Learning and Coaching from Positive Deviants - Steve Barkley

Learning and Coaching from Positive Deviants

Do you have teachers who continually have students perform substantially above the students working with other teachers; academically, socially, or emotionally? Those teachers might be identified as positive deviants. These teachers could be the source of change in teacher practice in your school that leads to increased student success.

Business and Marketing Concepts, Illustration of Standard Deviation, Gaussian Bell or Normal Distribution Curve on A Green Chalkboard Background.

Positive Deviance was first introduced in 1990 in the field of nutrition.  At that time, more than two-thirds of Vietnamese children under the age of five were malnourished after a series of typhoons devastated the country’s rice crops. The Save the Children organization was asked to seek a solution that would not require more food, more money, or more resources of any kind. They were given six months to find a solution.

Save the Children identified children from the poorest families who were not malnourished and visited their homes to learn why. They uncovered in every instance where a very poor family had a well-nourished child, a parent was collecting tiny shrimps or crabs or snails (the size of one joint of one finger) from the rice paddies and adding these to the child’s diet, along with the greens from sweet potato tops. While these food sources were available free for the taking, many thought the foods were inappropriate, or even dangerous, for young children.

By highlighting these positive deviant behaviors, the community recognized that an effective solution to malnutrition was already present. The Positive Deviance Approach involved sharing these successful strategies within the community, facilitating peer learning, and encouraging the positive behaviors that led to improved child nutrition outcomes. This community-driven approach also fostered a sense of empowerment and ownership among the community members.

You can watch a short video tribute to Jerry Sternin who initiated the project in Vietnam and was a Co-Founder of the Positive Deviance Initiative here. (I found the video impactful.)

I have often felt frustrated whenever I watched a movie of a teacher who was a positive deviant and had students surpass expectations. My thinking was that instead of educators observing and listening to find out what was the cause (the tiny shrimp and crabs) Hollywood made a movie. I am afraid that gets interpreted as a miracle instead of an opportunity to share successful strategies that others can repeat. These “star” teachers didn’t have more time, more money, or more resources of any kind than their colleagues did.

In an article in Kappan, Uncovering Innovations That Are Invisible in Plain Sight,” Arvind Singhal identifies that positive deviants in schools often go unnoticed:

“The Positive Deviance (PD) approach assumes that every community has individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers although everyone has access to the same resources and challenges. However, these people and groups are ordinarily invisible to others in the community, and especially to expert change agents. These implausible outliers are deviants because their uncommon behaviors are not the norm; they are positive deviants because they have found ways to effectively address the problem, while most others have not.”

I have been using the term unconsciously talented to describe teachers that you might find being positive deviants.

Gordon’s Skill development ladder describes categories for times when we are unconsciously unskilled, (unaware that we lack a skill) consciously unskilled, (know I don’t know how to implement) consciously skilled, (with focused attention I can implement; often clumsily) unconsciously skilled (I can implement with automaticity) I considered those labels as I coached teachers and identified a group of teachers who were unable to explain things that they unconsciously did that lead to greater student engagement or increased learning outcomes. I suggest they were unconsciously talented. At times I have had administrators share frustration when they asked unconsciously talented teachers to share their strategies that generate success, and the teachers were reluctant. I believe that some of the reluctance is due to the teachers’ unconsciousness of the practice generating success.

An example of unconsciously talented is illustrated in that often some top athletes or performing artist are unsuccessful as coaches or mentors because much of their success is generated unconsciously as a talent.  The unconscious dilemma is also illustrated when a highly successful unconsciously talented teacher becomes a mentor working with the unconsciously unskilled mentee. The mentor doesn’t know what they know as they work with the mentee who doesn’t know what they don’t know.

In a downloadable document, from irisconnect you can find a process for using a positive deviant approach to increasing learning success. I think that it would be a great learning project for a school leadership team; especially one with an instructional coach to facilitate the leadership team’s learning.

  • Define the problem. What would success look like?
  • Determine if any teachers are already having the desired success.
  • Discover the unique practices of the positive deviant teacher.
  • Design and implement an intervention that enables others in the community to experience and practice the desired behaviors.
  • Discern the effectiveness of the intervention.
  • Disseminate the intervention to a wider constituency.

School leaders’ coaching observation activities would be critical to this process. Leaders sharing their observations and insights with each other will spark further observation and study. Teachers joining in on these studies extend the learning opportunities.

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