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A Pathway to Success

While there certainly is a pathway to educational success in our public schools, it is evident that this road remains too narrow for many students to travel. Efforts to expand educational opportunities through regulatory models have not resulted in significant success, nor, have procedural and structural changes expanded the road of success to a growing number of African American and Latino students. A new approach to broaden this pathway may be through strength-based school change initiatives, generally, and specifically, through the application of Positive Deviance. Positive Deviance is an approach suggesting that within every community there are certain individuals who are deviating from the norm and behaving in such a way as to provide insight on how previously intractable problems can be solved. 

So, what does Positive Deviance (PD) look like in actual terms? How do we move from theory to practice in real time with real results? One example that tugs both at the heart and mind is The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. (View Last Lecture video below). Randy, while both a scholar and a practitioner, was most of all a teacher. It is from this perspective, teaching, where his Positive Deviance was most obvious. While PD is unique in so many ways, it is particularly distinct by promoting change from the ground-up. If we want to improve our schools, take a look at what teachers and other stakeholders are doing both in and around the school-community.

A Tinkerer at Life: Dr. Pausch was a tinkerer at life where he pushed, poked, and pulled to get the very best out of himself and those around him. While Randy exhibited numerous PD teaching examples, here are four:

(1) Always use clichés. Randy's thinking about the use of clichés is certainly uncommon, especially at a time when so many people try to be trendsetters by attempting to invent new terms, phrases, ideology, and expressions. This is most obvious when it comes to school reform and student learning. Everyday there seems to be a new approach or slogan that is being promoted to improve our schools. Randy's view was that clichés can inspire and motivate students and that clichés can help students, regardless of age, navigate the challenges they face each day. His approach deviated from current practices which are so often filled with empty promises and limited support. Pausch believed that clichés grounded students, by helping them to visualize the accumulated wisdom of the past in simple, yet powerful ways. Randy was a Positive Deviant because he was not in vogue. He felt that teaching was as much an art as science and that clichés helped to convey a set of values driven by the very best of who we are or what we might become. Clichés were not something to be avoided but represented our great and wondrous past. This is not to suggest that Pausch was bound by clichés from the past only; he was also a fan of pop culture. I don't mind when my children watch Superman, not because he's strong and can fly, but because he fights for "truth, justice and the American way." I love that line.


(2) Being Sorry. Most teachers today are familiar with collaborative teams and professional learning communities to improve relationships and increase trust, while encouraging dialogue around the teaching and learning process. Most of these approaches are accompanied by intensive and extensive training and professional development. For Randy Pausch improving relationships and increasing collaboration were not very complicated. Randy was much more into the little things that we can do immediately and not necessarily a big fan of major structural and procedural changes. Using a baseball metaphor you could say that Randy appreciated small ball over home run hitters.

Here are a few of Randy's thoughts on the subject: Apologies are not pass/fail. I always told my students: When giving an apology, any performance lower than an A really doesn't cut it . . . Working in groups was crucial in my classes, and friction between students was unavoidable. Some students wouldn't pull their load . . . By mid-semester, apologies were always in order.

Even though Dr. Pausch's students were college age, in one of the most prestigious University's in the country, Randy felt it was necessary to carefully, but unambiguously instruct his students on why personal apologies, when appropriate, promote team and relationship building. Randy's outline for a proper apology included three parts:

  1. What I did was wrong.
  2. I feel badly that I hurt you.
  3. How do I make this better?

Randy would tell his students that some individuals will take advantage of you but he suggested most will come around if you have both faith and patience.

(3) Saying Thank You. Dr. Paush would tell his students that behaving with gratitude is one of the most powerful, positive things that human beings can do for each other and that the practice of handwritten thank you notes is the easiest way to do this. In an age of emails, voice, and text messaging, writing a personal note with pen and paper is both symbolically and substantively more meaningful. Randy said it this way: Despite all that is now going on in my life and with my medical care, I still try to handwrite notes when it's important to do so. It's just the nice thing to do. And you never know what magic might happen after it arrives in someone's mailbox.

(4) Be the First Penguin. Dr. Paush would organize many of his classes by teams and at the end of each semester he would honor one team with The First Penguin Award – a stuffed penguin. The award would go to the team that took the biggest gamble in trying new ideas, projects, etc., while failing to achieve their stated goals. According to Randy, it was an award for glorious failure and it celebrated the use of imagination in a daring way. For Randy and his students, First Penguin winners were losers who were definitely on the road to success. The title of this award is based on the behaviors and practice of Penguins – but only certain Penguins; the Positive Deviants. The story is that when Penguins are about to jump in the water that might contain predators, someone must be the first Penguin. It is this Penguin that has the internal courage and sprit to risk everything. The story of the Penguin describes behaviors that are internally driven and celebrates risk and encourages students to attempt hard things and not to worry about failing…failure is not just acceptable, it's often essential.

How's that for Positive Deviance? In an era of tests, externally driven reform, individual and collective dependency, and standards that are often viewed as arbitrary, Randy Paush left a legacy for teachers and the entire school community that common sense combined with a good heart can provide a pathway that is wide enough for all students to travel.