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Positive Deviance in action: the search for schools that defy the odds in Kenya

April 3, 2018
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Sheila WamahiuI’ve been thinking about why there is so little attention to Positive Deviance in development Rosa2practice, so got very excited by this experiment in East Africa. Guest post from Sheila P Wamahiu (left), of Jaslika Consulting, and Kees de Graaf and Rosaline Muraya (right), of Twaweza 

After two hours of trampolining down dirt roads, getting lost more than once (thanks, Google Maps), we pulled up at the gate of Mwarubaini Primary School. Just a gate – no wall or fence. Tired buildings and potholed classrooms greeted our arrival, but there really was something different in the air. And the story was similar at all the schools we visited,Kees de Graaf color pic spread across Kenya: this tired look yet vibrant atmosphere.

This journey began where all good journeys do – behind a desk! Combing through years of data points, examination results, to find schools that seem to defy their circumstances and perform exceptionally well, contrary to expectation. We only considered publicly funded, co-educational day schools and we picked those that had high exam results over time in counties and sub-counties with especially poor performance. And then a deep dive into each of these schools: is their exceptional performance driven by some advantage, not captured ‘in the books’? Or are they truly making the best of the same resources that other public schools are given and using whatever they have to drive learning?

Kitchen at a high performing school

Kitchen at a high performing school

The qualitative research in and around the first list of schools had to be wide and deep: we needed to investigate as many of the schools as we could where our data showed they were doing well, but then efficiently weed out those that had some extenuating circumstances, for example wealthy parents contributing a lot to school expenses. We conducted rapid field visits to 14 out of 26 shortlisted schools. The visits took place over six months in five counties, one and a half days per school. These visits led us to the final list of six which we then investigated in greater depth, to try to really get under the skin of what they did differently.

In both the rapid field visits and the in-depth inquiry, using mixed methods, we talked to lots of people, going beyond local education officials, head teachers and teachers to the wider community: the boda boda (motorbike taxi) driver, the mama mboga (female vegetable seller), people standing by the matatu (local bus) stop, and the taxi driver driving us to our destination. We also talked to children, both girls and boys, through focus groups, using a drawing activity to break the ice and get their views of their school, teachers and learning and disciplinary practices. We added parents and school board members to the mix in the in-depth phase of the study.

In some ways it was fitting that our search took us to some of the more dilapidated schools in Kenya. At least we could push against the common myth that shiny classrooms filled with desks, brand new buildings and a closet full of school supplies are what make learning happen.

In the end, we found six schools that truly deviated positively from the norm. Each one had its own unique story but also some common threads. Leadership in all the schools were willing to try things out, adapt processes and systems; they used whatever little resources they had in creative ways but to great effect; and they put the well-being and learning of their pupils front and centre. Across the board, we found school leaders who are optimists, able to infuse the school community with their enthusiasm so they can pull together to make things happen and to implement government policies in a way that works for them – sometimes rolling out policies that others were afraid to try and sometimes bending the rules and not complying. For example, in some schools classrooms converted to night “camps” for girls in upper primary, watched over by mothers who volunteered as matrons. Although not compliant with quality standards, these kept girls safe from sexual predators, prevented early pregnancy, and allowed extended learning hours in the evenings.

But the schools’ success was not driven by force of personality alone: although the school leaders truly were

Children at Lunch break

Children at Lunch break

visionaries they had all tried to institutionalise their approaches. All of them were active and powerful mentors, and they instilled ownership of the schools into local communities – so much so that the communities themselves would pressure new incoming school leadership to maintain the high standards they were used to.

Other common threads were respect and empathy; head teachers and teachers in these schools demonstrated respect for the children, the community and education. They did not immediately default to punishment: children were not sent home for incorrect uniform or for not having paid the various surcharges. Amboseli Primary School established a “bank” where outgoing pupils would donate their old uniforms and books for those who could not afford to buy their own.  Some parents, and sometimes teachers in Chama Primary paid for low income children’s meals. Sometimes, the schools just turned a blind eye to the non-payment. It is a far cry from the norm: being sent home when your parents have not paid, keeping performance high by expelling or holding back weaker pupils and demanding compulsory financial contributions from parents.

These schools did not cancel sports or break time for more academic study: children were actively engaged in games and play as an important part of a balanced learning experience.

All of the schools, and their leadership, recognised that they could look for help in unusual places. They made strong use of peer-to-peer learning and had different strategies around stand-ins and group work to deal with large classes and staff shortages. Firoza Primary School has even trained child tutors to stand in for teachers when they were absent from class for any reason.

So now that we have a long list of ideas, practices and characteristics that seem to create unusual success stories, we can begin the final stage of our positive deviance quest. We will go back to the six schools to share the findings, inviting nearby schools as well. Will school leaders in these exceptional schools recognise, validate and claim ownership of the practices we have identified? Will the schools nearby be able to adopt some of these practices? The ultimate Twaweza question: can we take it to scale?!

Fascinating. Hope the authors can come back and tell us where this work ends up!

6 comments

  1. Really good to see Shiela, Kees and Rosaline pursuing the Positive Deviance approach.

    Re the comment “This journey began where all good journeys do – behind a desk! Combing through years of data points, examination results, to find schools that seem to defy their circumstances and perform exceptionally well, contrary to expectation”

    Can I encourage Shiela, and any others thinking of searching for Positive Deviance cases, to consider using EvaLC3 for the initial data analysis, prior to doing the absolutely essential groundwork. EvalC3 is a free Excell app which can be used to develop predictive models of poor performing schools (for example). Once developed, it is the False Positive cases that should then be looked into as candidate Positive Deviants. These are the cases that prevailing conditions say should be failing but they are not.

    There is a supporting website that includes a page specifically about finding Positive Deviants: https://evalc3.net/4-evaluate-model/finding-positive-deviants/

    with best wishes, rick davies

  2. This is a great piece of findings Sheila, Rosaline and Graaf and hope it will be told widely and i look forward to getting hold of a more detailed copy. We have always known that good school leadership means the difference between good performing schools and the others but how this good leadership manifests practically in our context is always the difficult part. I hope these findings will stimulate deeper conversations among education stakeholders in Kenya and probably other similar geographies on how we review school leadership and support system for quality education.

    1. Thanks Daniel. Yes, there are lots of lesson that we learned which need to be widely shared. This week we begin the validation process, sharing with low performing schools in the same catchment as the PD schools. I’ll keep you posted when the detailed report is finalized, hopefully by May this year.

    1. Thanks Susan. Needless to say, I enjoyed the “discovery” process tremendously — so satisfying really to see the glass half full, and smiling faces and positive actions in very challenging environments. I will certainly take a look at the “Bright System” link. Thanks for sharing.

  3. That is indeed a very interesting piece of research, and resonates with many experiences. I remember when prof Eshiwani did a study in the early 1990s on the best performing schools (as measured by the primary school exam) in Kenya, he had to travel to remote and poorly resourced schools. His conclusion was very similar: it is not facilities, but teacher and community commitment that makes the difference. The discussion becomes fascinating when the writers argue that there is more than leadership, and that it involves institutionalisation. However, I find that one of the most difficult issues in practice. I recognise the leadership traits mentioned in the article: not being afraid to try things out, going against standard practice (punishment), not making compliance a priority. I wonder: how does one institutionalise that? Looking forward to the follow-up.

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