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Knowledge Doesn’t Change Behavior; Practice DOES

February 28, 2013

The NYTimes articles on “Fixes” are almost always provocative, and today’s essay, “When Deviants Do Good” by Tina Rosenberg is a case in point. The “deviants” in question are statistical  deviants: individuals who’s outcomes vary in a positive way from others in a comparable situation. Rosenberg’s article described how Save the Children staffers dealt with malnourishment in Viet Nam. The Save the Children team, instead of imposing some kind of new dietary regimen, identified extremely poor families whose small children were well nourished despite their parents’ low income. The Save The Children team identified these children using a very inexpensive method: they weighed and physically examined them. They then talked to the parents of those children whose weight was acceptable and asked them about their child’s diet… and found that their diets and their practices were different from that of their cohort group: instead of feeding their children only rice, they fed them an adult menu that included small crabs and sweet potato greens… and they fed them even when the children were battling diarrhea. When they arranged forums to share this information with all the very poor parents, they discovered that some members of  this cohort adopted the new practice without coaching while others needed additional support. In the words of one of the team members: “Knowledge doesn’t change behavior, practice changes behavior.” The researchers also realized that practice could not be imposed by outsiders. Instead, it needed to be developed within the cultural norms of the village. So,

They convened meetings of villagers to discuss how best to spread the behaviors. The villagers decided that parents of malnourished children would gather with their children daily at a neighbor’s house for two weeks. Each family had to collect a handful of shrimps, crabs or greens and bring it to the gathering. With a trained health volunteer, the families cooked meals using the nutritious foods and tried out the new practices. If they didn’t become habit and the children were still malnourished, the families could do another two-week cycle the next month. “Trying something new always makes you a little scared. People got confidence through their peers,” said Monique.

The article then described how this process was applied to over 250 villages throughout the countryside, noting that each village had its own unique set of “positive deviances”. After all, a village in the mountains might not have sweet potatoes and small shrimp. Later,  hospitals experiencing difficulties with the transmission of viruses… with the same positive results.

I read this and immediately thought of how public education is coming at “reform” in a completely wrongheaded fashion. Public education is so caught up in “accountability” and attempting to find the “one-best-way” that we are not accepting the reality that what works in one school or one set of districts won’t necessarily work in another. The test-based accountability model focuses on “what’s wrong” instead of what’s right and the “one-best-way” mentality causes us to focus on one practice that can be universally applied instead of accepting small idiosyncratic practices that work in one school, district, or region. The common core state standards, the standardized testing, and the state accountability models are antithetical to meeting the unique needs of each child in their unique environment.

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