How to spread “demonstrably successful but uncommonly applied practices”

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“We need to look at how individuals and organizations within our own systems achieved stellar results using the resources available to the system (and then duplicate then learn from that individual or organization),” reader Frances Miller said in a recent comment on  one of my blog posts. “Many times we spend our energy looking for outside experts when they are right there within our organization; we just have to learn how to develop a culture where others support their use.”

Miller’s comment brought to mind a 2004 JSD interview I did with Jerry Sternin. Sternin and his wife, Monique, had applied the concept of “positive deviance” to life-saving work they did for Save the Children in the villages of Vietnam and to solving other seemingly intractable problems, and I was curious about the implications of the practice in educational settings.

“Positive deviants are people whose behavior and practices produce solutions to problems than others in the group who have access to exactly the same resources have not been able to solve,” Sternin told me. “We want to identify these people because they provide demonstrable evidence that solutions to the problem already exist within the community.”

In the same way that villages in Vietnam had positive deviant parents who had found ways to support the health of their children with the same resources available to other parents, so, too, do schools have positive deviant teachers who are successfully and often quietly solving problems that others in the school community declare to be unsolvable.

Likewise, some schools within a school system have been more successful in solving problems that other schools had declared unsolvable.

Here are some important things to keep in mind about the positive deviance approach.

• Positive Deviance inquiry begins with an assumption that solutions to most problems of teaching and learning can be found in the school community rather than imported through consultants and other experts. If principals and teacher leaders do not share this assumption, the approach will predictably fail.

“Positive Deviance inquires into what’s working and how it can be built upon to solve very difficult problems,” Sternin told me. “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.”

Later in the interview Sternin noted, “My experience in over 12 years of working with this particular approach and more than 30 years of experience in the development field is that improvement may occur when an external agent brings new resources and ideas to a community.  But as soon as that external agent leaves, the problem returns because the recipients were essentially passive. This is why best-practices approaches usually fail.”

Positive Deviance inquiry is far more complex than principals identifying teachers who produce above average test scores and asking them to explain to their colleagues how they did it.

As Sternin explained it to me, the process has four steps: “define, determine, discover, and design.  The group begins its work by defining the problem and describing what success would look like—which is the inverse of the problem statement.

“Next, the group determines if there are individuals who have already achieved success.  If there such people, they are the positive deviants.

“Next, the group discovers the uncommon but demonstrably successful behaviors and practices used by the positive deviants to solve the problem.

“And finally, the group designs an intervention which enables its members to practice those demonstrably successful but uncommonly applied practices.

“The process is beautifully simple because it’s strength lies in the solutions that are discovered and owned by people in the community,” Sternin concluded.

A school’s culture will determine it’s success in implementing Positive Deviance inquiry. I have said more about the qualities of such cultures in other posts.

A Positive Deviance approach requires that principals and teacher leaders think about professional learning in new ways. It taps the strengths of the school community

In a deeply respectful and honoring way it taps the strengths of the school community and emphasizes behavior change above “learning about.”

“Knowledge doesn’t change behavior…. Practice changes behavior,” Monique Sternin said in a recent New York Times article. (Readers interested in a deeper understanding of this approach will benefit form reading this article.)

Tomorrow’s post will explore the practices of Positive Deviant school leaders.

3 Responses to “How to spread “demonstrably successful but uncommonly applied practices””


  1. 1 Annie (@KM_KangaMath) March 19, 2013 at 7:36 am

    Thank you for the timely post! Good leaders recognize this trait in the teams they work with but finding the best method to cultivate it remains the tricky part. Teams, and individuals on those teams, need to discover this for themselves. Teachers are so overwhelmed with what our leaders have determined what is best for them, that they are left spending their time just trying to figure out what to do, let alone spend the quality time necessary to build the relationships necessary to get to the postitive deviance that exists within their team. I agree that the best path is to develop the capacity of the experts in the room. This idea fits so perfectly with the work we are already doing in our schools and it boils down to serving teachers what they want. Perhaps chapter 39 (Leading for Results) would be a good one for a “leaders as readers” book group!

  2. 2 Cathy Gassenheimer March 19, 2013 at 10:14 am

    Dennis,
    I’m struck by what seems to be the convergence of thinking — perhaps started by Sternin, but also led by Fullan, Hargreaves, Jim Knight, and to some extend Covey’s Leader in Me. Empowering others by identify and building on strengths can make such a powerful difference. And, as you note, that type of change is sustainable because it comes from within the organization! Thanks for this powerful reminder!

  3. 3 barbarawmadden March 20, 2013 at 8:07 am

    Reblogged this on that MADDENing teacher and commented:
    Are you a Positive Deviant?


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