Finding the Bright Spots in Education: Reflecting on the Heath Brothers’ New Book, Switch

“To pursue bright spots is to ask the question ‘What’s working, and how can we do more of it?’  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Yet, in the real world, this obvious question is almost never asked.  Instead, the question we ask is more problem focused: ‘What’s broken, and how do we fix it?’”
–Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard

In education, as in many fields, we spend a lot of time talking about what isn’t working.  Whether we are pointing fingers at the wildly unbalanced distribution of wealth, federal policies, an underwhelming teacher or a student who is wiling, our strategy for making things better seems to be to focus on anything and everything that is broken.

One of the most popular education books of all time is Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities.  This book always pissed me off (which would probably make Kozol happy, as I think this is largely what it was designed to do).  It frustrates me because chapter after chapter, he illustrates how jacked up everything is…  After the first chapter, I felt pretty up to speed on the perfect storm of injustices plaguing our nation’s education system, but the book marches on relentlessly detailing everything that is wrong.  While deftly illustrating the myriad of problems and highlighting few, if any, solutions may lead books to the top of the charts, I wonder whether it contributes to any success beyond their own sales…

Most of us doing the work are aware of the problems.  What about some solutions?

It is in this context that I felt compelled to spend the last several years of my life writing about programs that actually work.  This is what Chip and Dan Heath would call “finding the bright spots.”  In their new book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, the Heath brothers weave together juicy little stories and data snippets to suggest pathways toward personal, institutional and societal change.

The whole book is a quick read and if you enjoy pop non-fiction, I recommend it.  I picked it up after reading an excerpt of it in Fast Company magazine.  The excerpt discusses an interesting approach to reducing malnutrition amongst children in Vietnam.  In doing so, it illustrates the power of focusing our energy on researching, thinking, and writing about the bright spots.

It begins with the story of a guy named Jerry Sternin.  In 1990, Sternin moved to Vietnam on behalf of the international organization, Save the Children.  He was given a minimal budget, a six month deadline and the daunting assignment of making an impact on malnutrition.  A quick study of the obstacles that stood in the way was intimidating–rampant poverty, lack of potable water, limited access to information about dietary nutrition…  This is reminiscent of the magnitude of the challenges those of us in education could rattle off when asked what lies in the way of reforming public education in this country.

Rather than being immobilized by the web of seemingly insurmountable problems, Sternin enlisted the help of mothers in rural villages.  By finding impoverished children who were not malnourished and studying their families’ approaches to food, Sternin and the local mothers were able to identify the bright spots: Families that fed their children four times each day (as opposed to the local custom of two) and added tiny shrimps and sweet potato greens (which were considered a “low-class food”) had heavier, healthier kids.

Great!  Found the fix!  Time to publicize it and make everyone do what those families were doing, right?  Instead of a top down approach from Sternin and his team, malnourished families met in small groups to cook together, with peer educators introducing their findings.  This worked.  Within six months, 65% of the children in the village were better nourished.  The changes families made stuck and were carried on with newborns.  People from other villages would come to observe and participate, eventually returning and implementing a version of the peer education model in their villages.  In this way, the early successes were turned into labs, where others came to learn.

We sometimes “find the bright spots” in the field of education.  But how do we respond to them?  After identifying school designs and instructional styles that have good results, the approach is too often to attempt a literal replication, turning some terrific educators into managers (or even autocrats) and taking too much agency away from others.

As the Heath brothers wrote about the mothers that Sternin collaborated with: “It was their change, something that arose from the local wisdom of the village.  Sternin’s role was only to help them see that they could do it.”  We need more of this in education.

Writing about bright spots may never land any of us a bright spot on the bestseller list (the Heath brothers quote literary critic, Leslie Fielder as once having said, “Lots of novelists have achieved their fame by focusing on marital problems, but there’s never been a successful novel about a happy marriage”).  But my hope is that as people learn about the successes that individual schools in Minnesota, Washington DC or Philadelphia have been experiencing, they will pick up some good ideas and be inspired to take their own steps toward improvement.

Whether you’re a student, a teacher, a writer, a rapper, a producer or something completely different, what percentage of your time do you spend focused on problems?  What would it look like to instead spend that time finding, investing in and scaling the bright spots where success already exists?

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