Peter Hook explains the connection between malnourished children in Vietnam, a sorcerer in Mali and your school’s performance.

In 1990, Jerry and Monica Sternin took part in a Save the Children project for malnourished children in Vietnam. Rather than bringing in external and necessarily finite resources to solve the problem, they went to villages in order to discover the ‘positive deviants’ – those families whose children were healthier than the rest. They then encouraged others in the village to discover how this happened and to teach each other how to use these best practices with their own children.

In Mali, Save the Children workers they found that the reason the villagers gave for the malnourishment was a spell cast by a sorcerer.They focused the villagers’ attention on understanding the health of the children over whom the sorcerer seemed to have less influence (the better nourished) and then encouraged them to adopt this ‘best practice’. Eventually, one old lady summarised their sense of accomplishment when she said, ‘We have vanquished the sorcerer!’ (Pascale and Sternin1, 2005)

In both of these cases, the emphasis was placed on looking at where the problem didn’t happen – the ‘positively deviant’ moments – and in understanding how that happened, moving the good practitioners into an awareness of their competence and then working with them to spread their good practice. Thus began a quiet revolution in the way Save the Children tackles not only malnourishment, but also a host of other problems.

Consider the implication of these two statements from Jerry Sternin – the father of positive deviance:

‘The traditional model for social and organizational change doesn’t work … Maybe the problem is with the whole model for how change can actually happen. Maybe the problem is that you can’t import change from the outside in. Instead, you have to find small, successful but “deviant” practices that are already working in the organization and amplify them. Maybe, just maybe, the answer is already alive in the organisation – and change comes when you find it.’ – (STERNIN,J, AND CHOO,R2)

‘Somewhere in your community or organisation, groups of people are already doing things differently and better. To create lasting change, find these areas of positive deviance and fan their flames.’ – (JERRY STERNIN AND RICHARD PASCALE3)

The implications of these statements for school change are enormous and lie in the fact that, in almost every instance, more successful outcomes are already being achieved somewhere within the school. Since the essential goal in change management (especially when a sustainable change in culture is being sought) is to embed and sustain positive change, the most demonstrably effective way of achieving this change is to find a way of identifying, extending and amplifying positive deviance.

It would be a mistake, though, to confuse the simplicity and power of this concept with the range of skills needed to uncover, understand and amplify positively deviant behaviours. The reality is that most of the people who display positively deviant behaviours do not consciously understand either what the beliefs, attitudes and behaviours are that they routinely demonstrate or even more crucially, how they achieve the outcomes they do. For them ‘it just happens’! Our experience tells us that identifying a school’s positive deviants is a relatively easy task and that they are already known to the staff, pupils and leadership team. However, convincing them that they are as good as everybody else says they are can be another matter!

So, organisations face a paradox. How do you extend across the school, the success of the positive deviants on your staff if they don’t consciously understand what makes them so successful? Michael Fullan told Dennis Sparks 4 (2003):

The effective schools research found that classroom-to-classroom differences in effectiveness within schools is greater than school-to-school variation. Professional learning communities internal to a school should reduce the variation across classrooms with more and more teachers gravitating toward the best practices.’

Experience tells us that the most relevant methodology to bring what essentially are successful habits and patterns of behaviour – and unconscious attitudes and values – to a point where they can be accessed and shared, is solution-focused coaching.

We would suggest that there are seven identifiable but overlapping stages that go towards the amplification of positive deviance in schools:

Stage 1- Establish the context

Clearly define the issues to be addressed and also define what you want instead of the problem. A consistent theme in solution-focused approaches is the notion that an answer is not a ‘non-problem’ – an answer is what you will achieve once the problem no longer exists. Defining what we don’t want is not a useful base from which to start – it is the difference between saying ‘I don’t want to be here’ and ‘I want to be there’. The first statement isn’t very useful. If we do achieve a state of not being ‘here’, we could be anywhere and have no way of telling when we’ve got to the right place – all we have achieved is a state of diminished discomfort. The second statement gives us both a clear direction and a way of deciding if we have achieved our goal. We call this process ‘establishing a preferred future’.

Stage 2 – Find the positive deviants

Look for people who, even in part, are already achieving your preferred future. They will not necessarily be among the most experienced or most senior teachers.They can be anywhere in the organisation. In fact, you will frequently find that positive deviants have shied away from promotion and responsibility. They meet their needs by simply doing a good job. It is important that you simply look for the outcomes these people achieve rather than the method they use to achieve it. You are looking for their solution to the problem, not your solution or a match with an externally benchmarked solution.

Stage 3 – Move into conscious competence

Work alongside your positive deviants to help them understand and articulate their good practice. The best way to accomplish this is a mix of lesson observations, feedback and solution-focused coaching. Carefully constructed, solution-focused coaching conversations based on observational evidence can quickly move practice into the realms of conscious competence. Although time needs to be invested at this stage, the process can be quite rapid, especially once they realise that this process can support them in becoming even more effective in their work with students – a common characteristic of positive deviants is that they have a constant need to improve their practice.

Stage 4 – Develop mutual support

Positive deviants need to be facilitated in supporting and learning from each other, with the opportunity to meet regularly to share concerns, examine each other’s practices and compare students’ work. At this stage, it is tremendously beneficial for them to be trained in solution-focused coaching and facilitation skills. The purpose of this stage is to help them deepen their understanding and confidence in their own skills and to develop their own role as an identifiable reference point in school.

Stage 5 – Change practice to change knowledge and attitude

Your positive deviants now need to begin to work with their colleagues. This stage focuses on creating the social movement for change in the school. Two key approaches (or a mix of both) can be used to spread the good practice across the school – by creating coaching and/or reflective practitioner groups. The approach chosen will depend upon the school’s particular circumstance, but whichever is used, it needs initially to focus on ‘willing participants’ – those teachers who already do a satisfactory job and who want to improve. What is important is that not only are the positive deviants now spreading their ideas and approaches, the school is starting to develop an internal ‘curiosity’ about what works best with its students. There is very little, if any, opportunity for resistance to change on the grounds of ‘This won’t work with our children!’ because it patently already does.

This approach of encouraging change in behaviour by working alongside colleagues is central to the whole process. Jerry Sternin told Dennis Sparks 5 (2004) that another significant feature of the positive deviance approach is a focus on changing behaviour.

In positive deviance work we say that it is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting…. In the development world, the conventional wisdom is that knowledge changes attitudes and attitudes change practice. Positive deviance reverses that. We start with changing practice. As people see that changes make a difference, their attitude changes and they internalise the knowledge. We can spend our lives learning about something, but that doesn’t necessarily change our behavior.’

Stage 6 – Maintain the momentum

Throughout stages 1 to 5, the school develops as a professional learning community. Developing the model as a cycle of improvement by repeating the process, is the simplest way to maintain the momentum and build the energy for lasting, sustainable change.

Does the approach deny the validity of external sources of expertise? Of course it doesn’t:

‘Successful principals understand that schools that systematically identify, deeply appreciate, and spread the outstanding practices that already exist within them are also more effective in tapping external sources of expertise. Likewise, they understand that schools whose cultures are contrary to such appreciative and collaborative methods will derive few lasting benefits from most external resources because they lack the means through which more effective teaching methods become part of a school’s routine practice.’ – DENNIS SPARKS6 (2005)

Will this work with everybody? Of course not. There may still be the need for some staff to adopt a more prescriptive (and occasionally disciplinary) approach to change, particularly if patently bad practice is displayed. However, the advantages of the approach are many:

  • it has high ‘stickability’ because it is already proven to work
  • it is driven by a clear vision of success
  • the school ‘owns’ the process of change
  • the members of the school become experts in their own success
  • existing good practice is sought out and amplified
  • it is resource based – it models existing solutions into the school’s context
  • teachers are helped to develop a new way of thinking
  • the solutions are proven to work in these circumstances
  • energies are clearly focused on building resources and creating momentum for change
  • finally – it works! TEX

Peter Hook is Managing Director of Gillmans Ltd, a company that specialises in supporting schools in developing high-impact, sustainable change through solution-focused approaches.


  1. Sternin, J and Pascale, R, ‘Your Company’s SecretChange Agents’, Harvard Business Review, May 2005
  2. Sternin, J and Choo, R. ‘The power of positive deviancy’, Harvard Business Review, January2000
  3. Sparks, D ‘An interview with Michael Fullan: ChangeAgent’, Journal of Staff Development, Winter 2003
  4. Sparks, D ‘Principals amplifying teachers’ outstanding practices‘ Results, National Staff Development Council, May 2005
  5. Sparks, D From hunger aid to school reform – Positive deviance approach seeks solutions that already exist: An interview with Jerry Sternin. Journal of StaffDevelopment, 2004