Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Positive Deviance

Deviance is usually seen as a negative.  As in - that person is deviant!

In their book, The Power of Positive Deviance; How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World's Toughest Problems, the authors show a different side of deviance - the positive side.

The authors talk about the successful exceptions as opposed to the normal behavior or expectation. The concept, as the authors explain, is simple - look for the outliers who succeed against all odds.

The authors give multiple examples.  One example focused on communities in a region of Bolivia whose children suffered from high levels of stunting - short height for age.  However, within the community some children grew normally.  Why did those children - the positive deviants - develop normally while the majority were stunted?

A group who was working with these communities invited a Positive Deviance team into their communities to help find some answers.  The group that issued the invitation was certain that the Positive Deviance team would not find any differences in nutritional practices.  They had already studied the food and everyone ate the same thing.  The community was stymied and wanted to Positive Deviance group to help them find answers.  The community was certain that there was a solution that they could  They looked and they believed that there was nothing they could do.  There was no solution!

But someone came in with a fresh set of eyes and started to look for answers.  This community served a lot of stew-like meals.  Every family seemed to have the same ingredients, the same utensils, the same meals.  Yet some children were growing "normally" - the positive deviants - while other childrens' growth seemed stunted.

The community understood in their minds that there were some positive deviants but they could not conceptualize that these families and these children were experiencing anything different than the other families in the community.

So someone set out to really look at what was going on.  What this person discovered was that the "positive deviants" were getting more meat and potatoes and vegetables.  How?  Every family had the same stew-like meals.  How could some be getting more nutrition.

What this person discovered was that the families whose children grew "normally" scooped the stew in a way that every person - adult and child - received meat and vegetables.  These families put the ladle deep into the pot.

The families where the children did not grow were only giving the children the broth.  They did not ladle out meat and vegetables.  In these parents minds the meat and vegetables were needed by the adults - those who worked needed the "extra" nutrition.

I work in a school district.  Within that school district, as in any school district, there are things that confound or puzzle us.  We are like that community where some children were not growing but others were.  We try a variety of solutions, looking for ways to improve.  Yet some of the problems seem intractable, beyond our ability to solve them.

The problems that we face can be solved - argue the authors of this book on positive deviance - by looking at the positive outliers.  Who in our district has results that are above the norm?  Who has success in helping students that typically are not successful?.  Someone in our district - or someone in a school district somewhere -  has been successful in the same, or a very similar, situation.  The issue is that not that there is no solution to the problem.  the issue is that we have not found ways to communicate our solutions, promote the positive deviance, highlight the successful outliers.

I hope that we can begin to focus on the successful outliers and help all of us find more success.

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