by Sabre Cherkowski and Keith Walker
Sabre Cherkowski is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus. She teaches and researches in the areas of leadership in learning communities, professional development and collaboration, mentoring and coaching, and diversity and education. She brings her experiences as a teacher, coach, and parent to her passion for exploring flourishing in educational contexts.
Keith Walker is in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Saskatchewan. His areas of work include educational governance and policy-making, leadership philosophies and practices, community and interpersonal relations, organizational development and capacity-building, and applied and professional ethics. He brings over 35 years of experience as a manager, teacher, minister, leader, scholar, and educational administrator in public and social sectors. His formal education has been in the disciplines of physical education, sports administration, theology, education, educational administration and philosophy.
Over the past three years, we have engaged in research designed to understand what works well in teachers’ work lives and to build a research base of positive organizational knowledge and flourishing practices, across many schools. In several articles and book chapters (Cherkowski & Walker, 2016, 2014, 2013), we have described what we have seen when school communities focus on what makes them feel connected, engaged, energized, and what encourages them to work from a mind and heart space of purpose, passion and play. We offer that a positive turn, and a recalibrated mind shift in our approaches to school improvement, entail collaboration, leadership, learning community and other aspects of school organizing. These shifts will offer new opportunities for engaging with teachers and other school leaders to cultivate school environments where all members of the learning community thrive.
We built our research on positive organizational scholarship and positive psychology; two fields of study that focus on the goodness, virtuousness, resilience and other positive traits, as opposed to finding and fixing the deficits or weaknesses in organizations, groups and individuals (Achor, 2011; Ben Shahar, 2008; Capra, 2004; Cameron & Carr, 2004; Roberts & Dutton, 2010). Influenced by the findings from these fields and knowing that we wanted to align our research intentions with our research actions, we decided that it was important for us to have an intentionally positive orientation in our own research processes and practices. We wondered: what if we saw our research as an opportunity to learn to flourish in our work as we encourage our participants to do the same?
The intention to conceive of our research as flourishing has been integral to what we think it means for us to engage in educational research with school partners. We have aimed for our work with our participants to reflect our desire for reciprocal learning and development in schools, as participants ourselves in a larger system of learning. No longer satisfied to be researchers who gather, interpret, and report what we see going on in schools; we have aimed for a mind and heart shift as we have recognized our research space as an authentic and intentional opportunity to connect as learners and as educators with our participants.
As mutual learners and contributors, with them, we have started to think in terms of our contributions to the pipeline of wellbeing in schools. The metaphorical pipeline runs through educational systems from early learning settings through the university systems and offers a steady flow of knowledge, practices, resources, and relationships for growing wellbeing for all. Through our research, teaching, and service at the university level, we have sought offer as much as we can to the pipeline; and, with appreciation, we accept the offerings from others as opportunities to grow our own and others’ wellbeing.
In this article, we describe our research principles, the pillars from which we have worked together as researchers and as colleagues with our participants. We have aligned these with principles and values of the scholarship from the positive sciences that underpinned our theoretical framework. We designed these principles as a way to challenge ourselves to engage holistically and appreciatively in our research. As we will describe, we have seen this as a catalyst to grow the wellbeing pipeline, developing mutual gain partnerships with schools and educators, and to focus on how we, too, might grow and flourish through this work. The four methodological-informed guiding principles are:
Authentic partnerships: Deciding to see people as central to our purpose;
Appreciative lenses: Seeing flourishing as potential in all schools;
Generative dissemination: Sharing our learning in ways that reflect, inform, and inspire flourishing in all schools; and
Integrative research agenda: Striving to research, teach, and live from a strengths-based, appreciative, positive perspective.
Throughout the following sections, we weave the literature that has most informed our theoretical framework with our understandings of flourishing from our participants to bring to life each principle. We believe we can make a difference through the work that we do, and so we choose to be intentional about how we talk about, share and promote our work as an appreciative, positive and generative endeavour that might contribute to growing more of that which we research. In this article, we encourage others to notice, nurture, and sustain a sense of flourishing (Cherkowski & Walker, in progress), their own and others’, in their capacities as educational researchers.
People Are at the Centre of Our Purpose
Parker Palmer’s (2007) writing on the importance of and the vital need for authenticity, integrity, and identity as educators resonates deeply with us, especially as expressed by his notion that “we teach who we are” (p. 2). In our view, good teaching happens when teachers know who they are, why they teach, why they love their subject or content matter, and when they know what they hope for their students’ growth and development. Reflecting on our own truths about these areas can open us to meeting our students in thoughtful, open, and real ways; so that we come to see each other as humans on a learning journey, each of us with much potential and great offerings, but also with many flaws and challenges. This mutual seeing can become a space of learning, if there is a relational grace (Palmer, 2004), extending to each other compassion and trust so that we may grow our way together toward filling out our potentials toward ongoing individual and collective improvement.
A similar thread of self-knowledge, as a means to collective improvement, is reflected in Whiteheads’ living theory approach to education (1989), where we start from the aim of improving practice by noticing educational influences that shape and contribute to who we are and who we want to be as a teacher. In a living theory approach to teaching, we ask how we can improve our practice and contribute to growing love and humanity within and around us. The inquiry is initiated from with/in, but inevitably leads to engaging with others to understand ourselves and our influences in and on the larger community (Whitehead, 2009).
We think these descriptions of knowing self, as an educator, as a starting place to connect meaningfully for others also applies to our research in schools. We believe that we research who we are, and so it has been important for us to be clear with ourselves, as university researchers in Education, with each other, and with our school-based research partners that we aim to contribute to growing and building knowledge and practices of school improvement from a positive organisational perspective. We research what it means to flourish in schools with a hope of contributing to efforts of others to shift toward a world where more flourishing happens in more schools. We know through our own lived experience, through our research about leadership and learning communities, and through our review of research and writing in positive organizational scholarship and positive psychology that flourishing happens through relationships founded in trust, care, and a genuine desire for positive growth for self and others. As we started our research project, we aimed to create relationships in schools that grew flourishing—through understanding the work lives of educators from a flourishing lens.
As we thought about how we might engage with teachers and administrators we determined that partnerships, or friendships, would be the relationship metaphor that guided our work in schools. University researchers often conduct studies in schools hoping to gain insights into the role of a teacher and the educational environment. We wanted to work with teachers to design mutually beneficial research experiences, ones that might work well for their work and ways of being with one another in school, and that would offer us opportunity to catch their stories; which has been the way we have thought about our data collection work.
Traditionally, teachers are familiar with the concept of research in schools where they are the ‘researched’ rather than being a part of the research team (O’Mara & Gutierrez, 2010). Currently, there is a trend towards working with teachers in collaborative research to foster relationships with teachers and obtain ‘inside perspectives’ into the psychological and social contours of the life of a school (Frankham & Howes, 2006; Kapachtsi & Kakana, 2012; Raffanti, 2008). Benefits from this co-research model are complex; but, simply stated, the model helps close the gap between doing research and implementing research (Kapachtsi & Kakana, 2012). Additionally, benefits for university researchers include opportunities to notice small shifts and changes in the culture of the school and observe the progression of reform efforts because of the role they play in the social action of learning (Frankham & Howes, 2006). Researchers observe the professional tensions evident toward the achievement of goals or the progression of the learning journey that might allow for clarity. Many informal educational development opportunities take place ‘on the job’ in the daily interactions of the school community; therefore, researchers have access to collaborative projects, peer observations, and professional conversations (Kapachtsi & Kakana, 2012). Researchers and teachers can work together and share experiences, often discussing how to bridge gaps between practice and theory (Kapachtsi & Kakana, 2012).
Benefits for teachers participating in co-researching opportunities include increased opportunities for reflection on their teaching with new and different perspectives from the researchers, a sense of empowerment through professional growth and the implementation of action research (Kapachtsi & Kakana, 2012), and an opportunity to take control of their learning and implement new practices (O’Mara & Gutierrez, 2010). Additionally, researchers can take on the role of a ‘sounding board’ for new ideas, or perhaps providing feedback from classroom observations with an ‘outside eye’ (O’Mara & Gutierrez, 2010). Given that teachers are already so busy in their work, challenges of co-planning and co-implementing research activities can include time for engagement in the research and numbers of teachers from each school (O’Mara & Gutierrez, 2010). Given that teachers tend to be unaccustomed to collaborative co-researching opportunities (Raffanti, 2008), inevitable disturbances in the implementation can be interpreted as a challenge; however, by working with these disturbances, researchers and teachers can see conversations as ‘opening’ up a space for exploring roles within the partnership (Frankham & Howes, 2006).
We knew that the research project needed to be designed with our school partners in ways that ensured it would be meaningful and realistic to carry out, rather than the ‘swooping in’ of researchers to collect data and ‘swoop out’ (O’Mara & Gutierrez, 2010). As research friends, we wanted the best for our participants through this partnership, and so we aimed to work with teachers, administrators, and staff to determine the most fruitful inquiry experience for their context. In some cases, this meant engaging in conversations with school districts and schools for almost a year to build a relationship of trust and care where schools would welcome us into their environment to catch their stories of what it meant to flourish as educators. In other cases, we worked with teachers to organize and support activities that would provide well-being benefits for the participants, such as providing structures for ongoing gratitude and happiness moment sharing that also gave us rich narrative data that we could use to better understand our research questions.
Research activities were designed for each school site in conversation with administrators and teachers, offering opportunities for participants to grow and learn about flourishing in alignment with what they were already doing and in directions they were already headed. We described that we were along for their ride and helping in any way we could to enrich the ride, while catching their stories and reflecting these back to them with our interpretations and perspectives. As we will describe in a later section (generative dissemination), the research friendship perspective meant that we gave back to our friends after they provided us with the gift of their stories and perspectives.
Seeing Flourishing as Potential in All Schools
We believe personal professional flourishing lives at the heart of teaching when teachers understand the role of flourishing in a general sense of well-being, positive growth in themselves and with their colleagues, and the co-exploration of hope, compassion and trust with/in a learning community (Cherkowski & Walker, 2013). Part of what we aimed to understand was how the learning community shifts, adapts, and supports ongoing reflexivity as part of a system of interdependence, revitalisation, and generativity. We think of schools as living systems that exist to embrace humanity and become a potential place for flourishing. We aimed to understand how re-framing and re-culturing schools as flourishing learning communities could form the foundations for shifting attention toward the thriving of the community and the members of that community (Cherkowski & Walker, 2013).
We used findings from both positive psychology and positive organization studies to establish an educational research focus on schools as positive organisations. Positive psychology examines positive outlooks, habits, and mental models with the intent to describe positive qualities rather than aiming to repair negative and destructive ones (Ben-Shahar, 2008; Seligman, 2002). Positive organizational scholarship (POS) emerged alongside the growth in positive psychology with a focus on positive traits, attitudes, and behaviours evident in the practices of organizations (Carr, 2004; Gallos, 2008; Roberts & Dutton, 2009; Wright, 2003). POS researchers focus on the whole human experience, both trauma and triumph, with a focus on happiness, organizational health, and meaningfulness in work (Achor, 2011; Lencioni, 2012; Rosso, Deakas & Wrzesniewski, 2010).
As a way of intentionally shifting our research to attending to what goes well and what makes teachers and others come alive in their work, we used an appreciative inquiry approach. Appreciative inquiry (AI) is an approach to change that reflects the shifting understanding about organizations as living systems (Cooperrider & Shrivasta, 1987; Dickerson, 2012; Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2010), and has become an established process for positive change in organizations (Watkins & Mohr, 2001; Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2010). AI can also be understood as a philosophy, a way of seeing the world built more substantially on epistemological and ontological theoretical underpinnings (Coghlan, Preskill & Catsambas, 2003), and a research methodology (Reed, 2007).
We were guided by the appreciative perspective, agreeing with Cooperrider and Godwin (2010) who stated, “AI involves systematic discovery of everything that gives ‘life’ to a living system when it is most effective, alive, and most capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves, in a very artful and disciplined way, the craft of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential” (p. 19).
In general, AI resonates with social constructionist theory that assumes that we construct our reality as we interpret the many different stories we tell about our thoughts about the world (Gergen, 1982), and so our social reality is co-created in the moment by all who participate in the process. At our school sites, we invited all teachers, staff, and administrators to participate in conversations about what it meant for them to flourish in their work. We shared the ideas from AI and invited our school partners into conversations, always noting the importance of story as a tool for positive change (Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2010).
Our participants were assisted to notice the ways they felt most alive, engaged, connected, and on purpose in their work. They described how their sense of flourishing was tied to their students’ flourishing. They noticed how they felt a sense of accomplishment and contentment when a day or lesson had gone particularly well or when they had made a noticeable difference in a student’s life. They described for us the importance of a collegial and friendly staff. They observed that flourishing was tied to being able to experience moments of fun, laughter, support, acceptance, and belonging with their colleagues.
Many stories and descriptions of flourishing recounted moments of playfulness and shared jokes and connections as part of a staff that cares deeply about each other and about the important work they know they are doing for the children in these schools. Beyond a sense of collegiality, stories of collaborating with other teachers to provide engaging and meaningful learning for their students were shared. Professional interactions with their colleagues were cherished parts of their workdays. The stories of flourishing were also linked to a sense of professional autonomy, of feeling valued for their experience and wisdom as a teacher, and a feeling that they are trusted to make the best choices and decisions for their students (Cherkowski & Walker, 2016). For some teachers, this sense of autonomy was also linked to a feeling of freedom to take risks in their teaching for the sake of improving student learning, to work outside the box towards improving student engagement in learning. For these teachers, this autonomy to innovate in their teaching was integral to what it meant to them to flourish in their work (Cherkowski, Hanson & Walker, under review).
These stories of commitment, love, and care for their students, their colleagues, and for their communities reflect research findings that experiencing genuine care, concern, and friendship from others at work are key indicators of work satisfaction or happiness (Helliwell, 2006). Our participants often noted how the open, honest, and appreciative conversations they were having with their colleagues became something to look forward to, as a time of noticing and valuing those pieces of their work that were most important to them. They shared that they do not often have time to reflect, nor do they always have shared practices and language with colleagues, so it was helpful to have time to think about how to shift their conversations toward appreciative and generative perspectives. As we have engaged with educators, we saw the benefits and possibilities of AI as a means to engage teachers in the process of co-creating school climates that support the best of who they are and who they hope to be as teachers, leaders, and professional learners in their schools.
Sharing of Our Learning in Ways that Reflect, Inform, and Inspire Flourishing in All Schools
Traditionally, knowledge, in the form of collected data, is whisked away to the pages of a journal article rather than given to the members of a community who may use the findings to enact change with/in their community (Chavis, Stucky, & Wandersman, 1983). According to Fine, Weis, and Weseen (2000), the purpose of research is not only to generate new knowledge; but, rather, to critically inform public policies, social movements, and daily community life. Educational research is an obligation to use intellectual leverage to begin to shift political discourse and make decisions about “the extent to which our work should aim to be ‘useful’” (p. 124). Huberman (1999) referred to the term “sustained interactivity” to reframe the goal of research as one of collectively constructing knowledge through shared activity to allow for the transition from “practice knowledge” toward “research knowledge” within the educational community (p. 291). His main question was “How are intersections between the practitioner-researcher micro-worlds constructed, enacted, and changed so that they become, in some form, ‘learning environments’ for both parties?” (p. 292).
University researchers have significant expertise and formal knowledge in teaching and learning that can be valuable to teachers; however, the most effective way of disseminating that knowledge is for researchers to work side-by-side teachers in the constructing, collecting, and interpreting the data to directly and immediately inform practice (Henderson & Dancy, 2008) Under this framework, both researchers and teachers are recognized as valuable in the processes and learning that occurs for all parties (Henderson & Dancy, 2008). Joint benefits include improvement to the quality of the research, the potential for using the research, the increase in public support, and the act of empowering teachers to make changes based on findings (Chavis et al., 1983). For researchers, “the direct and immediate interaction between scientists and citizen through dissemination and utilization of research results provides a feedback loop that refines the knowledge base” (Chavis et al., p. 431). The sustained interactivity is clearly beneficial to both parties, and so a transition is necessary in the research design and process for knowledge to be freely accessed and utilized rather than a continued dependence on the ‘experts’ to hold the knowledge (Chavis et al., 1983; Huberman, 1999).
We aimed to provide our research partners with a record of the knowledge they constructed with us through the research activities. To do this, we analysed and coded the narrative data using our theoretical framework to allow themes to emerge from the participants’ stories. For each school, we provided a book that we printed (often a 200-300 page book of their stories) that was thematically developed and infused with theory from our framework. We also invited key partners to contribute writing to the book, whether a district leader, or a principal. We saw this book as a gift back to our research friends and an important artefact for their community—a book of their stories gifted to them through the lens of the university research community.
These books were time consuming for us; however, when seen as generative dissemination or as a gift to our research friends that might grow further conversations and learning within the community, we found ourselves looking forward to the opportunity to shape and present the book to each school. The books provided evidence of their flourishing and, hopefully, inspiration to carry on their work of growing wellbeing in many ways in their school and district.
Integrative Research Agenda
We Strive to Research, Teach, and Live from a Strengths-based, Appreciative, Positive Perspective
As described, we designed our research from an intentional stance of noticing and attending to a positive organizational orientation. This intentional stance of flourishing does not deny the challenges or difficulties that come with designing and carrying out a multi-year research project within already full professional and personal lives. Further, this approach does not mean turning away from suffering or stories of pain that emerge from participants. A fully human experience really does mean an attention to the wholeness of the experience, and it means that we also, at any moment, have opportunities to choose our responses and subsequent actions. We agree with Margaret Wheatley (2017) who wrote,
Yet everything alive possesses the freedom to choose what to notice and determine its response. At any moment, we can use our intelligence to notice that we can’t abide how this culture is changing us, our children, and colleagues…if we embed ecological values, if we focus on relationships, if we position learning as a core value, if we seek to behave as partners with life, then we have a strong chance to manifest, to self-organize as individuals living and working purposefully together in healthy communities (p. 229).
Wheatley argued that there are many filters, or ways of seeing the world, and that noticing our own filters through paying attention to who we are, what matters most to us, and what triggers us can help us determine a clearer way forward. We can choose to work in ways that move us in the direction of our values, even when we may not see those values reflected by others in our work or life communities. In our research, we have chosen to notice the life-giving, energizing, and purpose-aligned opportunities in our work as catalysts for our learning and opportunities to open us to further experiences of working and living well with others.
We were recently introduced to a theory that helps us describe what we mean—inscaping (Nillson & Paddock, 2014). Borrowed from poetry roots, where the term referred to the invisible structures or essences of things, Nillson and Paddock (2014) used the term to refer to the essentiality of interior experiences as integral to understanding exterior experiences, such as social innovations in organizations. They wrote, “we define organizational inscaping as the practice of surfacing the inner experiences of organizational members during the normal course of everyday work. By ‘inner experiences,’ we don’t mean just emotions. We mean everything that makes up our inner lives: ideas and intuitions, aspirations and fears, values and memories” (p. 46).
This notion of inscaping resonates with our efforts to carry out our research aligned with the values and practices of the theoretical framework that were underpinning our project—positive, appreciative and strengths-based approaches to noticing, nurturing and sustaining flourishing for self and others as the primary work of teaching and learning in schools (Cherkowski & Walker, in progress). As Nillson and Paddock (2014) suggested, inscaping in an organization can infuse the system with life-giving energies and supports for a fully human experience, and this generativity leads to new thinking, new ways of connecting, and new ways of engaging together toward a common purpose. Nillson and Paddock described,
Work inscaping brings energy and creativity to an organization. As people gain the freedom to express the hopes, fears, questions, and concerns that they have about their work, the space for divergent thinking expands around them. What’s more, because work inscaping fosters unusually frank relationships, people develop a nuanced and appreciative understanding of each other. This understanding allows them to move together through difficult new terrain in a way that accommodates their specific strengths and flaws (p. 50).
As Nillson and Paddock explained (2014), creating spaces for sharing inner experiences about what matters most to us can cultivate exterior conditions for shifting toward new learning and innovation “as the positive energies and diverse experiences and views combine toward new ways of thinking and being together, essentially toward transformation” (p. 52). We noticed the transformative potential of inscaping from the stories of our participants. We engaged with groups of teachers who seemed to operate at a different level of energy, enthusiasm, and innovation in their work; and, they credited that vitality to opportunities to share the wholeness of themselves as part of the work they do together in the classroom. For these groups, cultivating genuine and meaningful human relationships led to growing the conditions necessary for them to innovate together in their work (Cherkowski, Hanson & Walker, under review).
As a research team, we aimed to cultivate conditions for flourishing through engaging as authentically and holistically as we could with each other and with our research communities in ways that reflected our values of relationships, the importance of attending to the inner landscape of our lives as essential to our work, and the potential and promises of appreciative and positive approaches and perspectives at work. These values illuminate our belief in the importance of work as an opportunity for fuller human development. As readers will have discerned, this principle of aiming to live out our work with each other from a focus on authenticity and alignment with the values we learned from our own study of the positive sciences in relation to what it means to teach, learn, and lead in learning communities in schools underpinned and supported each of the other three principles already described.
What does it mean to re-imagine schools as positive organisations for improving and increasing human flourishing? This question has been a theoretical driver as we have developed our three-year research project on understanding how teachers and other school leaders in the community notice, nurture, and sustain flourishing in schools (Cherkowski & Walker, 2016, 2014, 2013). We see this question rooted in more than a theoretical framework. Through our research, we have come to learn that we are intimately connected to the questions we ask, to the people with whom we are researching, and to the community in which we become members as we join with other members to create knowledge for the purposes of school improvement. We see that this intimate connection and interdependence with our research questions, methods, participants, findings, and all other aspects of the process means that we are responsible for, and responsible with, co-creating and co-sustaining a community of flourishing research, and that this work as researchers can contribute to building what we call a wellbeing pipeline in education.
As part of our commitment to researching in ways that support and contribute to human flourishing, we have designed our four principles to live through our research in ways that contributed to growing our own flourishing in service of encouraging others within our learning community to do the same. We do this to share further and broader conversations with our colleagues in the educational research community about what it might mean to engage in research as flourishing, toward growing more pipelines of wellbeing across many contexts.
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