Schools as conversational communities

May 4, 2017
John Campbell

John Campbell

Director of Growth Coaching International

John Campbell, Director of Growth Coaching International, considers how conversations are key to growth in schools, and how coaching conversations can be more powerful still.

This blog is part of our coaching series

For a few years now we have been talking about ‘enhancing the quality of conversations’ in educational communities as a way to capture the essence of what Growth Coaching International (GCI) is about. It has been helpful to reconsider what this really means and why it is important. 

We came to this phrase through an extended process of reflecting what kind of organisation a school is; through our work in Solutions Focus theory; through reading and studying concepts related to ‘complex adaptive systems’; and through a recognition that coaching and conversations that use a ‘coaching approach’ are at the heart of every school improvement initiative. 

Leadership through conversation

For a long time there had been a tendency to view organisations, including schools, as objective ‘things’ that can be controlled, ordered and organised like a machine. Frederick Taylor and the Scientific Management School helped to arrive at this way of thinking 100 years ago.

More recently, complexity theorists (Stacey, 1999) have argued that organisations, including schools, are more accurately described as complex webs of human interactions. 

Instead of leading a well-oiled machine, leading an organisation is more like trying to navigate a kayak through the rapids where the landscape is constantly changing, things are unpredictable and the ability to adapt, modify and respond to the environment is key to success.

Further study highlighted the fact that conversations – the way people talk to each other, and how well they do this - are at the core of what moves things forward within organisations, enabling them to grow, improve and be successful.

We discovered strong statements about the key role of the conversation in organisational effectiveness:

“Conversations are the way workers discover what they know, share it with their colleagues and in the process create new knowledge for the organisation. In the new economy, conversations are the most important form of work…so much so that the conversation is the organisation.”  Alan Weber, HR Consultant.

“An organisation’s results are determined through webs of human commitments, born in webs of human conversations.”  Fernando Flores, Former Chilean Finance Minister.

“Change the conversation and there is a good chance that you will change everything that surrounds it.” Jackson & Waldman, The Solutions Focus.

"Instead of leading a well-oiled machine, leading an organisation is more like trying to navigate a kayak through the rapids where the landscape is constantly changing, things are unpredictable and the ability to adapt, modify and respond to the environment is key to success."

Other studies have shown the significance of conversations too. Jane Dutton (2003) outlines a range of specific strategies that leaders can adopt to create energetic workplaces through what she terms ‘high quality connections’. Three key things constitute these ‘high quality connections’:

1. Respectful engagement is about how to engage others in ways that send messages of value and worth. Dutton outlines 5 major strategies for doing this - being present, being genuine, communicating affirmation, effective listening, supportive communication. 

2. Task enabling is about ways of interacting that facilitate another person’s successful performance. Here, she recommends, teaching, designing, accommodating and nurturing. 

3. Trusting  is about acting in ways that convey to others the belief that they will act with integrity and dependability. Trust is built through what you say and don’t say and what you do and don’t do. 

Cross and Parker (2004) researched organisational networks and identified ‘positive energisers’ in organisations. As the term suggests, these were the people to whom others were drawn, who were energising to be around and people who made things happen. What characterised their interactions were conversations that: 

1. Linked to a compelling vision

2. Allowed both parties to meaningfully contribute

3. Gave full attention and engagement

4. Focused on progress

5. Conveyed a sense of hope


Crossover with coaching

The common themes emerging in this research started to weave together the nature of the connections, the relationships and the conversations and their impact on various aspects of organisational effectiveness.

What became increasingly obvious was that the characteristics of the conversations making a difference were similar to the coaching conversations we were leading, writing about and helping others learn to do. The emphasis on what these conversations did reinforced what we were doing and teaching about coaching. The more effective conversations: 

• focused more on future 

• focused more on outcomes

• progressed issues through small step actions

• leveraged strengths 

Further, how these conversations were conducted was very much in line with GCI’s Coaching Way of Being principles. They emphasised:

• focused attention

• a partnership approach

• building trust

• listening

It became clear that enhancing the quality of conversations in schools, whether formal coaching or informal ‘coaching-style’ conversations, could help to make a positive impact. These kinds of conversations were really at the centre of any kind of school improvement initiative. The implementation of any new change happens through the way people engage in conversations with each other.

Moreover we realised that ‘coaching-style’ conversations could take place in several key conversational contexts in schools:

• Leaders with team members

• Teachers with teachers

• Teachers with students 

• Students with students

• School leaders and teachers with parents and community

It was this thinking that led to the development of the Global Framework for Coaching in Education.

So we believe that working towards improving the quality of conversations in school communities - in all these contexts - is important work. And it’s important to remember that we do all this so that students’ learning and wellbeing is enhanced. Coaching and ‘coaching style’ conversations provide a vehicle to achieve this while we increase organisational effectiveness. 

If you would like to know more about our Teaching Leaders programme, fill in this quick form for primary or secondary and a member of our School Partnerships team will be in touch.

The Future Leaders programme is for high-potential leaders who could reach headship within three years.

This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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