A Discursive Approach to Restorative Practice: Improving the Learning Environment Through Professional Learning

Maria Kecskemeti


This article introduces an innovative approach to restorative practice and the model of professional learning that was used to teach it to teachers in three New Zealand schools. Examples of specific conversational and reflection skills recommended for relationship management in the classroom are provided along with a possible process of facilitating teacher practice development and change. The potential positive relational outcomes of applying a discursive stance in interactions are also highlighted. It is claimed that both the specific content and the method of teacher training have potential for managing relationships, building learning communities, and improving well-being in a diverse school.1

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The Context
The Content of the Professional Learning
The Delivery Method of the Professional Learning
About the Author

The Context

Restorative Practice as a Strategy of Daily Relationship Management

The restorative philosophy, values, and principles have for some time been seen, both in New Zealand and elsewhere, to match several current projects of schools, such as inclusion, citizenship education, and the teaching of key competencies. It is no surprise that there have been numerous calls internationally to utilise restorative practices (RP) for more than just behaviour management and the reduction of both wrongdoing and punitive responses to rule breaking (Cremin, 2010; Drewery, 2007; Liebman, 2007). These calls represent a considerable shift away from the original objectives of introducing RP into schools as an alternative to punitive responses to behaviour problems (Morrison, Blood, & Thorsborne, 2005). Though RP has been found to be effective as a responsive strategy of reducing problematic behaviours and achieving positive outcomes for disengaged students, reconnecting them with their school communities (Buckley & Maxwell, 2007; Maxwell, 2007; Mirsky, 2003), educators have shifted their attention to the benefits of RP as a proactive strategy. In recent years RP has been increasingly credited with the potential of changing the culture of a school and managing differences in diverse communities (McCluskey, et al., 2008). However, it has remained a challenge to work out how the restorative philosophy and values can be upheld in the classroom and how they might inform relationship management on a daily basis.

There are many versions of restorative practice and possibly many interpretations of its principles. Most advocates of RP agree that respect, upholding the dignity of all, a commitment to relationships, collaboration, participation and contribution, tolerance for differences, and accountability are essential for successfully managing the wide range of values and ways of relating that compete for dominance in most schools (Hopkins, 2004; Moxon, Skudder, & Peters, 2006; Thorsborne & Vinegrad, 2006; Zehr, 2002). These same principles also inform inclusive policies and practices. In New Zealand the recent promotion of key competencies in the NZ Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) has added support to the arguments of those who claim that restorative practice can usefully inform the managing of diversity and creating inclusive and caring school communities. McCluskey et al. (2008) sum up these arguments well:

If we accept that schools are complex institutions then there will always be competing ideas, tensions and personal disagreements. Restorative practices are seen as offering ways to manage these fairly and positively, to prevent conflict and harm but, importantly, still allow the expression of difference. (p. 211)

My doctoral study was, in part, a response to this call for utilising RP as the basis of general relationship practice rather than as a response to wrongdoing (Kecskemeti, 2011). In working out how it would be possible to adapt various restorative processes for daily classroom use, I concluded that it is the multistep nature of well-known restorative practices—restorative chats, interviews, mediations, and circles—that is most likely to invite resistance from busy and stressed teachers. Teachers would argue that these processes interrupt the flow of lessons and thus dismiss them as unhelpful strategies for relationship management. The teachers that I have worked with over the years informed me that they had found it a challenge to transport restorative practices into the classroom. This challenge has called for some development work, which resulted in proposing a discursive approach to relationships and the adaptation of specific conversational moves from narrative therapy.

The discursive relationship theory that I put forward provides a theoretical framework for conceptualising the restorative principles of respect and participation. It supports teachers with upholding restorative principles as it calls for taking a collaborative rather than an authoritarian stance. The conversational moves adapted from narrative therapy can be usefully incorporated into teachers’ existing interactional repertoire, without interrupting the flow of a lesson, but upholding restorative principles of respect and tolerance for differences nevertheless. The same conversational strategies can also be used as part of more complex, multistep processes, such as class meetings. Class meetings can be utilised by teachers who are willing to allocate more time for not only addressing relationship problems but for engaging students in conversations that aim to establish a classroom culture conducive to learning and teaching.

This specific discursive approach to restorative practices builds on an earlier project by The Restorative Practices Development Team (2004), who investigated the potential of restorative conferences for reducing stand-downs and suspensions. They developed conference, class meeting, and interview processes that draw on Māori hui protocols (Macfarlane, 2004), constructionist theorising (Burr, 2003) and narrative therapy (White & Epston, 1990). While the approach introduced here is based on the same theoretical framework as the earlier Waikato project, its preventative focus and a number of additional characteristics distinguish it from both other restorative approaches and the work of the Waikato Team.

It is important to also mention here that the term discursive denotes not only a social constructionist theoretical orientation but specific relationship practices that are informed by the Foucauldian notion of discourse and power/knowledge (Foucault, 1980). The word discourse is used to refer to a coherent system of rules or norms that organise persons into particular power relationships (Parker, 2005), rather than to communication or dialogue. The emphasis of the approach is on respectful classroom interactions and prevention. The aim is to change teachers’ ways of speaking and interacting through simultaneously teaching them both specific conversational moves and a theoretical framework that offers new perspectives on relationship problems. Equal time is allocated for skill practice and reflective professional discussions, where theory is utilised for reconceptualising and changing practice. In the following, first I describe the theoretical concepts and conversational skills that form the basis of a discursive approach to restorative practice. I then outline the specific format of professional learning that was used to teach this approach to teachers in three schools. I argue that a theoretical framework and sufficient time allowed for reflection can provide significant support for practice change and the development of teachers’ professional identity.

The Content of the Professional Learning

A Constructionist Theoretical Framework: Support for Upholding Restorative Principles

Before being introduced to any new relationship strategies, the teachers who want to learn a discursive approach to RP are first invited to familiarise themselves with two major assumptions from constructionist theorising: the significance of language use and ways of speaking and the central role of discourses in shaping individual identities, relationships ,and organisational culture (Burr, 2003). The practical implications of these theoretical assumptions are demonstrated through exercises and discussions.

Constructionism attributes a productive power to language. It suggests that speech is not merely words but a social act that has consequences for people’s individual identities and the quality of their relationships (Drewery, 2005). It matters and makes a difference if we call a student or colleague “hopeless” after they have made a mistake or if we consider this one mistake in the context of their other actions. The qualification “hopeless” is totalising, and it only accounts for those actions or behaviours that support a negative identity description. However, if we talk about one mistake then there is space for acknowledging a person’s positive contributions. Teachers are shown how the ways they speak about others, students, or colleagues, can produce them, and their relationships, in helpful or unhelpful ways with consequences for their further interactions. It is not more time that is required of them but speaking differently and taking more care with naming.

The constructionist meaning of discourse, which informs most of the conversational moves taught within this particular approach, is introduced as a set of rules or cultural norms that reflect worldviews and prescribe how people should be with each other. Discourses are also shown to be storylines that persons use to make up their individual identities. Teachers become to understand that through the ways they speak, they place themselves and others in different storylines, which is the process of positioning—or taking up identities and assigning identities to others from socially available discourses (Laws & Davies, 2000). Teachers learn to recognise different discourses and to explore how those might shape their interactions through authorising particular teacher and student identities and enabling and/or disabling particular practices. Teacher-centred views of schooling allow students and teachers different roles and rights from the ones that child-centred views might promote. Teachers are encouraged to reflect on the various discourses of schooling that inform both their professional practice and professional identity. They are asked to consider how these discourses influence the ways they interact with colleagues and students and/or what personal qualities and identities they might support. They are also asked to identify and ponder the consequences, for teacher-student relationships, of the discourse of schooling that is accepted as the dominant view in their school and as such defines the school culture.

Within a discursive conceptualisation of relationships, a great number of classroom disruptions can be conceived of as the work of discourses. The currently popular discourse of “learning should be fun” might create an expectation that all classroom activities should be entertaining. When they are not, students might resist by complaining, back chatting, or calling out. Discourse knowledge can help teachers address such disruptions through questioning students’ stance on particular notions of learning rather than through telling them off and blaming. Constructionist theorising thus can offer a useful framework for conducting relationships based on the principles of respect, participation, and tolerance for differences.

Some practical benefits for the classroom:

  • Greater teacher sensitivity to the potential effects of negative language use
  • Greater care is taken with naming
  • Teachers speak in ways that validate rather than alienate
  • Teachers understand the influences of the wider social context, which can help challenge those unhelpful ideas that undermine respectful interactions

Respectful ways of speaking as relationship strategies

In addition to the most well-known restorative processes of chats, circles,, and various meetings, the discursive approach to RP proposes to adapt several conversational moves or ways of speaking from narrative therapy for classroom use. Narrative therapy has been informed by constructionist theorising and narrative therapists have developed a number of conversational strategies that uphold the principles of respect and tolerance for differences (White & Epston, 1990). The ways of speaking that are proposed within a discursive approach are not scripted scenarios but one-off responses that can be tailored to the unique characteristics of a specific interaction (this is not suggesting that scenarios are not useful). They include externalising, curious questioning, repositioning, and deconstruction. These strategies can be used selectively, in subject lessons and various interactions with students and adults. They can also be utilised in mediation, class meetings, and other meetings with parents or colleagues.

Externalising. Externalising is a way of using language that locates problems in discourses and in the social context, as relationally produced rather than an aspect of or located in a person (White, 1988). Instead of considering a student to be violent, their relationship to violence can be explored. This subtle shift to using a noun rather an adjective can produce a more productive conversation between teacher and student(s) later than the use of a permanent qualification of someone as aggressive or a bully. Externalising ways of speaking can be included in classroom discussions about issues such as bullying, violence, anger, disruptions to learning, and off-task behaviours.

Some practical benefits:

  • Entry is provided into discussions about issues
  • Students get support to clarify their moral position on issues and develop their competency in relating to others

Curious questioning or taking a not-knowing stance. The stance of curiosity or not knowing (Anderson & Goolishian, 1992) requires persons to give up their own assumptions along with a desire to fix, problem solve, or to give advice. Instead, it is a stance that calls for the clarification and exploration of other persons’ meanings and interpretations of events. It is very different from the stance of certainty that teachers are required to take up when they introduce new material. While it could be counterproductive for teachers to give up the stance of certainty when they explain new concepts, they also have to be able to take a not-knowing stance if they wanted to unsettle the dominance of one worldview and/or ways of being that are considered “normal” by dominant social groups. The not-knowing stance can help address power relationships in the classroom and it can ensure that a range of voices and viewpoints are heard. It is more of an habitual stance, that competent teachers can skillfully apply, when leading discussions and/or building relationships with students, in addition to the stance of certainty that might be more appropriate when teachers model new skills (Drewery & Kecskemeti, 2010). It is not always possible to ask curious questions in a lesson but it is possible to clarify the meanings that students make of information presented to them or the views they share with others.

Some practical benefits:

  • Teachers model tolerance for different views and values
  • Students participate and contribute ideas
  • Teachers shift from an authoritarian to a collaborative paradigm of relationship

Repositioning. Repositioning is the skill of using discourse knowledge to inform an interaction. The aim is to position others in discourses or storylines that allow them agency participation and contribution, as opposed to silencing them and rendering them mere spectators (Drewery, 2005; Laws & Davies, 2000). So instead of saying “Don’t say that!” or “Stop it!” or “You are out of this class, go to the deans’ office right now!” in response to a student who swears because he finds a teacher unfair, it is possible to say: “It is very nice that you are so concerned about fairness that you are prepared to get into trouble. However, next time you might want to think about a more respectful way of expressing your concerns.” Such a response positions the student as someone who cares about fairness rather than only as a naughty student. It offers the student the possibility of taking up an accepted identity rather than only the identity of someone who has no place in the classroom. The concept and skill of repositioning can help teachers de-escalate a situation by one utterance because it can inform how teachers might formulate their responses in potential conflict situations.

Practical benefits:

  • Teachers formulate responses in conflict situations more carefully
  • Dialogue is maintained rather than shut down

Deconstruction. Deconstruction is the skill of listening to and identifying what is not directly articulated in an interaction but defines how it plays out nevertheless. It is identifying those hidden values and beliefs, or discourses that hold particular practices in place (Davies, 1998; Davies, Flemmen, Gannon, Laws, & Watson, 2002). Deconstructive questions ask people to take a stand on the values, ideas, and worldviews privileged or promoted by a particular discourse (White, 1992). When teachers are willing to deconstruct a discourse, they might become more aware of its potential shaping effects on both students’ and their own actions and relationship practices. The skill of deconstruction makes it possible to ask a student, who wants to change electives several times a term, if s/he thinks it is important to learn perseverance and/or if it is possible to develop this skill if they constantly choose to leave a subject when it becomes hard or challenging.

Instead of teachers lecturing to students, which they might be tempted to do, they can ask students to reflect and to articulate their position on the idea of choice (or any idea for that matter) and to consider its possible advantages and/or disadvantages. Students might find that subscribing to the discourse of choice, which enables constant change as a legitimate practice, might also undermine their ability to persevere with a subject. Deconstructive questions invite students into a moral position and they encourage them to clarify and justify their stance. It can be a strategy of developing students’ relationship competencies and of transforming the culture of a classroom. Deconstructive questions are used as a major strategy in the particular version of class meetings that was described by Kaveney and Drewery (2011) in an earlier issue.

Practical benefits:

  • An ethical dimension is added to discussions in the classroom and the staffroom
  • Teachers and students are supported to clarify their stance on the different ideas that affect their relationships

These ways of speaking, when used strategically at various points in a lesson or one- to-one discussions with students, have the potential to de-escalate conflict. They can also sensitise teachers to the productive power of their conversations. They are more likely to engage rather than alienate students and thus they can be useful strategies of maintaining dialogue, collaborative problem solving, and teachers and students working together to create a respectful classroom environment as opposed to teachers easily drawing on punitive measures. My doctoral study has found that teachers’ reformulation of their ways of speaking increased their capacity for tolerating differences and for maintaining dialogue with different others, which in turn reduced their stress levels (Kecskemeti, 2011).

The Delivery Method of the Professional Learning

Resourcing, Timeframe, and Structure

It is well established in the professional learning literature that embedding new practices into school systems takes considerable time (Timperley, Wilson, Barrar, & Fung, 2007). However, this provides a challenge as resources, especially budgets for funding teacher release during working time, can be scarce. The three schools that introduced this approach to their teachers all made it one of the major professional learning topics (out of two or three topics) offered over the course of an academic year. They all provided release time for teachers to attend an introductory workshop and then regular, usually three weekly, focus group sessions with the facilitator. All three schools allowed their teachers to decide which topic on offer they preferred so participation in any professional learning group was voluntary, and thus, they were voluntarily learning about the discursive approach.

While the content of the professional learning and the format of delivery (workshops, focus groups) was almost identical in the three schools, three aspects of introducing the discursive approach differed in the secondary school, Midway High School: the time frame, the funding, and the relationship of the facilitator(s) with staff.

The two schools, a primary and an area school, which participated in the doctoral study opted for a one-year introduction. They both used their annual professional learning budget for providing release time for teachers who volunteered for this training. These two schools employed an outside facilitator, whose services did not have to be paid for as she was also conducting research about the approach. However, the secondary school, Midway High School, won an innovations funds award from the Ministry of Education, which paid for teacher release, though it was withdrawn after the first year. They used two members of staff to deliver the professional learning and they opted for a three-year, gradual introduction.

The take-up of both the conversational moves and the theoretical concepts was most successful in Midway High School, with most participant teachers incorporating newly learnt skills into their interactional repertoire. This suggests that the one-year time frame the other two schools allocated to the approach is not enough to embed these practices into a school’s system. In addition, having on-site facilitators allowed the teachers at Midway High to draw on local expertise and support while learning the new practices. However, it is important to acknowledge that employing such a model can also be fraught with problems due to the power relationships and hierarchies that might exist in a school. In the following, I will describe the three-year gradual introduction model that was employed by Midway High School.

Midway High School offered training in the discursive approach to a new volunteer group of about 20 teachers at the beginning of each of three consecutive years from 2009 to 2011. Those who trained in the previous year could continue their training, if they opted to do so, in the following year, in a more leadership and collegial support capacity. Each new group of teachers were first given “the whole picture” during a two-day, introductory workshop, where the theoretical framework and the specific conversational moves were each introduced, demonstrated, and practiced.

Two additional professional learning sessions were timetabled in each school term for all participating teachers. These lasted for two hours each and they provided regular and ongoing opportunities for practice, discussion, and development of the concepts and the conversational strategies. Teachers could also share and discuss articles and resources on RP during whole school professional learning meetings, which were held four weekly and lasted for an hour after school. These meetings further supported the acquisition of skills and the understanding of theoretical concepts. When training is run by outside consultants, which is a model most schools use, it can add considerable costs and thus undermine the feasibility of such an intensive model. Local expertise in Midway High School, and the flexible timetables of the counsellor and the deputy principal who ran the professional learning, made it possible for teachers to receive daily in class support when requested. Teachers could practise their newly learnt ways of speaking with support from colleagues in class meetings, gradually easing into more independent facilitation. The retention rate in the third year was over 40 teachers out of the approximately 60 who attended the introductory workshops and focus group sessions for at least a year. Midway High has over 70 staff.

Some practical benefits:

  • Little resistance, as participation is voluntary
  • Better focus on new learning as it is done during working hours
  • Sufficient support for learning new skills

Teacher Focus and the Critical Role of Reflection

Restorative practices were originally introduced into education because of concerns about students who were the recipients of bullying from other students (Morrison, 2006) as well as those who were the targets of punitive disciplinary measures due to their disruptive behaviours (McElrea, 1996). While changing student behaviours and creating classroom communities supportive of learning are expected outcomes, the discursive approach to RP focuses on teachers. One of its distinct objectives is to improve teachers’ well-being through changing their ways of speaking and responding to stressful situations. Centralising teachers’ well-being is based on the premise that teachers are a significant human resource. They are entrusted with the task of modelling and teaching peaceful ways of relating to students. Stressed teachers are less likely to have the mental and emotional capacity to do this.

The discursive approach to RP also privileges reflection in addition to specific conversational skills. In particular, a deconstructive approach to reflection is taught and encouraged as a framework for professional discussions. The same amount of time is devoted to developing an awareness of and a capacity to recognise and name discourses as to developing competence in the use of conversational skills. There are a number of arguments for attributing such a central role to reflection. Most teachers are very busy so their desire to seek out practices that offer quick solutions to problems is understandable, especially when they struggle with constant disruptions every day. However, the pressure to establish order can easily entice a teacher into privileging technical solutions and formulas without giving sufficient time to integrating them with the teacher’s values and teaching philosophy. Theorists and proponents of professional learning and organisational change warn that solutions not integrated with the particular philosophies of individual teachers are less likely to be utilised either to their full potential or long term (Senge, Cambron-McCabe, Lucas, Smith, Dutton, & Kleiner, 2000). My doctoral research has found that regular reflection opportunities within professional learning can support identity development and the clarification of teachers’ moral positions, which in turn can have a well-being enhancing effect.

Some practical benefits:

  • Time for reflection helps integrate practice with teaching philosophy, values, and beliefs
  • Reflection supports the collective identification of problems and collaborative problem solving

Focus Groups: Developing Both Practice and Identity

Though the introductory workshops form an integral part of the training, the major sites of teachers’ learning this discursive approach are the sessions that I have termed “focus groups” for easy reference and that I have developed as part of my doctoral research. They differ from what is meant by focus groups in qualitative research. Focus groups are professional learning sessions, during which a group of 6-10 teachers meet with the professional learning facilitator(s) for about two hours minimum twice a term during an academic year. These sessions are intentionally planned and structured to fulfil multiple functions. These functions include the demonstration and practice of the conversational and reflection skills taught, professional discussions informed by a process of deconstructive reflection and peer supervision. Thus focus groups are designed to be a complex combination of professional practice and identity development.

One of the unique features of focus group sessions, in addition to skill practice, is the use of a deconstructive reflection process, which informs and structures teachers’ discussions about the concerns and dilemmas that they encounter in their work. It involves the identification of discourses and relationship patterns that teachers engage in with students as well as of recurring themes that emerge from teacher-student interactions and/or class meetings. When teachers reflect on the range of discourses that impact on their relationships with students, colleagues, and parents, they are also invited to clarify their own moral position and stance on those discourses. In other words, they engage in exploring their own beliefs and values about teaching, which can be a form of developing their professional identities and ethics.

The specific format of focus group meetings that I propose utilises so-called reflecting team processes used in narrative supervision (White, 1999). It is a structured way of facilitating the telling about practices and experiences and colleagues retelling them by adding their own meanings. Such a process can be a way of enriching both practice and identity. It can also be a way of changing those unhelpful meanings and practices, such as blame, self-doubt, and guilt, that increase teachers’ stress levels. Thus teachers can perform their professional identity in front of their colleagues while examining how their practices might be congruent (or not) with their moral values.

Practical benefits:

  • Teachers practise skills in a safe environment
  • Teachers share practices and ideas
  • Professional identity and ethics develop

The Future: Research and Development

This specific discursive approach to RP is one possible response to the daily relationship challenges that teachers and students encounter in diverse classrooms. It is important to note that both the content (the theory and the ways of speaking ), and the delivery method (the design of the focus group process to incorporate deconstructive reflection and reflecting team practices), are integral to the approach and they work best when used together. The findings of my doctoral study suggest that this approach, when delivered to teachers in this specific focus group format, can reduce teachers’ stress through improving their capacity to manage differences and the complexity of their work (Kecskemeti, 2011). Other findings confirm the well-being enhancing effect for teachers of the class meeting process that builds on this approach (Kaveney & Drewery, 2011) along with its potential to develop students’ key competencies (Gray & Drewery, 2011). There are further data currently being analysed, which will be reported in due course. A less measurable but possibly significant impact of the approach was articulated by a colleague who said: “Whatever the situation might be with resourcing, these practices will continue at this school as they are now part of our lives. We use them every day in both our professional and personal relationships.” It seems worthwhile to further investigate the transformative potential of a discursive approach to relationships and professional learning that is structured to provide opportunities for integrating newly learnt practices with teachers’ personal values and beliefs.


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  1. The particular approach described here was developed as part of my doctoral study (Kecskemeti, 2011) and so far it has been taught to teachers in three schools, one primary, one secondary and one area school. The primary and the area school participated in my doctoral study. I taught the approach to teachers in those schools over one academic year. I was employed as Head of Guidance Counselling in the secondary school. In this role I was fortunate to not only lead professional learning and implement the discursive approach over three years with my Deputy Principal colleague, Kathleen Kaveney, but also to further develop with her a deconstructive class meeting process. Two articles in a previous issue of The International Journal on School Disaffection, written by my ex-colleagues at Midway High School (a fictitious name), referred briefly to the specific features of the discursive approach to RP and they reported findings on various benefits of the class meeting process that we developed (Gray & Drewery, 2011; Kaveney & Drewery, 2011).

About the Author

Maria Kecskemeti, Ph.D., worked as Head of Guidance Counselling in a secondary school until September 2011. She is now Senior Lecturer in the Department of Human Development and Counselling at the Faculty of Education, University of Waikato, New Zealand.