Positive Deviance: the search for a magic pill

This article was originally published in Daily Monitor and  New Vision, by Violet Alinda - Advocacy Manager, Twaweza Uganda.

Growing up, I always understood teaching as a noble profession because my father derived so much satisfaction from what he did. He was happy contributing to the transformational journey of his students as they became productive citizens and was not so concerned with what he earned. My father belongs to the older generation of teachers that are celebrated and still command respect in their communities, many years after retirement.

Last week, I listened to a testimony from a teacher three generations younger than my father, Mr Moses Wambi – principal in charge of outreach programs at Bishop Willis Core Primary Teachers’ College.  Unlike my father, Mr. Wambi is operating in a different context that is marred with challenges such as negative publicity about the teaching profession, insufficient pay, large class sizes and the politics of education, all of which affect his day to day decision making. He is a teacher trainer challenged to transform ‘not so good students’ into excellent teachers and his passion pushed him to try something different.

Teacher Wambi recounted to us the innovations he has pioneered in service of his profession and to combat poor performance among students, particularly in mathematics. He began by reviewing students’ work: their formative assessments, their classwork, project work and library work. He found that there were those students that consistently performed better than their peers. And this despite not having any special advantages. These students were appointed as facilitators of students groups: together they developed their own study timetables, the successful students guided their peers on how they approached the different areas of work and study. Groups also shared with each other. The idea was for the successful students to grow even further while positively influencing their peers.

Over time, Teacher Wambi saw improved attitudes towards mathematics and a massive improvement in pass rates, particularly the number of distinctions.

Teacher Wambi did not stop there. Since he is also in charge of outreach, he identified a few primary schools to pilot an initiative similar to the one at the college.  He worked with class teachers and head teachers to identify children that have mastered reading with good comprehension skills. He formed what he termed as, “reading buddies”. The reading buddies form reading clusters in Primary 3. The children that can read well support the weaker children through practice. The results have been tremendous. Teachers are testifying to improved literacy skills in the schools and classes where reading buddies have been introduced. Following this pilot, the ministry of education participated in the official launch of the initiative in November 2017 and commended the concept.

But teacher Wambi is not done yet.

 “I have encouraged the head teachers in the selected schools to introduce an item on the agenda where different children read to the rest every morning during assembly and for students to be asked to go and read to the head teacher regularly. The idea is to create as many opportunities to support children’s reading and comprehension competencies as possible and, so far so good”

Teacher Wambi is bringing a concept known as positive deviance to life. The concept is based on the observation that in every community or organization, there are a few individuals or groups whose uncommon but successful (and replicable) behaviors and strategies have enabled them to find better solutions to problems than their neighbors who face similar challenges and barriers and have access to the same resources (Tufts University, 2010). The approach builds on the idea that communities and individuals often have untapped potential when it comes to solving systemic and complex issues. A positively deviant person, therefore, is a community member among the community of the least likely to succeed, who demonstrates replicable but uncommon behaviours/strategies that enable him to succeed in overcoming a problem without special resources.

For Twaweza, the Uwezo report “Are our children learning?” shows consistently poor learning outcomes when it comes to basic literacy and numeracy. The findings cause a public uproar and lead to finger-pointing and education actors blaming each other. The government often asks us to propose solutions to the problems identified in our data.  The positive deviance approach offers an important pathway out of this mess, as demonstrated by Teacher Wambi. What he has been able to do in the last 15 months can be done by any teacher anywhere and the signals of success look good so far.

Read more: education



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