Asking Powerful Questions

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Appreciative inquiry (AI) is an energizing approach for sparking positive change in people, groups, and organizations. It focuses on what is working well (appreciative) by engaging people in asking questions and telling stories (inquiry). The shift in focus to the positive and what is working well generates energy within the group or organization, allowing it to move more effectively toward its goals. As well as a process for facilitating positive change, AI is a way of being and seeing the world everyday.  (Cockell and McArthur-Blair, 2012, p. 13)

I have been inspired by this year’s Educational Developers Caucus (EDC) conference over many discussions related to asking powerful questions.  In the words of this year’s keynote speaker, Joan McArthur-Blair, “Positive questions inspire positive change.”  One of the things that I have quickly learned in the field of educational development and in my leadership roles is that it is often (if not always) better to ask a thoughtful question than to provide advice.  Although we may not always label it as appreciative inquiry, I have come to a deep understanding that educational developers are great at asking positive, solution-focused questions.  These questions form the basis of our practice.  They are inherent not only to our approaches, but to our sense of being. Through questions we seek to help others (whether it be individuals, programs or institutions) to identify and leverage their full potential, to awaken the passion within, to continuously improve, and, perhaps most importantly, to provide a sense of meaning and purpose to their everyday practices within higher education.  There is little doubt that this is an interesting and transformative time in higher education.  Change is occurring at unprecedented rates, and institutions are increasingly looking to the field of educational development to support the academic community in evidencing and communicating their many successes, identifying future possibilities and opportunities for growth and improvement, and determining key actions for moving forward.  Our most potent call to action may be in asking powerful questions that connect individuals and communities through meaningful dialogue and conversation.

Below are some questions that have been pondered throughout the conference thus far.  What are some of the most powerful questions you ask in your ED practice?

  • What already exists that has value? What is the best of what already is?
  • If that is the issue, what are you yearning for?
  • What is the greatest strength that you have brought to the organization?
  • Where inside the organization do we have high engagement?
  • What does a highly connected, highly engaged academic community look like?
  • What will we be in 2020?
  • What would you be if learners were first?
  • Tell a story about the best experience you had last semester.
  • Tell a story of a moment, however tiny, when you felt excited coming to work.
  • What are you already doing in your organization that matters?
  • What is the most powerful and successful learning experience that you have ever had?
  • What are you yearning for?
  • What are you going to do tomorrow morning at 9am?
  • What is the proudest thing that you did in the last 3 years to help support our strategic plan?
  • What is the best thing that happened to you today?
  • If I imagine myself at work tomorrow, what is one thing that I will do differently?
  • How do you express what matters to you?
  • What has your time in education taught you?
  • Where have you had the most influence?
  • What is the most powerful gift you are giving to your organization right now?
  • How do you lift up the hearts and minds of faculty, staff and students within your institutions, to do their work in a way they never imagined?
  • What will your organization be calling on you to do in the next 10 years?
  • How can educational developers be revolutionary?
  • What are your options? What choices do you have moving forward? What is in your control?
  • What did you learn/discover?
  • What will you do differently next time?
  • What is the most important thing for you moving forward?
  • What key actions will you take based on this feedback?

References:

Cockell, Jeanie, & McArthur-Blair, Joan. (2012). Appreciative Inquiry in higher education: A transformative force: John Wiley & Sons.

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SOARing through Curriculum Development Processes

As a foundational component of most curriculum review processes, we frequently engage in a Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Challenges (SWOC) analysis with faculty and instructors involved in the teaching and delivery of courses within a major or degree program.  The SWOC analysis framework is also often used as an effective framework for conducting focus groups to gather input and feedback from students, alumni and employers.

I have recently developed a strong affinity for the SOAR process (Stavros, Cooperrider, & Kelley, 2003; Stavros & Hinrichs, 2011), which provides a interesting alternative to the SWOC process. Based on an appreciative inquiry (AI) approach to strategic planning, the SOAR framework provides an extraordinary guide for conversations related to identifying and leveraging the key strengths and opportunities of academic programs. In collaboration with an incredibly insightful colleague, Dr. Gavan Watson, we recently adapted the SOAR framework within the context of a curriculum review process.  We used the questions below to guide discussion at a recent curriculum retreat (adapted from Stavros et al., 2003; Stavros and Hinrichs, 2011). Allotting approximately 2 hours for this discussion, we first divided the program’s instructors into three small groups.  There were three separate “flip chart” stations organized around the room, each focused on one of the following three SOAR topics:

 Strengths: What can we build on?

  1. What are we doing well?
    • What key achievements are we most proud of?
    • What positive aspects of the program have students/faculty/employers or others commented on?
  2. What are we known for?
    • What makes us unique?
    • Why do students choose our program?
  3. What key resources and areas of expertise give us an advantage?

Opportunities: What are our best possible future opportunities?

  1. What changes in demand do we expect to see over the next years?
    • What external forces or trends may positively impact the program?
  2. What future external opportunities exist for the program?
    • What are key areas of untapped potential?
    • What are students, employers and/or other community members asking for?
  3. How can we highlight our program strengths and distinguish ourselves from competing programs?
  4. How can we reframe perceived challenges to be seen as opportunities?

Aspirations: What do We Care Deeply About?

  1. What are we deeply passionate about?
  2. As a program, what difference do we hope to make (e.g. to learners, the institution, employers, the community)?
  3. What does our preferred future look like?
  4. What projects, programs or processes would support our aspirations?

Each group had 15 minutes to reflect on the guiding questions presented at the station.  After 15 minutes, the groups rotated to the next station, reviewed and discussed the key points summarized by the previous group, and added any additional points to the flipcharts.  After each small group had rotated through each of the stations, we collectively took 15 minutes to review the key points presented at the Strength, Opportunities, and Aspiration flipchart stations, to ensure that participants had an opportunity to provide additional clarification where necessary.  We then conducted a dotomocray to prioritize the key points presented at the stations (each participant was given 6 sticky dots to vote for what they felt were the program’s most important strengths, opportunities and aspirations). Based on this process, the top “3” points from each station were highlighted.

In the final step, the participants were divided into two groups, and given 20 minutes to discuss the key “Results” that they would like to see based on these priorities (see below guiding questions).  Each group then reported back up to 3 measures of success, goals, projects, and initiatives.

Results: How will we know we are succeeding?

  1. Considering our strengths, opportunities, and aspirations, what meaningful measures will indicate that we are on track in achieving our goals?
  2. What measurable results do we want to see? What measurable results will we be known for?
  3. What resources are needed to implement our most vital projects and initiatives?
  4. What are the 3-5 key goals would you like to accomplish in order to achieve these results?

The SOAR framework and process highlighted above resulted in a collective, collaborative, inspired and engaged discussion, that lead to the identification of key projects and areas of focus for continued program improvement. The strength-based focus of SOAR provides an important opportunity for participants to have meaningful, positive and solution-focused conversations related to the program’s potential, and provides clear direction upon which to create a desired future.

Note: More recently, we used the above SOAR framework to develop a future vision for one of our faculty development programs. I have quickly discovered that the framework is highly adaptable to many strategic planning conversations!

References

Stavros, Jacqueline M, Cooperrider, D L, & Kelley, D Lynn. (2003). Strategic inquiry appreciative intent: inspiration to SOAR, a new framework for strategic planning. AI Practitioner. November, 10-17.

Stavros, Jacqueline M, & Hinrichs, Gina. (2011). The Thin Book Of SOAR: Building Strengths-Based Strategy. Bend, OR: Thin Book Publishing.

External Factors Impacting Educational and Curriculum Development in Ontario

In thinking about some of the external factors which are likely to impact and increase demand for Educational and Curriculum Development at the University of Guelph, the following five came quickly to mind.  All of the factors below will  impact areas that are core to the expertise, services and support areas that we provide including:  curriculum development, review and learning outcomes assessment; faculty and instructional development; evidenced-based classroom practice and research (e.g. student-centred and experiential learning); support for the use of educational technology; and universal instructional design. What other factors would you add to this list?

  1. Internationally, quality assurance processes and pressures for public accountability for academic programs have been increasing.  The Council of Ontario Universities’ Quality Assurance Framework (2010) requires each institution to develop and implement an Institutional Quality Assurance Process (IQAP). The IQAPs are core to quality assurance and continuous improvement, and ensure that all programs are consistent with their Institution’s Degree Level Expectations (e.g. University of Guelph 2012 Senate-approved Learning Outcomes).  The IQAP process has placed an increased focus on program-level curriculum review and development.
  2. PSE is one of the Ontario Government’s highest priority areas. This Government has committed to creating an addition 60,000 spaces in the PSE system and to ensuring that 70% of the population attains post-secondary credentials, while at the same time seeking to improve productivity through innovation and quality in our teaching and learning environments.
  3. In its discussion paper, Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge, The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) has called for transformation in the PSE system, with a clear focus on accountability and quality assurance, learning outcomes assessment, on-line/technology enabled learning, experiential learning, employability, acceleration of knowledge creation (e.g. 3 yr. undergrad baccalaureate degrees) and student transferability/mobility (of credits within the system and credentials across systems).
  4. The 2012 Auditor General’s Report evaluated University Undergraduate Teaching Quality, recommending: improved evaluations of courses and teaching; tenure and promotion processes that reflect the importance of teaching; greater participation in teaching development activities for all faculty; and, measuring the impact of various teaching resources (e.g. class size) on teaching quality and learning outcomes.
  5. The Provincial government has committed to ensuring accessibility for all learners through the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation and the AODA, placing increased importance on the practices and principles embedded in Universal Instructional Design (UID).