Solution Focussed Learning is a technique developed from Solution Focussed Therapy and pioneered in schools by Kerstin Mahlberg.
Our education advisor visited her in Sweden and reports here on ways of introducing these practices into the leadership and improvement within UK schools.
Having qualified as a PE teacher from St Paul’s in Cheltenham in 1988, I moved into Special Education via mainstream teaching in such diverse areas as Norfolk, Dagenham and Kuwait. Over the past ten years I have been involved in leading schools through periods of re-designation, in fighting amalgamation and closure, leading schools into Federation and securing new build under the Building Schools for the Future programme.
Throughout my career I have sought to focus on the answers not the problems. To value people, staff and pupils, above tables of results and to keep things as simple as possible – but no simpler!
This article is a personal statement based around research work conducted into Solution Focussed Leadership. This method is based upon Solution Focussed Therapy (SFT), created in the 1980s at the Brief Family Therapy Centre in Milwaukee by Steve de Shazer and his team. The unique feature of SFT is that it focuses on solutions and not on problems. As such it matches my own outlook in looking for answers not dwelling on problems.
The idea has been transformed into Solution Focussed Education by a remarkable lady called Kerstin Mahlberg who, together with Maud Sjoblom, has implemented the methods at the FKC Mellansjo School outside Stockholm. Solution Focused Education offers an alternative approach to engaging with young people and a fresh perspective on the learning process itself. The approach and techniques have been proved over time with the most challenging pupils and settings. By taking up new perspectives on what is happening, a different way of thinking can be created, leading to real and lasting progress. I visited Kerstin in Sweden and conducted my research in UK schools based upon her experience.
What do we want to achieve in schools?
If you ask any member of staff, and indeed parents, how they would like their school to be, many would picture a school with good quality teaching, where learning is taking place, with young people behaving well, where pupils and staff feel valued and where staff have the time and capacity for developing their skills. Just from a cursory glance at the news headlines most days it is clear that this is not the situation in many schools at the moment. Much of the improvement work taking place in schools at the moment is based around the process of school self evaluation. This asks:
* What do you know?
* Where are the problem areas?
* Do you know why problem areas exist?
* What are you doing about them?
It is a standard educational review model and has much to commend it. However, some schools have found that this can lead to the apportioning of blame for ‘poor’ results and a resultant feeling of failure for staff. Could it be the case that if, as school leaders, we didn’t have to spend our time, effort and energy trying to undertake some form of ‘Freudian’ analysis of why a school is where it is, we could channel our energies into exploring ways to identify and achieve a better outcome in the future?
This does not negate the importance of detailed analysis of performance nor does it fly in the face of accountability, it simply recognises that we don’t always have to “solve” the problem to achieve a solution.
Building on some of the principals of solution-focused counselling could allow the development of solution-focused leadership in schools and to provide a structure that allows staff to recognise current achievements and develop strategies for improvement.
The key question for most school leaders, therefore, should be “how do we get from here to there”. It is my belief that focusing on the “there” will bring about more positive change than focusing on the “here” – this is the heart of Solution Focussed Leadership.
How might we move forward in school improvement?
In trying to secure positive outcomes, school leaders often turn to industry for guidance. I feel that this can lead down a path that does ensure that schools do become more efficient – but at a cost. Many industry models can undermine what is at the heart of leading a school. In order to ensure that the benefits of industry leadership methods are gained without losing the core values of education we need to develop a leadership style which creates a culture of collaboration, one in which everyone’s contribution is valued. If we truly believe that every child matters then the leadership style adopted must be predicated on the premise that every staff member matters too.
With this in mind I agreed to undertake a Research Associate programme with the National College of School leadership and used the chance to look into a style of school leadership based on a simple premise, namely that both problems and solutions do exist but that it is not always the case that they are connected or dependent on each other.
The starting point comes from The Solutions Focus Jackson & McKergow (2002). Stated simply:
* If it’s not broken don’t try to fix it
* Do more of what already works
* If it doesn’t work do something different
The solution focused model offers an approach which engages people in the process of moving forward towards jointly identified goals through a range of key techniques.
It focuses upon those occasions when things worked better, instead of dwelling on perceived problems in the here and now and it provides a collaborative way of identifying clear future goals and the key steps to their achievements.
It uses four clear and distinct strategies within a counselling dialogue.
Exception finding: identifying times when the problem or issue didn’t occur or those departments that don’t experience the issues faced by other subjects in a school.
Celebrating achievements & progress: clearly stating and recognising even the smallest steps towards achieving identified goals.
Scaling: the use of rating scales to help clarify successes (‘on a scale of 1-9 where we are currently, where anything above a 1 means something is going right!) and to recognise what we need to do to reach the next point of the scale.
Goal setting (picturing preferred future): – Clearly naming and quantifying the goal as an end point, understood by all responsible for achieving it.
Engaging people in leadership activities is at the heart of school improvement and organisational development within the distributed leadership model. Much of the literature available indicates that greater involvement at all levels in the process of goal setting and review would increase staff capacity for contribution to whole school goals through the empowerment and ownership of those goals. Collaboration and collegiality are themselves seen as significant factors in effective school leadership. This may in fact lead one to believe that simply by “distributing” leadership one automatically secures commitment. However distributing leadership must be done within a contextual framework and school ethos which allows for the devolving of responsibility and authority, but more importantly of trust. This trust must be developed through confidence in each other, in all levels of leadership, and can only be encouraged through the development of an ethos of open, honest, and constructive dialogue.
The gap between the leader’s vision and the group’s commitment to achieving the vision, and indeed their sense of ownership of the vision, is where many schools become culturally unstuck How leaders lead is not the question here. What leaders can do to develop a solution orientated culture within the school to empower staff towards continual school improvement, is the issue.
Commitment and collaboration
Schools seeking to ensure that all staff commit to the strategic elements of school improvement must ensure that the ethos within the school is supportive of self-evaluation, reflection and target setting. Where schools are seen to encourage the development of collaborative working between staff, subjects and departments, it has been apparent that these teams developed common goals and strategies for meeting pupil need alongside goals and strategies for achieving school priorities. By providing opportunities for collaborative working schools have found that teams have developed their own solutions to given issues in a creative and cooperative way and this being the case, staff have appeared more committed to achieving the success of those solutions.
Creating a culture where staff feel confident in ‘putting their head above the parapet’ without fear of being put down by colleagues or school leaders, comes from working together in positive team interactions and the solution focused approach develops this methodology as a way of working.
The tools for encouraging staff contribution can quickly be negated if members of staff believe that their personal contribution is not appreciated or that they risk criticism for their work. Having a member of the leadership team “driving” school improvement in a solution focused way appears more successful in incorporating both personal and team goals into the school improvement process. The reverse is also true that without the commitment of the leadership team there is little likelihood of any strategies, tools or approaches becoming successful.
Schools have found that staff collegiality in the decision-making processes has led to a greater degree of collegiality in meeting pupil need and a greater diversity of suggestions and ideas for all aspects of school improvement. The concept that a solution focused school is one in which all staff are learners, prepared to investigate and attempt new strategies and approaches to ensure pupil success, is one which sits comfortably with the notions of Learning Centred Leadership and Distributed Leadership. Staff therefore should be constantly engaged in their own processes of goal setting within this, through mentoring throughout the year, formal performance management or indeed as a result of department or team planning.
Leaders need to allow staff to develop their own solutions to the issues facing them and also to those issues facing the school as a whole. This requires delegation of autonomy alongside delegation of responsibility. Staff devising their own improvement plans and targets are clearly more likely to work toward their success and the same is true of staff being instrumental in devising whole school improvement targets.
Applying solution-focussed tools in a supportive ethos
All schools in the study identified that the success of the implementation of solution focused methodologies was reliant upon the both the application of formal solution-focussed tools and the prevailing school ethos. Where schools already demonstrate commitment to staff and to staff development it was easier to implement the tools and strategies of the solution focused approach. All schools were very clear of the need to identify an adaptation of the strategies to fit the particular context and circumstances of the school and that it was impossible to simply lift a model and drop it in to a range of school contexts.
When issues that need to be addressed are identified in school self-evaluation, it seems apparent that there is a greater degree of success in moving those issues forward where schools engage in a positive dialogue rather than “blame storming”. This in itself is neither new nor revolutionary but appears to be a way in which a solution focused orientation can provide a format for that positive dialogue. What is apparent is that the strength of the system is in its transparency and its commitment to the people of the organisation. Without that commitment it becomes potentially, as was succinctly stated by a member of staff within one of the schools, ‘just another management tool for cynical staff to pay lip service to’. The study demonstrated that a close mutually supportive relationship between the school ethos and solution focused systems is very effective in securing commitment to school improvement.
One of the key principles that was a theme throughout all interviews was that of staff feeling valued and that their contribution was important to the school as a whole. Phrases such as “we enjoyed working here”, “I feel I am accepted as a person” and “staff are happy to come to work” kept recurring throughout the interviews with staff at all levels. One of the common themes expressed by staff members interviewed as part of the study was that by incorporating solution focused methodologies into team and department meetings, interpersonal relationships and communication had improved and there was a greater sense of shared purpose in their work. Unsurprisingly, staff members who feel valued and enjoy a positive working relationship with their colleagues, and the leadership of the school, appear to demonstrate a greater commitment to the success of both their teams and the school as a whole.
Members of staff were clearly stating that having their achievements recognised enhanced their sense of well-being and enjoyment in their work and the use of the solution focused orientation had been perceived to have brought about improved commitment to finding solutions to issues facing the school. It seems clear that using solution focused systems which highlight success, celebrate achievement and involve staff in identifying clear goals for improvement, has a positive effect on staff attitude and approach to their work. However it would be rather simplistic to suggest that this is the only methodology that can produce this result.
So then, it is in some ways blindingly obvious, yet it is nonetheless worth noting in conclusion, that where the leader walks the walk and believes in the staff, commitment to improvement appears to be greatly enhanced. Recognising the strengths of the staff allows the school leader opportunities to build positive solutions based upon them. Solution focused working also allows the staff to feel valued, which in turn leads to commitment to those valuing them and to the organisation. Solution-focussed tools also allow a framework for collaboration and potentially give staff a number of “skills” in managing team and department interactions and can highlight the potential for the use of a solution focused approach within school improvement work.
As I said in my introduction to this article, my gut feeling has always been to focus or answers rather than on problems – to focus on future outcomes rather than current difficulties. I acknowledge that lessons can be learnt from analysis of the current position but care must be taken not to let such analysis foster a blame culture. Solution Focussed Education and Solution Focussed Leadership give a methodological framework for working towards positive outcomes.