The HOW of Leading a Quest for Student Wellbeing

DISCOVERING student wellbeing – a positive needs analysis

Appreciative Inquiry [1] (AI) is a strengths-based change process composed of four stages; Discovering the best of the system, Dreaming a way forward built on that past success, Designing steps to support that dream, and Delivering those steps.  The process is a recursive one, and can be used at different phases in the process of supporting strategic building of student wellbeing.  (For this series of blogs, we’ll imagine that you are at the start of the process of building student wellbeing – the first ‘iteration’ of the AI process).  Importantly, AI does not replace or do away with traditional processes for strategic goal-setting, trouble-shooting and planning. In my experience it gives all of these processes a ‘leg up’; it provides information from those at the ‘chalk-face’ to the decision-makers who have the power to act on it, and it also allows the understanding of constraints and issues visible at higher levels to flow more transparently to staff on the front line, so there is more opportunity for collaboration and joint understanding.

DISCOVERY focuses on that initial recognition of what is going well.  It’s about gathering your baseline data; but more than that, the positive focus is about harnessing the goodwill, good ‘feeling’, and motivation of all involved.  This step makes everyone involved an expert of sorts whose voice is invited to be heard, and once again, that positive focus generates a level of safety – people know that if they get involved, and if they speak up, they won’t be bad-mouthed (or be bad-mouthing others).

What does Discovery look like?

At this stage it is more useful if I provide you with a range of strategies that I’ve seen effectively used; depending on your particular circumstances, choose as many or as few as are applicable.

Be strategic

Before you step off, consider the need for this process to tie in with your school’s strategic direction.  Discuss with those in leadership – and if you are in leadership, discuss with the Board.   What is in your existing strategic direction regarding student wellbeing that needs to be leveraged or developed further?  Choose a focal inquiry question accordingly, aiming for the best possible outcome.  This is NOT the time for a SMART goal.  A SMART goal assumes you have all the information you need to set specific parameters and timeframes; AI assumes that the collective composed of all stakeholders holds that information [2].  It is the time for a phrase or question that captures the big picture direction – the AI process itself will draw then out goals that are SMART.  Good inquiry questions or phrases are “What does extraordinary student wellbeing look like?” Or simply, “Brilliance in student wellbeing”.  Aim high when setting this inquiry focus.

Ask yourself – personal reflection

Whilst at the shallow end in terms of depth of inquiry, this is still a useful step – and if you are planning on a small scale (e.g. just for your class) you may even stop here.  Let’s say your inquiry focus is “Remarkable student wellbeing”.

Ask yourself; Where have I already seen remarkable student wellbeing in this school in the past?  Your personal lived experience is one source of valuable data.  Don’t overlook it.  Next ask; What factors supported that success story – both internal to the student and external, i.e. factors in the school environment?

Record your lived experience.

And – as simply as that, the ball is rolling! (Don’t despise small beginnings, the process needs to start somewhere).

Now let’s be more ambitious; let’s get this snowball a bit bigger by bringing others onboard.

Ask others – conduct interviews, focus groups, have surveys, or use a staff meeting

Build further on your personal exploration by opening it to others, keeping the inquiry questions sharp and in focus.  Use the same questions to discover the best in the system and draw these elements together.

Be aware that if using surveys, someone needs to analyse the responses, draw together themes, and reflect these back to the community.  This can be a lot of work. For one survey I had 195 out of 200 staff respond to three simple questions; while I became highly practiced at summarising and thematic analysis (and developed a very valuable awareness of where the staff were at on the issue), it did take every bit of ‘spare’ time I had during the September break.

Another way to go is to repurpose an existing staff meeting, or to set a staff meeting for the purpose.  Think of the time the same way you would for a class – beginning with the end in mind, using engaging methods to provoke involvement.  (Poorly run staff consultation or PD that uses poor pedagogy is a pet peeve of mine).  Think-pair-square-share is a good technique.  If you’re not familiar, it involves asking everyone to respond to the focus question/s individually, allowing a few minutes (Think).  Then, share with a partner (Pair), draw two or three sets of partners together, possibly at a table (Square), and have these tables document what they have found – saving you the analysis stage.  Finally, have someone from each table share with the entire gathering of staff (Share).   Written here, this seems pretty staid.  However, considering the passion of the staff for their students, and the positive stories that will being shared – enthusiasm quickly takes hold.  People like to hear affirming stories about their students, about how the school helped that happen, and about how they helped that happen.

There is a special magic that happens at this phase.  I remember taking our teaching staff through this step – we met in the school’s lecture theatre to accommodate the large numbers.  After several stories were shared, people who were probably actually a bit grumpy to be there (and not on their way home) started to smile and loosen up.  As we went on, people started responding with laughter, or “Awww”s or even applause to the stories.  The lecture theatre is a tiered space, making it feel you’re pretty close to everyone in the room, and at the end I was faced with a wall of beaming faces.  That moment was worth experiencing as a staff just for its own value – in itself this was a sort of gratitude exercise.   In a typical work year, we don’t celebrate our staff achievement enough, and staff don’t get to speak about their passions enough – even though we know that celebrating milestones and reflecting on why we’re doing this in the first place are both strategies for motivation and satisfaction at work.  From a change management perspective, that enthusiasm, that excitement that began to emerge is absolute gold, and needs to be capitalised upon before it dissipates.  For that reason it can be good to move on fairly rapidly to the Dream phase.

Before we do look at the Dream phase, it is worth noting that this is one of a number of ideal opportunities to also gather quantitative student wellbeing data.  So, our next blog post will have a look at the options for that – then the one after will start on the Dream phase.

Next post in the ‘How to lead a Quest for Student Wellbeing’ series:

‘DISCOVERING student wellbeing – gathering numerical data.’

  1. Srivastva, S. and D. Cooperrider, Appreciative Inquiry into Organizational Life. Research in organizational change and development, 1987. 1.
  2. Whitney, D. D., & Trosten-Bloom, A. (2010). The power of appreciative inquiry: A practical guide to positive change. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Nahum Kozak | Psychologist

Nahum is a Psychologist who uses the power of story, humour, and data to help improve organisations.  Nahum has a wealth of experience from school and corporate contexts – as Head of Positive Education and Senior School Counsellor (John Paul College), Corporate Coach (including experience with Griffith’s Work and Organisational Resiliency Centre) and Youth Minister (in Catholic Schools across Australia). He holds a B.A.(Psychology), M.Ed.(Educational Research: Theory and Practice), and is currently undertaking a second Masters in Organisational Psychology. He has presented at schools and conferences around Australia, and has had his research on wellbeing, social connection and sleep quality published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry. Nahum is passionate about building healthy, happy organisations.