Look for solutions close at hand

“Even though expert guidance is occasionally helpful, the people involved in a specific situation generally know more about it than outside experts.” —Gerald Nadler & Shozo Hibino (Photo: Dennis Sparks)

The solutions to most problems of teaching and learning, I believe, already reside within schools. Consequently, it is a leader’s job to create and sustain cultures of continuous improvement and teamwork within which successful strategies are readily shared.

Virtually every school has within it “positive deviant” teachers who are more successful that the school in general in achieving important results. “Positive deviance,” Jerry Sternin told me in a JSD interview, “inquires into what’s working and how it can be built upon to solve very difficult problems. It requires that experts relinquish their power and believe that solutions already reside within the system. Our role is to help people discover their answers.”

Principal Mike McCarthy explains it this way: “The genius of school lies within the school. The solutions to problems are almost always right in front of you . . . . The only progress you will ever make involves risk: Ideas that teachers have may seem a little unsafe and crazy. Try to think, “How can I make this request into a yes?’”

Take a moment now to . . .

• consider the effectiveness of the methods your school currently uses to connect teachers to one another (teaching teams, professional learning communities, etc.) and to spread effective practices from classroom to classroom, and identify an action you will take to strengthen such sharing within the school.

5 Responses to “Look for solutions close at hand”


  1. 1 Cathy Gassenheimer April 16, 2010 at 10:42 am

    Dennis,
    What a timely post. We held our Board and Council meeting at Winterboro School, a rural school with grades 5-12. A year ago, the Superintendent, principal and faculty decided to transform the school. The school was in its first year in school improvement, due to the drop-out rate.

    They contracted with the Buck Institute to provide professional development on project-based learning, and then the faculty went to work. Using what they had learned, they created inter-disciplinary units and started using them this year. The result: in less than one year, students are truly engaged in learning. Attendance is up, the drop-out rate from March 2000 to March 2010 is down 67%, and the students are enthusiastic about school.

    When asked to reflect about the change, the faculty agreed that having to struggle together to create new project-based lessons, rather than having them “handed to them,” was responsible for the changed culture and for their embrace of this new type of teaching. They were very clear that this was very hard work, but that they would never want to go back to “the old way.”

    • 2 Wendy O April 26, 2010 at 3:45 pm

      I also found this topic to be quite timely. Recently, our school board welcomed Dr. Ross Greene to enlighten us on how to better understand the reasons behind student misbehaviour. More specifically, he presented a “new” way to approach students who exhibit challenging behaviours – to empower students to identify the triggers to their reactions and work together to brainstorm ways to improve their responses.

      His Collaborative Problem Solving model illustrates what you describe in this article, as well as one you published recently on reframing schools. He has asked teachers to shift our thinking: to review current school discipline codes and reflect on who these methods are actually serving. Challenging the system is never easy, and can be risky. But sound advice and a common sense approach, as found in the CPS model, can help sustain continuous improvement. Dialogues that are handled professionally and respectfully will not only help strengthen school teams, but in this case, will also help students find their voice in coming up with solutions to problems in school.


  1. 1 “Direct the rider” to influence change « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on May 10, 2010 at 4:33 am
  2. 2 Improve performance « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on June 14, 2010 at 4:11 am
  3. 3 Improve Performance | What's Working in Schools Blog Trackback on October 6, 2011 at 4:37 am

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