• October 20, 2021
 Op-Ed: Positive Deviance: A Different Way to Solve Problems

Op-Ed: Positive Deviance: A Different Way to Solve Problems

Chances are you have never heard of the term “Positive Deviance.” Positive Deviance (PD) is a way of problem solving. Instead of looking at the bad and trying to correct for it, one looks at the good and tries to replicate it.

Positive Deviance has implications for how we try to fix problems in education. But first, let’s look at the most famous example of what positive deviance is:

During the 1990’s, nutritionists led by Jerry and Monique Sternin of Save the Children went to Vietnam to try and resolve a nationwide childhood malnutrition problem. No small task: solve a nationwide problem. To begin to fix the problem, the team went into a small village to investigate the practices of the villagers.

In the past, the model to fix a problem like this was to supply the affected villages with food. Problem solved. (Donated food is only as good as long as the donations keep coming. Once the donations dry up, the problem returns.)

The teams noticed that certain children did not show signs of malnutrition. These children were the poorest of the poor in the village. The team found that these children were drinking water from a pond that was for the “lesser” members of the village. These parents collected and prepared foods considered unsuitable for children like sweet potatoes, weeds, and crabs, washed their children’s hands before meals, and fed them three to four times a day instead of the typical two meals a day provided for other children.

All considered unusual. Yet, the pond contained microscopic brine shrimp, which provided nutrition to the children. The “dirty water” was actually better for kids because of the shrimp. The sweet potatoes, weeds, and crabs also were full of vitamins that other children had deficiencies in .

Even though it was a “dirty” pond to drink from the deviant behavior (drinking from the pond) provided positive results. Likewise, eating the sweet potatoes and greens also provided nutrition, even though considered “low class behavior.” Positive results from deviance. With the knowledge of what worked, the Sternin’s team was able to affect change on a large scale in Vietnam. So much so that a 65% malnutrition rate in children changed to a 85% wellness rate in a few years.

Since then, the idea of positive deviance as a driver for change has spread across the globe. Researchers at UTEP for instance, have looked at PD to cut down on recidivism of former inmates.

How can we take the lessons of positive deviance and apply them in an educational setting? Consider how educators solve the problem of low test scores: When a student fails, educators look at what the student did. They look at the reasons for failure. According to Positive Deviance, they are looking in the wrong place. Teachers need to look at successful students and ask: Why were they successful?

When looking at graduation rates for certain groups of students, instead of focusing on what the non-graduating students did wrong, a school should consider what similar students that did graduate did right.

One of the main ideas of PD is that the group probably has the answer to the problem. Whatever the problem is. One needs to tease the answer out.

There are six specific tenets to PD as stated in Wikipedia:

Communities already have the solutions. They are the best experts to solve their problems.
Communities self-organize and have the human resources and social assets to solve a problem.
Know-how is not concentrated in the leadership of a community alone or in external experts but is distributed throughout the community.
The PD enables the organization to seek and discover sustainable solutions to a given problem because the demonstrably successful uncommon behaviors are already practiced in that community.
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”.

In education do we look at the low performing and try to fix, or do we look at the successful and try to make that the model?

Next time you have problem, instead of trying to solve it the “old fashioned way” try positive deviance. The answer to your problem might be right under your nose all along.

Read all about the Power of Positive Deviance:


Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback.

Feel free to leave a comment.  Read his previous columns here.


Tim Holt


Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback.

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1 Comment

  • Your point orcquestion makes sense; to look at what is working and replicate it, to attain greater success. However, maybe because it seems like an obvious solution, the powers that be in charge in education, do not “see” the obvious.

    Take a couple of exampkes for instance:
    1. In order to improve reading in our schools, rather than purchashing expensive reading programs, allow students to read! Afford them the time read and to select what they read! The solution is there, yet it is not done.

    2. State testing. I believe you have posted the studies that show test is not at grade level, hence the failure in our students. Why continue with a test that doesn’t work?

    Before PD is looked at or used, people need to learn to trust common sense!

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