Positive deviance: learning from positive anomalies

Paul G. LeMahieu (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Stanford, California, USA)
Lee E. Nordstrum (RTI International, Edina, Minnesota, USA)
Dick Gale (Institute for Teaching, California Teachers Association, San Diego, California, USA)

Quality Assurance in Education

ISSN: 0968-4883

Publication date: 6 February 2017



This paper is one of seven in this volume, each elaborating different approaches to quality improvement in education. The purpose of this paper is to delineate a methodology called positive deviance.


The paper presents the origins, theoretical foundations, core principles and a case study demonstrating an application of positive deviance in US education, specifically dealing with the problem of high school dropout prevention in a California school district.


The six phases of this “asset-based” improvement approach are: define the organizational or community problem and desired outcomes; determine common practices relevant to the problem; discover uncommon but successful behaviors and strategies that solve the problem (the positive deviants), through inquiry and observation; design an action learning initiative based on findings; discern (monitor) progress of the initiative by documenting and evaluating regularly; and disseminate results through sharing, honoring and amplifying success stories.


Few theoretical treatments and demonstration cases are currently available on commonly used models of quality improvement from business, manufacturing and other fields that have potential value in improving education systems internationally. This paper fills this gap by elucidating one promising approach. By facilitating a comparison of the positive deviance approach to other quality improvement approaches treated in this volume, the paper provides added value.



LeMahieu, P., Nordstrum, L. and Gale, D. (2017), "Positive deviance: learning from positive anomalies", Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 25 No. 1, pp. 109-124. https://doi.org/10.1108/QAE-12-2016-0083

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