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Appreciative Learning Culture

In a recent issue of the AI Practitioner (February, 2012), guest editors Reed, Tracy, and Holmberg introduced the theme of the issue, Learning is the spark of transformation (p. 4), by noting that “individual and organizational transformation starts with learning” (p. 5). For me this resonates with the work we did together as the CM Core Administrative Team during the years 2002-2008; (2) the AI Learning Team Process that was conducted during my doctoral study; and (3) my own learning and growth. Attention to building an Appreciative Learning Culture may serve as a foundational organizational development concept and tool. David Cooperrider’s early article, The Child as an Agent of Inquiry is provoking in considering the positive potential.

Appreciative Learning Cultures

In his classic work on appreciative learning cultures, Frank Barrett (1995) claims that consistent organizational innovation requires generative (as opposed to adaptive) learning, which involves an appreciative approach. He proposes that organizations with appreciative learning cultures develop a specific set of competencies necessary for them to flourish and survive. They include:

  1. Affirmative competence—the capacity to appreciate positive possibilities by selectively focusing on current and past strengths, successes, and potentials;
  2. Expansive competence—the capacity to challenge habits and conventional practices, provoking members to experiment in the margins, make expansive promises that stretch them in new directions, and evoke values and ideals that inspire them to passionate engagement;
  3. Generative competence—the capacity to construct integrative systems that allow members to see the consequences of their actions, to recognize that they are making a meaningful contribution, and to experience a sense of progress;
  4. Collaborative competence—the capacity to create forums in which members engage in ongoing dialogue and exchange diverse perspectives.                                       Barrett, F. J. (1995). Creating appreciative learning cultures. Organizational Dynamics, 24, 36-419.

APPRECIATION and LEARNING go together in a synergistic relationship to build capacity. Building and empowering the Appreciative Learning Culture competencies may serve as an OD (organizational developmental) tool and process to develop an organizational learning culture – especially in schools. Again, the tools of conducting an appreciative inquiry into one’s own culture of learning would serve to help develop the learning culture as would the use of appreciative leadership.

For years I have been in awe of the magic that happens when a child is fully engaged in his/her own learning – and the same for an adult and an institution as they take the unequivocal plunge. As I progressed through the early years of my professional formation as a teacher, I couldn’t help but ask – what is needed to make this happen for adults after they leave behind their formal years of schooling. In an attempt to quench my thirst … I kept an eye on the best sellers and buzz words in the business world, just to see how that sector was attending to this dynamic and to see which pieces cross over and have application in the field of education. While shared viewpoints have been many and varied, I have found resonance with the work of Peter Senge in his address of the development of a learning organization. In Schools that Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents and Everyone Who Cares about Education (Senge et al., 2012) also offers practical advice to strengthen schools to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world. I believe the Five Disciplines may be worthy as they relate to education:

  1. Personal Mastery: A set of practices that support children and adults in keeping their dreams whole while cultivating an awareness of current reality around them.
  2. Mental Models: Becoming more aware of the sources of our thinking;
  3. Shared Vision: Fostering commitment to a common purpose;
  4. Team Learning: Transforming our skills of collective thinking;
  5. Systems Thinking: Developing awareness of complexity, interdependencies, change and leverage.

Daniel Pink, author of DRIVE and A WHOLE NEW MIND and another favorite of mine to read as he connects the issues at hand, states that Senge’s work is “A rich, much-needed remedy for the standardized institutions that comprise too much of our school system today… ideal for teachers and parents intent on resurrecting and fostering students’ inherent drive to learn…An essential resource”.

Being a long time reader of the multiple intelligence work of Howard Gardner led me to his work Five Minds for the Future (2006). Here, Gardner suggests developing the capacity of the mind in the following cognitive abilities:

  1. Disciplinary mind: Mastery of major schools of thought (including, science, math, and history) and of at least one professional craft;
  2. Synthesizing mind: Ability to integrate ideas from different disciplines or spheres into a coherent whole and to communicate that integration to others;
  3. Creating mind: Capacity to uncover and clarify new problems, questions, and phenomena;
  4. Respectful mind: Awareness of an appreciation for differences among human beings;
  5. Ethical mind: Fulfillment of one’s responsibilities as a worker and citizen.

A whole new mindschools that learn Drive  Five-Minds-for-the-Future-282502


What would be the benefits to the stakeholders of an organization/school if it would embark on the journey to become an appreciative learning culture?

What specific actions would it take to begin to create an appreciative learning culture?

What would be the indicators that an appreciative learning culture had been developed?

What would it take to continue to support the appreciative learning culture?


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