Positive deviance: learning from positive anomalies

Published date06 February 2017
Date06 February 2017
AuthorPaul G. LeMahieu,Lee E. Nordstrum,Dick Gale
Subject MatterEducation,Curriculum, instruction & assessment,Educational evaluation/assessment
Positive deviance: learning from
positive anomalies
Paul G. LeMahieu
Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Stanford,
California, USA
Lee E. Nordstrum
RTI International, Edina, Minnesota, USA, and
Dick Gale
Institute for Teaching, California Teachers Association, San Diego,
California, USA
Purpose This paper is one of seven in this volume, each elaborating different approaches to quality
improvement in education. The purpose of this paper is to delineate a methodology called positive deviance.
Design/methodology/approach The paper presents the origins, theoretical foundations, core
principles and a case study demonstrating an application of positive deviance in US education, specically
dealing with the problem of high school dropout prevention in a California school district.
Findings The six phases of this “asset-based” improvement approach are: dene the organizational or
community problem and desired outcomes; determine common practices relevant to the problem; discover
uncommon but successful behaviors and strategies that solve the problem (the positive deviants), through
inquiry and observation; design an action learning initiative based on ndings; discern (monitor) progress of
the initiative by documenting and evaluating regularly; and disseminate results through sharing, honoring
and amplifying success stories.
Originality/value Few theoretical treatments and demonstration cases are currently available on
commonly used models of quality improvement from business, manufacturing and other elds that have
potential value in improving education systems internationally. This paper lls this gap by elucidating one
promising approach. By facilitating a comparison of the positive deviance approach to other quality
improvement approaches treated in this volume, the paper provides added value.
Keywords Quality improvement, Positive deviance
Paper type Research paper
Positive deviance is an asset-based improvement method that is designed to address
seemingly intractable problems in organizations or communities by using a very different
angle of questioning from the other improvement approaches treated in this special issue.
The method investigates what is working and where (with regard to a specic area of need,
often against signicant challenges). While the other improvement methods invest
considerable effort in problem analysis and specication as a prelude to improvement work,
positive deviance accepts the problem as presented and focuses on solutions using assets that
already exist within a community or organization. In other words, the method assumes that
within a given population or organization, there are likely to be some individuals who have
developed and implemented solutions to a seemingly complex but yet unresolved (at scale)
problem. As such, the method is a systematic way of determining who in a community or
organization has ascertained a way to solve a persistent issue; identied the human
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
QualityAssurance in Education
Vol.25 No. 1, 2017
©Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/QAE-12-2016-0083
behaviors and actions needed to solve that problem; and determined how to spread that
knowledge (and practice) to others (Pascale et al., 2010).
Three distinguishing characteristics of the positive deviance method to quality
improvement that are explored in this article are highlighted at the outset. First, given a
complex problem that has resisted past interventions, the method begins by asking who or
what entity might have found solution strategies to address the problem at hand. Positive
deviance seeks to uncover these “bright spots” – or those individuals or organizational
entities that display uncommon attributes, behaviors or habits that could potentially address
the problem, without recourse to additional resources. These positive outliers are called
“positive deviants” (PD) (Wishik and Van der Vynckt, 1976).
Second, positive deviance assumes that “PDs” are usually “unknown” to others. That is,
others within the community or organization often do not know that they exist with relevant
experience and know-how to tackle the problem. Therefore, the approach provides a
structure for uncovering the “PD” individuals through rigorous data collection and analysis
(Pascale et al., 2010).
Third, the method spreads that local knowledge to others by designing interventions
through which the “PD’s” behavior can be spread and widely applied. In this sense, the
method recognizes that a key characteristic (and outcome) of improvement work in
organizations is learning evidenced through collective behavioral changes. However,
behavior change is unlikely to happen if people are simply given new information; rather,
individuals need to practice their way into a new way of thinking and acting.
As the only asset-based improvement method of improvement approaches in this special
issue, the three distinguishing characteristics of positive deviance make the method a
somewhat different approach from others. These characteristics come up throughout this
article and are expanded upon in the forthcoming discussion.
Brief history of positive deviance
In the late 1980s, Marian Zeitlin and her colleagues at Tufts University School of Nutrition
published a collection of studies from around the world on the subject of child malnutrition
(Zeitlin et al., 1990). Zeitlin et al. focused on identication of children who, despite living in
poor households, were well nourished and healthy. Using an asset-based approach, the
studies found children who were thriving despite facing the same severe nutritional (and
economic) constraints as the rest of the local population. Zeitlin et al. labeled these children
“PDs” because of the fact that their health outcomes deviated positively from the norm
(Zeitlin et al., 1990)[1]. At the time, positive deviance was not yet identied as an approach to
research or development work in organizational learning and change.
In 1990, Save the Children, a non-governmental organization, was invited by the
government of Vietnam to create a program that would enable poor villages to solve the
seemingly intractable problem of child malnutrition (Singhal and Dura, 2009). A
supplemental feeding program, funded by local and international relief agencies, was in
place, but was economically unsustainable. Moreover, the signicant gains seen in child
nutrition were likely to be lost after the program’s end. This was, in part, because of villagers
being treated as passive recipients of program benets – the program neither encouraged nor
required them to change the household habits that had led to their children’s malnutrition in
the rst place. The focus was on providing extra food and did not emphasize
health-promoting behaviors, hygiene or child care.
The Save the Children group in Vietnam, led by Jerry and Monique Sternin, worked under
severely restrictive conditions: they were given six months to demonstrate that the program
had the desired impact. Further, the government did not have the resources to feed all 10,000

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