that they did not know well, the questions were open to discover the “Best of What is” and to vision “What might be.” There was a sense of excitement as the day began as well as that of mistrust. During the interviews, it was clear that social, economic, literacy levels and racial barriers faded as people who may have never crossed paths or had never spoken to one another, shared stories that impacted their lives or touched their heart. The voices rose, people moved closer to hear, and the laughter of those shared moments and experiences began to be discovered. As facilitators we spoke to some who felt they could not participate, they were not sure why they were there and did not feel comfortable in the setting. We assured them that participation was voluntary; a number of people chose to sit with friends or co-workers rather than participate. With this new information, others sought out groups to join.

Day Two began the conversation “What should be” to find the shared stories and desired future that they wished to move toward. Following the Summit, these outcomes became the grounding for conversations around “What can be”. AI is not about the plan, it is the ongoing, fluid conversation to collectively choose the path.

BCPS staff have been busy working on the strategic plan since the last day of the summit – looking at best practices, incorporating their knowledge of Appreciative Inquiry into their work and their process. We have written about our Summit experience quite a bit. We learned so much about BCPS from teachers, parents, staff including those who work as bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers, technology; we met the people who work at the Macon Centreplex, at restaurants, and at stores. We moved in a group of ten, so we were immediately spotted as “not from around here”. We also use Appreciate Inquiry as a way of being, in our conversations, our interactions and our approach. We ask people, wherever we go, questions such as what is the best thing that has happened to you recently? We also asked about BCPS and we heard excitement about working to improve the schools. We were asked “how can I be part of this”. BCPS advised us to invite anyone who wanted to attend and we did.

The question for BCPS is, if teachers are engaged, if parents are involved and students are learning (all of the time) “What will this look like?” And then how do “we make it happen”. The strategic planning process is a generative, collaborative, dynamic and creative endeavor. The concept of a book that sits on the shelf and is the definitive map is no longer true, if ever it was. It is not a road that is the only way, rather a beginning of new directions. The results of strategic planning with Appreciative Inquiry are endless.

Where is Bibb County?

Bibb County is in the State of Georgia, USA. In 2010-2011, BCS had a district-wide population of 22,000 students. Of these students: 7,914 were suspended; 703 dropped out; 493 were expelled; and only 44% graduated. Small, individual efforts made no dent in the statistics; in fact student success continued to erode. Serious innovation needed to be taken if Bibb County had any hope of serving its young people and in doing so rescue their community.

How can other school districts begin their transformation?

If we focus on the problems and issues, that is all we see. At the end of each day share with your children, friends and family something good you heard, saw or did. Ask your children what was the best thing that happened. We know from experience that this might be difficult at first. Practice, the next day, and again the next until you have a new habit. Soon, you will find that you are LOOKING for good stuff to share. The best part is when your children begin to look for the good things and see more possibilities for them. We too are filled with negative news and information on a regular basis. We don’t ignore problems. But, we can choose how we focus on that problem.

Are you ready to begin to explore AI? Begin with appreciation of teachers, students and the district. Be open to new ideas. Be a listener. Ask questions that are open-ended to allow the space for conversation. Initiate collaboration. Look at problems as opportunities to solve. Invite others to share their ideas about practical and creative solutions that look at the “big picture” of Bibb County, Georgia, USA and the World. As a community, explore how you might use, and support the use of conversation to create opportunities for BCPS to find the opportunities that the new.

Author: Kathy Becker, Certified AI Facilitator & Trainer, President of the Company of Experts, Inc.

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Kathy Becker Kathy Becker (3 Posts)

Kathy is the CEO/President of the Company of Experts, Inc. and oversees this Small Woman Owned Business serving schools, colleges and universities, businesses, corporations and non-profits moving them from deficit models of planning and thinking to engagement, empowerment and collaboration.


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