Invitational Education for a Post Pandemic World: A Recap and Look Forward

When schools do return to normal there is an opportunity to reset and reconsider what is being done.
How to create a school environment that is welcoming and nurturing.

In a world that has been locked down and quarantined, it is time to re-engage the disengaged and ensure that educators promote an emotionally safe school climate. Invitational Education provides such a possibility. It has been around the block and has found acceptance from educators from around the world.

Invitational Education is a time-tested and comprehensive approach to working with people in ethical and effective ways. It is not the new kid on the block, as it has evolved over the past six decades. Built on a defensible theory of practice, it provides a rationale, strategies, and examples of ways to develop and sustain exemplary schools, schools where people want to be, schools where people want to teach, learn, and work together. Now more than ever, it is important that schools retain their people-centredness. With this in mind, here is a look at the evolution of this positive and realistic plan for schools along with two suggestions to extend its possibilities.

An Evolving Theory of Practice
Starting in the 1970s, the inviting approach began with the insight that “teaching is inviting.” This cooperative perspective emphasised the positivity of teachers working face-to-face with students. The goal was to create inviting classrooms. Of course, this is still important, but there are other things that needed to be considered. In the 1980s, with the creation of the International Alliance for Invitational Education, the inviting approach expanded to include a fuller representation from different parts of schools. Teams of educators from districts across the North America came to workshops in North Carolina, Canada, even Disneyland, and other places to develop plans for making their schools “the most inviting place in town.” This team approach is still crucial to the inviting approach. Moving ahead to the 1990s and the publication of the Third Edition of Inviting School Success (1996), the community was brought into the school and the school went out to the community. The Inviting School Award program was established, and schools received recognition for their creative and stellar work. The next move, in the new millennium, was even bigger as Invitational Education went overseas. With invitations and commitments from educators from Hong Kong, the Alliance for Invitational Education began a robust international exchange program. These exchanges and other cooperative projects, along with work done at Clarkson Community High School in Western Australia, are described in the 2020 publication, Developing Inviting Schools: A Beneficial Framework for Teaching and Leading (Purkey, Novak, & Fretz). So, much has happened in these six decades with this progression from the individual to the world. What else can be done? What else needs to be done?

As an evolving theory of practice, Invitational Education has done just that: evolve. It did not “rust” on its laurels. Too much is happening in the world, and education is too important to remain fixated on past developments, as good as they are. With a pandemic putting face-to-face schooling on hold in many parts of the world, and teachers and schools dazed with technical, pedagogical, and ethical challenges, it is time to focus on reconnecting with educators as theoreticians-researchers-in-practice. It is time to get back into the swing of things. This paper will describe the theoreticians-researchers-in practice model (TRIP) and connect it with and emphasize the components of SWING (Sincerity, Wisdom, Ingenuity, Negotiation, and Glee.)

Theoreticians-Researchers-in Practice
How do we get better at creating and sustaining inviting schools? In the past, what has often happened is that someone found that the inviting approach put into words the positive practices they have been doing and provided creative suggestions as to how to get even better. This enthusiastic person or team of people went back to their schools and began making changes. The Invitational HELIX provides a systematic way to do this, and many good things happened. All is well and good, and this is a fine start, but there is much more to the inviting approach, especially in a post-pandemic world, than following a structured script. Such a script may be a necessary start, but new avenues of pursuit can provide important sources of creative growth.

The inviting approach is an evolving educational investment in personal and professional growth for all involved in schools. Buying into an inviting plan for schools works best in the long run if individuals and groups work to better understand, study, and put into practice ideas that make pedagogical and ethical sense to them and others. So, what is needed to extend invitational theory, research, and practice is a communicative model to work with every person's evolving theory of practice. This involves seeing every person as a theoretician, researcher, and practitioner of invitational education. This exists anyway, but it is time to seriously tap into it. Let us look into each component.

Theory made visible
The theoretical component of the inviting approach deals with a description, analysis, and evaluation of the individual and collective events that call forth or shun human potential. There are many ways to do this using concept from psychology, sociology, organisational theory, and philosophy, among others. For example, the Invitational Model emphasises the interlocking concepts of the democratic ethos of John Dewey, the perceptual tradition of Arthur Combs, and the self-concept theory of William Purkey. These foundational starter concepts need to be thought-out and expanded for specific situations. As people interpret and apply these foundational concepts, they deepen their understanding of the possibilities and further development of the inviting approach. This means working to make every person's perspective a part of an evolving theory of practice. When something needs to be done in planning an inviting strategy, it is decided upon not by a fiat from above but because it fits the criteria of an inviting way to do things. This requires discussion and often negotiations. The complexity and tensions of working with and through these concepts are invitations to grow as individuals and groups. This is what theoretical work is about.

Practice makes better
The next component, practice, moves beyond conceptualisation, and puts plans into action. These plans have been derived from interpretations of the theoretical foundations of the inviting approach and the specific issues faced in a particular school. Because each situation is unique, these interpretations have to be adjusted, often on-the-spot. This thinking-during-practice further refines a person's and group's understanding of the inviting process. It can show which concepts and ways of thinking may have to be rethought or modified when the rubber meets the road. Practice may not make perfect, but it can make the good, better.

Research that matters
Research, the third component, involves examining what happened as ideas are put into practice. Such questions as: What worked? What did not work? How do we know? What might we do differently? Why? provide further ways of thinking about the inviting approach. Because we can be surprised by what works and what does not work, we learn something about the self-correcting dynamic of a theory of practice. Promising ideas should get better and not-so-good ideas can be discarded, re-examined, modified, or held in abeyance.

Taking a TRIP
Let us call this theoretician-researcher-practitioner approach the TRIP model. With this model, all intentionally inviting educators can be seen as theoreticians, practitioners, and researchers. By thinking with and about the core ideas of the inviting approach, TRIP members interpret the meaning and coherence of the theory for themselves and communicate their evolving thoughts to others. By putting reflective thoughts into intentional action and making the necessary adjustments, TRIP members are reflective practitioners. By paying attention to what happened and trying to understand why, they are diligent personal and professional researchers with a mission: To lead for educational lives (Novak, Armstrong, & Browne, 2014).

In developing groups to encourage TRIP reflection, here are some questions that might be asked to stimulate deeper thinking about the inviting process:

In the practice we tried to implement, from an inviting perspective, what happened?

Was there anything unexpected that occurred?

What changes were made on the spot? Why? Did they work?

What should be done differently next time?

Has this experience made my thinking about the inviting approach different?

Do I think or feel differently about using the inviting approach?

How might I express these changes to others?

TRIP symposia may be established to institute a deeper way to understand, implement, and study the inviting theory of practice. Using a type of focused communal philosophical exploration, such as a Socrates Cafés, Philosophical Cafes, or Philosophical Clubs, a group of educators brings more life to an evolving theory of practice. This is an important journey to be on, one in which everyone is an active practitioner, critical thinker, and insightful researcher.

Getting into the SWING
If TRIP groups are established and are operating in a school, they may wish to explore dynamics of the SWING concept. SWING is an extension of the foundations of Invitational Education (Democratic Ethos, Perceptual Tradition, and Self-Concept Theory) and the I-CORT stance (Intentionality, Care, Optimism, Respect, and Trust). SWING (Sincerity, Wisdom, Ingenuity, Negotiation, Glee) is about taking action to make something happen. Like baseball, where teams go to spring training to review the foundations of their approach and work on their stance, their next focus is on their swing. Baseball players know that the old song got it right: “it don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing.” Developing and committing to a reliable swing provides a much better chance of success, of making a solid connection. A swing is something that players work on continually. Hitting coaches are hired so players overcome deficiencies and make the necessary changes. Sound contact is the essence of the game. Without a good swing, you are barely in the game, and may spend a lot of time on the bench.

Using the word “swing” to provide letters for key concepts in making sound contact, let's look below the surface at these five words which can be discussed by TRIP (Theoreticians-Researchers-in-Practice) teams: “Sincerity,” “Wisdom,” “Ingenuity,” “Negotiation,” and “Glee.” The first four terms come from important concepts in philosophy and the social sciences and the last from a television show. Certainly, other words can be used to start discussions, but “SWING” seems like a good word to use as we try to get back to the post-pandemic practice of connecting with people in inviting ways in schools and beyond.

Sincerity you can believe in
Starting with sincerity, the importance of trusting relationships is stressed. People usually want to believe that a person is honest about the messages they are sending. I say usually because sometimes a person will accept any message sent because they are so needy. For example, during the 2016 presidential election in the US, a man in West Virginia said this about one candidate: “We know that he was not telling the truth when he said that he would bring back coal jobs. But at least he had the decency to lie to us.”

In addition, sincerity is often difficult to determine. In the television show “Cheers,” Sam Malone, the bartender, made this observation: “Women like sincerity. When you learn how to fake sincerity, you've got it made.” Scary stuff. In addition, we are bombarded by “sincere” advertising pronouncements to get us to buy the latest, the greatest, miracle product that is going to solve all our problems. We are told that we cannot live without it. And try as they may, many believe it. Insincerity is in high supply.

So, what are invitational educators supposed to do? Let's start with this: Whatever else invitational educators should be, they should not be purveyors of insincerity. Creating distrust is the antithesis of calling forth potential. So, being careful about the language we use is an important start. For example, promising to give 110% is sloppy, logically impossible, and turns off many people automatically. It is a part of overpromising and under delivering. Rather, do the opposite with a quiet confidence: under promise and over deliver. In addition, be aware of announcing “To be honest with you.” This gets people suspicious of what you have previously said. Finally, a last thought on sincerity: it does not mean saying everything you know. Filters are needed in all aspects of life. Rather, sincerity is about meaning everything you choose to say. Trust is developed and sustained by taking the language we use to heart and mind.

The wisdom of practice
Wisdom, the next concept in SWING, is not some esoteric pronouncement about the ultimate nature of existence. Rather, wisdom comes from reflections on practice. So, invitational educators can look at the reflective thinking they develop as they seek to deepen their individual and collective practices. As I have found over the years, savvy inviters learn when to listen and what to listen for. They can live with silence and learn to say in a sincere way, “What's the alternative?”.

To add to this discussion, Andy Norman (2021) points out that wisdom is more about unlearning something than learning more and more about less and less. This applies to educating, which as the saying goes, is about lighting candles rather than filling buckets. This makes sense from the point of view of the perceptual tradition. From this theoretical perspective we cannot really motivate people because their motivation is built in. It is a given because without motivation people would not be able to do anything. We invite because we do not turn on the engine, but we can pave the road and work to make interesting places available. Finally, practical wisdom can enable educators to see the importance of visible learning and understand the meaning of the invisible yearning of students. This invisible yearning is the desire to matter, to be able to lead worthwhile lives.

Ingenuity large and small
“Ingenuity” is the next word to consider. Thomas Homer-Dixon (2001) dedicated a whole book to the importance of ingenuity, which he felt was necessary to get us off the path that is leading to deepening conflict and global disaster. Ingenuity, as he sees it, seeks new and successful solutions to structural problems and new stresses which cause continuing struggle and confusion. Think of the current pandemic and the dangers of global warming as problems that need new ways of thinking. Same ole, same ole, is not working.

Dealing with big picture problems, however, can start with facing local concerns such as creating a culture than encourages ingenuity. Developing such a culture takes time and effort and the results cannot be guaranteed. John Dewey noted that imagination is the chief instrument of the good. If that is the case, ingenuity is the chief instrument of the needed better. Creating a culture of ingenuity involves attention to the big picture along with noticing subtle details. Ingenuity is not about pontificating; it is about doing something that captures the elusive obvious. Here is an example of ingenuity practiced in an inviting school some forty years ago in Delaware. A principal in a workshop asked me if the sign, “Visitors must report to the office” is inviting. I said “It does not sound that way to me.” He then asked me if he should remove the sign and break the law. While I was thinking of a complex philosophical response, another principal described the sign they have at his school that reads: “In order to better serve you and for the safety of our students, would you please report to the office which is 50 feet to the right.” Nice, but it got even better. Below this inviting sign was the ingenious addition: “The state of Delaware has not yet learned about inviting signs and it is a state law that says we must have the following sign posted: “Visitors must report to the office.” This is ingenuity in action. TRIP teams can be on the lookout for ingenious practices and develop some of their own.

Negotiating for yes
Moving to the next letter, “N,” negotiation is a vital part of a complex ever diverse world. (Surprise! Even reasonable people do not agree on everything.) Getting to Yes, an influential book by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton (2011), provides key strategies for reaching difficult agreements using insights developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project. In another book Ury (2007) points out that we often have to get to “No” and find out what we are against before we can reach an amicable “Yes.” Human psychology and interests can get very complex but can be approached in principled ways.

In the inviting approach, an amicable way to deal with philosophical conflicts is to use the SPURT+ strategy. This involves treating another person with respect. Letting them know you understand them. Raising honest questions about what they said and moving the conversation to a higher level. This SPURT+ method is explained in more detail in Leading for Educational Lives (Novak, Armstrong, & Browne, 2014). A key word in this approach is the judicious use of the word “perhaps.” Used sincerely and wisely, with a touch of ingenuity, “perhaps” means you agree with at least something another person said (Few people are totally wrong.), but you have questions about other parts of their statement. Such a move can, perhaps, move a conversation in a move productive manner because some common ground has been discovered. It is easier to go from something to something better than it is to go from nothing to something. Negotiation is about working with this common ground.

Let us glee together
Glee represents the last part of getting into the swing. Some may remember that “Glee” was the name of an award-winning television series that was on from 2009 to 2015. It focused on a group of students in the performing arts club of a high school. These students and their teachers were an unusual array of creative sorts who wanted, no needed, to express their feelings and concerns in ways that made issues come to life. The show’s plots involved taking on creative projects that often-involved issues of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and cooperation, to name a few. These issues were faced in an energetic, though not always painless, way that enabled people to grow and, at times, glow. In the pilot of the show, a plaque with the following words inscribed became the slogan for the show: “By its very definition glee is opening yourself up to joy.” Glee is an important part of why people become educators. Without glee, it is too easy to just go through the motions. 

With SWING in mind, an important task of inviting educators is to find sincere and ingenious ways to deal with complex issues that many would rather sweep under the rug. An approach that is about calling forth human potential would be untrue to its ethical underpinnings if it did not deal with macro and microaggressions in the pursuit of constructing more inviting possibilities. Done in the spirit of glee, with sincerity, wisdom, ingenuity, and negotiation, a growth mindset is possible. This represents enthusiasm seeking understanding. Such is the promise of an inviting approach to learning, leading, and life. Educators are invited to enjoy their TRIP and work on their SWING as they intentionally construct imaginative acts of hope in a post pandemic world.

Fisher, R., Ury, W., & Patton, B. (2011). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in. NY: Penguin. 

Homer-Dixon, T. (2000). The ingenuity gap.  NY: Alfred A. Knopf. 

Norman, A. (2021). Mental immunity: Infectious ideas, mind-parasites, and the search for better ways to think. NY: HarperCollins. 

Novak, J., Armstrong, D., & Browne, B. (2014). Leading for educational lives: Inviting and sustaining imaginative acts of hope in a connected world. Rotterdam: Sense. 

Phillips, C. (2001). Socrates café: A fresh taste of philosophy. NY: W.W. Norton. 

Purkey, W.. & Novak, J. Inviting school success: A self-concept approach to teaching, learning, and democratic practice. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 

Purkey, W., Novak, J., & Fretz, J. (2020). Developing inviting schools. A beneficial framework of teaching and leading. NY: Teachers College Press.  

Ury, W. (2007). The power of a positive no: Save the deal, save the relationship, and still say no. NY Bantam.

Photo by Anastasia Shuraeva from Pexels