Did she just call me a deviant? I silently wondered as my administrator responded to another of my unconventional ideas. “Have you heard the term positive deviance?” is what she actually said. I had not, but of course I soon checked into it. According to Wikipedia, Positive deviance (PD) is an approach to behavioral and social change based on the observation that in any community there are people whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources. This approach to change is based on a set of principles that include, but are not limited to, the idea that people within a given community have solutions and are the best experts to solve their problems.
Past educational changes have not relied on the concept of positive deviance. Rather than looking to teachers, administrators, and students, changes to education have come from legislators, business leaders, and philanthropists. Another principle of PD is “It is easier to change behavior by practicing it rather than knowing about it. ‘It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than think your way into a new way of acting.’” It seems that everyone thinks they are experts in educational matters because they attended school. Many well-intentioned leaders “know” what “should be done” in schools and pass regulations or fund initiatives that they “think” will fix the problems rather than seek the collective intelligence of those inside of the educational community, those who, if empowered, could “act their way into a new way of thinking”. Sadly, those with the most potential to act have been excluded from the educational change conversations, seemingly because they can’t be trusted and lack accountability. It seems that most students and parents think highly of the teachers in their school, but teachers in broader terms have lost respect. Even though teachers know their students’ needs, interests, and preferences, the teachers are often required to teach with dictated curriculum, pacing schedules, and assessments.
But this doesn’t mean we (students, teachers, and administrators) can’t “act our way to change.” We can start small with something only a little outside of our comfort zones. In the book “Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Changing Education,” Sir Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica state, “…revolutions don’t wait for legislation. They emerge from what people do at the ground level. Education doesn’t happen in the committee rooms of the legislatures or in the rhetoric of politicians. It’s what goes on between learners and teachers in actual schools.
Perhaps we could offer students new and different activities like bringing in broken toys and asking students to fix, or repurpose, them; having students make a game and teach it to peers; having students analyze a school procedure (fire drill, recess, dismissal, etc.) and make suggestions for improvement. Maybe we teachers could make a suggestion to administrators regarding a topic we have researched, sharing the resources used to guide the suggestion. We could harness the potential of the Internet and collaborate on a project with teachers/students in another city or country. The possibilities are endless. We just need to embrace our positive deviance.
What ideas do you have for making small, or big, improvements to your classroom, school, or district?
In educational psychology classes we learn about Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. His theory asserts that motivation in humans generally moves in step with meeting various levels of need. From the most basic to the ideal, they are physiological, safety, belonging and love, esteem, and self-actualization. Today’s scholars contend that these levels often overlap and are not necessarily achieved in a strictly linear fashion. What does this theory have to do with my classroom, or yours?
Some students come to school having basic needs (food, water, shelter, sleep, health) met, and for those who don’t, our school system has made great strides toward supplementing the deficits. In schools identified as having a high percentage of students living in poverty, breakfast and lunch are provided free of charge with some students taking home groceries for the weekend. School nurses intervene to connect families with health services, medical supplies, and even winter wear. Many schools employ home/school liaisons who connect families with resources for transportation, housing, food, medical care, and more. Safety and security policies and practices protect students while at school, but what about…
… students who don’t feel safe once they walk out of the school doors?
… students who are bullied at, or outside of, school?
… students whose families suffer from food and/or financial insecurity?
… students who feel alienated by peers?
… students who feel inferior to others?
I could go on, but the point is that many students do not come to school ready to learn. Life situations, relationship issues, and self-image/esteem challenges interfere with the ability to learn. What is a teacher to do? Unfortunately, I don’t have a miracle cure because the problems are complex and multifaceted. I often feel overwhelmed with the needs presented by my students and my inability to meet those needs. The pressure to move all students to levels of proficiency compound these feelings of inadequacy. Of course I want all of my students to be proficient in reading, math, and other subjects, but how do I balance academic needs with the need to atone for shortfalls in self-regulation, communication, empathy, etc. when the latter often prohibit learning of the former? How much “teaching” time can I take to deescalate students who, for reasons unbeknownst to me, erupt and disrupt their learning and the learning of peers?
Why don’t our school districts assess students’ proficiency according to Maslow’s hierarchy, or better yet, the district’s ability to elevate students on the hierarchy? Students aren’t “standard” to begin with, but in the effort to attain “proficiency,” the process of standardization harms those most in need of help by creating a false standard of success. The focus is diverted from what students really need to a focus on preparing them for low-level, inauthentic assessments.
So, until policy and practice align with what might really make a difference, I will continue to prioritize caring for oneself, improving self-regulation, showing kindness, applying effort, and setting goals. I will remain committed to providing students with a safe and caring classroom environment and working to give students tools for dealing with environments beyond the school doors. And, perhaps most importantly, I will work to develop a societal culture that takes care of its most vulnerable citizens so that one day, all students come to school ready to learn.
I love TED Talks! I recently watched one presented by Seth Godin entitled “This is Broken.” In it, Godin shares examples, mostly from the business sector, where mistakes are obvious, yet the practice continues or the message is repeated. He provides examples such as a picture of a prescription bottle containing medicine for a dog that warns the consumer to avoid driving, operating heavy machinery, or taking the tablets with alcohol. Another image shows a street sign pointing the way to the “Secret Bunker.” Godin laments a movie theater with concession stand lines 12 deep because management needed to reduce costs, so cut workers even though 95% of profits flow directly from these purchases. In these and other examples, Godin proclaims that someone, often many people, recognized the “wrongness” of each situation, yet failed to fix the problem. A pharmacist knows that dogs do not drive, operate heavy machinery, or drink alcohol (at least not intentionally). Sign makers and installers see the irony of publicizing the location of a secret bunker. Concession stand workers and managers are fully aware that more workers would better serve eager customers.
These examples of brokenness got me thinking about the educational system and my mission to change it for the better. Because I am old, read voraciously, and have had the good fortune of observing and working with many educators and educational systems, brokenness exposes itself to me. These fissures in the system, beg me to notice them and apply epoxy. But I am the pharmacist, the street sign maker, and the concession stand worker. I don’t have the power to fix the brokenness. It’s not my job. Surely there are smarter and more powerful people whose job it is to fix the world’s wrongness. Ironically, this thinking is broken too. It should be everyone’s job to fix brokenness. Our educational system needs a lot of fixing. Don’t get me wrong. A lot of good things happen in schools, but too many of our practices actually impede learning and harm kids.
I believe the time is right for teachers to speak up, point to each element that is broken, AND find the solutions. The last part of my previous sentence is important. If we don’t find the solutions, someone else will. Policy makers, department heads, and corporate officers don’t know our students and often have disingenuous interests. I would like to propose a challenge to all teachers who read this post.
1.) Identify something in your daily work that is broken.
2.) Fix it or propose a solution to someone who has the power to fix it.
3.) Share with us in the comment section of this blog post.
Together we can fix the broken.