In this post we will look at the work of Atul Gawande and his 2007 book - Better : A surgeon's notes on performance - and his recommendations on how to be a positive deviant. Gawande is the author of a number of best-selling books, with his most recent being the The Checklist Manifesto and Being Mortal - Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End, and is a surgeon in a Boston hospital, a Professor at the Harvard Medical School and a writer for the New Yorker.
So what does it look like to be a positive deviant?
Gawande has five suggestions for becoming a positive deviant?
1. Ask an unscripted question
On a day to day basis teaching involves hundreds of individual interactions with both pupils and colleagues. Some of these interactions may be scripted, through the use of lesson plans, schemes of work or carefully planned meeting agendas. With this in mind, one would hope that there would be plenty of time to ask unscripted questions to find out what's really going on for our pupils and colleagues. Indeed, finding out what's really going for our pupils is an essential part of a number of processes - spirals of inquiry and strategic inquiry - and which should form part of the school research lead's repertoire
2. Don't complain
Throughout my own career in education, there were plenty of things I complained about. I'm sure that many of you will agree with the me, that when teachers get together to talk about the profession - the tendency is to talk about what is not working, rather than what is. However, as Gawande states : Resist it. It's boring, it doesn't solve anything, and it will get you down. You don't have to be sunny about everything. Just be prepared with something else to discuss: an idea you read about, an interesting problem you cam across .... just keep the conversation going.
3. Write something
Gawande states : It makes no difference whether you write five paragraphs for a blog, a paper for a professional journal, or a poem for a reading group. Just write. Gawande argues that you should never underestimate the impact writing has both yourself and your world. Gawande found thorough his own writing that he maintained his sense of purpose as medical practitioner, which may otherwise have been lost through the grind of day to day work. He also argues by writing you make yourself part of a larger world. Indeed, in the context of teaching and the emerging College of Teaching this may never have been so important. From my own personal experience I would add - spend some time learning how to write better (and I know my own writing can be much improved) and read books such as On Writing Well by William Zinsser.
Gawande argues that individual respond to change in one of three ways. You have early adopters, if you have later adopters and there are some who are permanent sceptics and never adopt new ideas at all. Gawande argues that you should make yourself an early adopter, although he is not arguing you should adopt every new fangled idea. That said, you should be willing to reflect on your practice, identify what could be working better and find new ways of working. As Gawande says : As successful as medicine is, it remains replete with uncertainties and failure. This is what make it human, at times painful, and also worthwhile. (p257) For me the same could be so easily said of education.
5. Count something
Count the number of students who find a particularly topic difficult. Count the number of students who are having difficulty meeting homework deadlines. Count the number of Y7 pupils who have had difficulties in English and maths, and which feeder school they come from. As Gawande states : If you count something interesting, you will learn something interesting (Gawande, 2007 p 255) So ignore David Didau's advice to resist, with all your might, the temptation to slap numbers on to your idea in an attempt to justify why it’s good; this is cargo cult science.
And I agree, education is not medicine, but that doesn't mean we cannot learn from medical practitioners and how they go about their work. As is often said: a teacher from late 19th century would recognise today's classrooms, but would a 19th century surgeon recognise today's operating theatres. In other words, over the last 100 years which of the two professions has made the most progress.
Some final words
I'm going to end this post with Gawande's own closing words, to be a school research lead or evidence-informed teacher who is a positive deviant ... find something new to try, something to change. Count how often you succeed and how often you fail. Write about it. Ask people what they think. See if you can keep the conversation going (p257).