Beyond Nope... Deepening Invitational Education

Without renewal, Invitational Education can be unintentionally calling forth the NOPE downward spiral.
Prof John Novak
Mar 22, 2023
School culture
Remember, good situations can be enjoyed and made better, while bad situations can be made less bad if we have an energetic openness to positive possibilities.

The inviting school movement has sometimes been called “That wonderful, non-threatening, feel-good approach to education.” Now, that's a nice thing. Isn't it wonderful? It is certainly non-threatening. And who does not want to feel good?

What more could we ask of an approach that intends to bring a positive tone to all that goes on in schools? Well, nice is nice, but it can get stagnant in these difficult times.

First, it is important to acknowledge that wonderful, non-threatening, and feel-good are usually good things in educational contexts where previously unkind, defensive, and negative tones were detected. Invitational Education is known to provide a spark to rekindle the positive can-do spirit needed to renew a school's deeper purposes and provide systematic strategies to keep things going. Now, that's a lot to be proud of. However, an evolving theory of practice needs continual examination and reflection or else it can get stuck in a world that is not always wonderful, sometimes threatening, and so does not always feel good. Without reflective, theoretical, renewal, Invitational Education can be unintentionally calling forth the NOPE (naive optimism, pessimistic entrenchment) downward spiral. In the long and not so long run this can stifle the chances of creating and sustaining a vibrant educational culture. Let's look first at naive optimism and its inherent dangers.

Optimism is an essential part of the inviting approach. So be it. The question to ask is what type of optimism? Naive optimism is the belief that good things are guaranteed to happen if we just have a positive outlook. It's as simple as that. But wait a minute, let's get realistic. Reality is many things but now it includes living in a world of eight billion plus people and expanding, on a planet that is dangerously getting hotter, with people who have heated differences on many issues. These dangerously multi-igniting events are often classified as VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) and cannot be ignored without imperially us even further. Naive optimism runs the risk of doing this by distracting us from the cognitive and moral issues that require examination and collective action. In addition, naive optimism can rather easily lead to pessimistic entrenchment when things are not instantly transformed and distress deepens. This may take one or more unsuccessful ventures, but it can lead to educators who are spiralling downward uttering the mantra: “We've tried that before. We've tried everything. When can we retire?”

Now, let it be noted that there is a place for naive optimism. In our family we have a motto that we found in a comic strip that announces, “Ignorance is the mother of adventure.” Over the years we have had many adventures and actually were thankful for our ignorance. That being said, we have learned to check things out beforehand and are usually more thankful for that learning as we have gotten older. In addition, it can be said that there is a place for strategic naivety in staying open to educational challenges. Michael Fullan points out the importance of using the battle cry: “Ready, Fire, Aim” in trying to implement change initiatives. The point being made is that just because you do not know everything does not mean you cannot do anything. Use the feedback from your first attempts to provide necessary changes and go from there. This however is not naive optimism but something called melioristic optimism.

Meliorism involves the belief that good situations can be enjoyed and made better, while bad situations can be made less bad if we have an energetic openness to positive possibilities. This doesn't guarantee success, but it gives you much more to work with in trying to create and sustain inviting schools. As a working philosophy for improving school climate, this linguistic adjustment can get things going and provide preparation about how to work through the implementation dip and other strategic challenges. This melioristic optimism can also be used to examine the deeper possibilities for key words in “that wonderful, non-threatening, feel-good approach to education.”

The inviting approach, with its emphasis on I-CORT (intentionality, care, optimism, respect, and trust) provides a solid base for creating a positive school climate. It is hard to imagine good things happening in schools if we do not mean it, are not really committed, have a negative attitude, and treat people disrespectfully by not being trustworthy. However, there is a danger of getting stuck in the rhetoric of invitational promotion. This flatness of purpose leads to nullifying the creative spark needed for continual growth. Unless we are willing to accept the challenges to go deeper into the meaning and creative possibilities of Invitational Education, we get stuck on the surface. However, as Oscar Wilde noted, “Those who go below the surface do so at their own peril.” I think he was on to something, but it is not as ominous as it sounds. From the point of view of melioristic optimism, linguistic probing can open new and deeper ways of exploring the invitational theory of practice. Let's use conceptual analysis to explore new possibilities.

Conceptual analysis is a philosophical technique for trying to understand the concepts we are using and examine where they may be taking our thinking. We have seen that an unquestioning naive optimism can lead to pessimistic entrenchment. Let's see now where thinking deeper about wonder, threat, and feelings can take us.

Wonder is, well, a wonderful word. It's sad now that it has become so overused that its vitality has been negated. If we take seriously the Socratic insight that “Philosophy begins in wonder,” we get a sense that there is more going on than the "wonder" clichés are letting on. Philosophical analysis can be of aid here.

Now it is important to acknowledge that examining key concepts can be a worthwhile activity that can get us to ask important questions about the direction we are heading. It is also important to acknowledge that the value of doing philosophical analysis is doubted by more than some. Questions like, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” point out the dissatisfaction felt when a definitive answer does not come gushing forth. Why ask questions if you are only going to find more questions to ask? A philosophical response might be, “Because this points out important dimensions of the human predicament” may still not be satisfying but may seem to explain why some people engage in such activities. An examination of wonder may also remind us that to be human is to have the potential to question the nature of what is important and what could be done about it. In addition, when dealing with philosophical conundrum statements such as “We must believe we have free will. We have no choice.” seem to be deliberately frustrating, but that, upon examination point out insights about the nature of language and cognition. Some, perhaps many, may still feel that “If a philosopher falls in the woods, does anybody care?” but may acknowledge that being human involves seeing cracks in the cosmic egg as we face unknowns in a future that seems to be moving at a faster and faster rate. Being human means having questions about the instructional manual we have been handed and searching for ways to understand our understandings. Being human also means sometimes appreciating a question more than an answer. If, as Jean Paul Sartre informs us, that "We are condemned to be free," wonder can get us to explore how we use that freedom.

Getting back down to earth, being human can mean wondering about what we have learned from the lockdowns due to Covid 19 and beyond. Do we still appreciate the work done by first responders who protected so many of us? Do we wonder what a liveable wage would be for them? Moving to schools, do we wonder about what makes dedicating our professional lives to education worth it and how we can personally build on this positive energy? To wonder does not mean we will find a quick and final answer to our questions. It does mean, however, that we can see the importance of raising questions that move us beyond our comfort zone.

Moving beyond our comfort zone can be threatening. Being full of wonder means being willing to face certain threats because that is what is necessary to grow, solve problems, and face an unknown future. To try to avoid all threats is to actually give threat way too much power. Life is hard, as philosopher Kieren Setiya says in his book so titled. Philosophy can help us come to terms with inevitable threats. Even if we don't go out of our way to find threat, it has a way of finding us. Using melioristic optimism to address threat weakens its power over us and provides educational leverage. Although this is not non-threatening, it can become a stress reducing strategy that makes us feel less bad and possibly even good in difficult times.

Will approaching wonder and threat in a melioristic way make us feel good? Maybe not at first. But seeking only to feel good will make us shallow and narcissistic. As Martin Seligman points our in his book, Authentic Happiness, a meaningful life involves being committed to issues that get us to move beyond our comfort. Such an approach may not immediately or always feel good, but can move us to appreciate more of the deeper purposes that call forth a more meaningful life. A philosophical response to this possibility can be “perhaps.” We may even think about the philosophical invitation to, at least for a moment, not just do something, but just sit there and think.

Going below the surface of “that wonderful, non-threatening, feel-good approach to education” is a call to go beyond renewal of spirit and systematic application of techniques, as important as they may be. Exploring key concepts can invite a deeper sense of educational leadership: One that explores more dimensions of human possibilities. That can even be filled with wonder, not an overly threatening way to proceed in the long run, and can encourage more meaningful ways to feel better. These are invitations to grow an evolving theory of practice.

Dr John M. Novak is Professor of Education and former Chair of the Department of Graduate Studies in Education at Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada and an invited keynote speaker on six continents. He was a public school educator in North Carolina, Washington state, and the Virgin Islands. His recent books include Leading for Educational Lives, From Conflict to Conciliation, Fundamentals of Invitational Education, the Third Edition of Inviting School Success, Democratic Teacher Education, Advancing Invitational Thinking, and Inviting Educational Leadership.