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An Approach to Community-Driven Change in Schools

To learn is to evolve based on new understanding. Until last week, I would have considered my personal evolution as a leader to be on a completely different track than it is today. Because, as the saying goes, you don't know what you don't know.

Recently, while trying to tackle a more in-depth problem as related to diversity of voice in professional learning, a good friend suggested that I read the book, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World's Toughest Problems and I must say that it opened my eyes beyond my initial purpose. While attempting to tackle one problem, I found correlations concerning my own thinking and approach to change in teaching and learning. Consider my mind officially blown.

The Power of Positive Deviance describes an approach to the problem-solving process meant to drive bottom-up change in an organization or community where there are social/behavioral barriers and not just technical solutions. The key in this process is for diverse members of a community to engage in an inquiry-driven process where they identify "positive deviants"—those who have managed an "against all odds" approach to success equipped with the same resources as every member of the community.

The key in this process is not just identifying who these people are but focusing on their "how" in lieu of their "why or what." An even greater key here is that the community drives this entire process and not experts or designated leaders. Discoveries are translated and put into practice by the community because they choose it, not because it was chosen for them. The opt-in/opt-out part is key to success as we all know that people adapt to change when they are decision-makers in the process and not when decisions are made for them.

If you're like me, you probably read much of this and said, "I've been doing that in my school or leadership role already." But the book actually points out that most who are new to this process believe the same thing but then immediately closes this "gateway of thinking" by reminding readers that when we think that we've done it, it's time to look instead at the elements that we are not doing. This is where I found connections to my own work in our schools.

Over the last year, I honestly thought that I've helped my staff and district develop new thinking when it comes to technology. The proof has been shared on our hashtag and even more so in our district meeting when almost every principal declared some form of technology addition in their personal goals. However, when we believe that we see change, it is often that what we see are the moments that are visible. The reality is that those are just moments. Don't get me wrong. We have done some pretty incredible things in a short time with very little and as much as our teachers have been internally inspired, there is definitely room to grow. 

But one question stuck out to me as I considered my school system within the parameters of positive deviance. 

Who owns the learning...the community or leadership?

For real sustainable change throughout an entire system, something must be said for community- owned growth. Don't get me wrong, I did what I thought I needed to do at the time. I polled teachers, talked at schools, listened to our community and even formed a teacher-leadership cohort for those who wanted to be central to our growth. Our specialists led trainings, special initiatives and lent their expertise to every person as needed. We even created some student-driven opportunities and bought technology because it's kind of difficult to have a "digital revolution" with zero access.

But with a new set of eyes, recently opened while reading, it occurred to me that what I created was a more standard approach versus transformative approach—which isn't always terrible, unless you want real systemic change and more importantly, change that is owned and driven by the those within the system.

Remember, the addition of technology doesn't change the culture of a classroom but it can deeply impact access to new information and ideas. Perhaps the best place to start is with the community identifying problems of practice beyond limitations of access, because without this step, the myth of change driven by the magical appearance of technology rings loud and clear in every conversation.

This is where we can begin to understand the thought processes inherent in teaching and learning through a system created by top-down ideologies reliant on experts as designated leaders and the presence of tools, which then become a crutch to change when not present.

For me, this means facilitating a truly enaged community-driven system where people are empowered to share beyond snapshots but truly leaning on "how," while enaging in conversations that help develop processes and inspired actions. The social context of schooling can generally be prohibitive of a space where expertise is seen as collaborative but isn't this what we have come to know as what makes for progressiveness in learning?

Perhaps the answers that we seek are right in front of us, hidden in the minds of our entire school communities. Let us all embark on a journey of unmasking the invisible successes in all of our schools as noted by those who are living it...our teachers and students.

Learn more about The Power of Positive Deviance by checking out the authors' website which includes a free framework ... helpful to those who simply want to interject a few changes in approach, regardless of system.

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The opinions expressed in Creative Disruptions: Lessons on Leading and Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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