A Profoundly Unconservative JourneyÂ…

By Bridget Woods and Dave Woods

"Where appreciation is alive and generations are re-connected through inquiry, hope grows and community expands..."
David Cooperrider

The ability to simultaneously consider disparate and even contradictory ideas or perspectives is the essential requirement for a 'both/and' world view. Current world views predominate as 'either/or' and this is evident in most conflicts around the world such as the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, and was indeed evident in the apartheid era in South Africa. The 'either/or' approach inevitably results in high levels of positioning and leads to an "I am right and you are wrong" debate and hence destructive conflict. AI offers a unique opportunity to shift the worldview to 'both/and' due to its positive and appreciative approach.

Our case study of an AI summit at a highly traditional and elitist school, provides a powerful insight into ways in which a group of diverse interest groups and stakeholders were, through AI, able to address the strategic development of a new vision - primarily by allowing the simultaneous existence of 'both/and' views of the future.

Diocesan College (Bishops school) is an Anglican private boys' school in a wealthy area of Cape Town with an excellent academic record, an abundance of resources and a powerful 'old boys' network. The vast majority of its pupils are drawn from white wealthy Anglo-Saxon families with its focus on the Anglican faith and expensive fees precluding a diverse student population. The new principal appointed mid-2001 was faced with the need to address a growing discomfort within the national education department, the school board, the staff and the parent body that the school was becoming increasingly disconnected with the new democratic South Africa.

Many parents see a Bishops education as preparing their sons to leave a country on a continent where social and economic degradation appears to be inevitable and affirmative action policies ensure employment in the formal sector goes to black applicants. In contrast many others wish for an educational establishment that brings together learners from all of South Africa's diverse cultures, languages and religions; an institution that is embedded in the local community and contributes meaningfully to nation building. These apparently divergent needs were at risk of immobilising the strategy for the future - how was the school to reach a collective mandate for the way forward?

The AI Summit

We took up the task of designing, co-ordinating and facilitating an appreciative inquiry summit in partnership with the vice and assistant vice principal. In June, the new headmaster issued an invitation to parents, boys, old Diocesans, and staff to attend a two-day conference at which participants would be invited to consider the past, present and future of Bishops. So it was that on September 21st and 22nd, three hundred and fifty diverse members of the Bishop's community gathered in the school's biggest hall to shape a 'Bishops in 2010' through inquiry, imagination and innovation.

From one-on-one appreciative interviews conducted under trees, on benches and beside rugby posts; between parent and teacher, pupil and housemaster, classroom cleaner and 'old boy', we identified the aspects of Bishops that were most valued, and imagined the 'dream' Bishops of the future. The stories gave meaning to the connections within the Bishops community and animated conversations about each person's most deeply held hopes for the future of the school and its role in the country. In small mixed groups we drafted the findings onto stickers, which were clustered with thousands of others into themes and placed on a huge display screen. 350 people had given full and equal voice to their appreciation and their dreams.

Many themes emerged: to offer a diverse learning environment that nurtures and affirms the whole person; a sporting and cultural environment that acknowledges and recognises the equal importance of both; science and technology that is innovative and leading edge; pastoral care that builds the leader in every learner and acknowledges the uniqueness in every individual. Previously 'no go' areas such as co-education, alternative sports, diverse religious teaching and practice, and a majority black student population were vigorously represented in the collated data, and openly and constructively explored in the design phase. The inclusive and democratic AI approach successfully disarmed determined lobby groups and encouraged a 'both/and' mindset that allowed options to be jointly explored. In some cases contradictory desired futures were both explored until a consensus was reached on a 'third way' which met the needs of all stakeholders, while in others, both futures were taken forward with the confidence that the system would determine which prevailed.

The magic that occurs when bringing whole systems together to work affirmatively on the future, resulted in 350 South Africans searching, with heartfelt intention, for ways to serve the greater good. The school recognised that it's greatest asset might be a spiritual foundation and a school community that reflected Bishop's roots in the rich heritage of our South African society; in a willingness and competence to value, celebrate, learn and live in a context of religious and cultural diversity.

This was echoed in the macrotrend scan by the Provincial Minister of Education who used the analogy of a 'Gilded Cage' against the backdrop of the recent September 11th attacks, to describe how an independent and privileged social system such as Bishops, could easily turn inwards in times of change, preferring to ignore mounting anger and poverty beyond its boundaries. She instead, encouraged the positive yet more difficult choice of the 'Friendly Planet', in which there is a conscious effort to reach out, find common ground, and collaborate in the creation of a sustainable future that ensures the well-being and security of all. The National Minister of Education, Kader Asmal called the school's embarkation on the 2010 journey 'profoundly unconservative' and appealed to Bishops to work towards peace, friendship and reconciliation and in so doing, help South Africans heal the scars of past conflicts and build a common destiny together.


Six months later, the positive and urgent energy for change can be felt in every facet of the school community; over 25 of the conference proposals have been implemented, new appointments in support of initiatives approved and real efforts to engage with the community undertaken. A website dedicated to the 2010 initiative ( has been created and a 2010 newsletter is distributed quarterly. The 2010 vision statement now ratified by the school council, is underpinned by four governing principles: Serving South Africa, Celebrating inclusiveness, Welcoming diversity and Nurturing the individual.

So what have been our learnings? That 350 people in one room can make magic when they are invited to give full voice to their ideas and hopes; that stories create a sense of history and meaning; that articulating tangible and intangible assets in place of drafting disabling lists of 'problems' empowers the community. That the voice and presence of the youth reconnects us with a deeper life purpose, that a compelling and collectively created vision is more likely to sustain change and that the more diverse the perspectives, the more robust the outcomes. The Chairman of the school council had this to say: "The conference exceeded my hopes and expectations by a long way. In the first instance it was a bold and risky move, one which could have had all sorts of consequences, and still may, but a move and a process that we had to trust because it had all the hallmarks of rightness about it. This extraordinary experience is without doubt a turning point for Bishops - we will never be the same again, and that is very good."