By Zeinab Mzungu, Twaweza East Africa

Recently in the 42nd Kenya Secondary Schools Heads Association (KESSHA) conference in Mombasa, Kenya’s Ministry of Education and the Teachers Service Commission colourfully awarded the Principal of the Year Award (POYA) and Teacher of the Year Award (TOYA). In their profiles, the winning teachers had managed, in their own extraordinary way, to drive learning outcomes and produce more outputs and shine among their peers. Yet, we have experienced much outcry about the low teacher motivation, and the fact that very little learning happens in our schools (according to the Uwezo 2015 report). One wonders, then, what drives some teachers to want to work so hard and achieve learning for their classrooms, when the rest are indifferent and less concerned about results? What makes these teachers wake up, and have such formidable thirst for excellence?

To answer these questions, Twaweza East Africa has embarked on an ambitious application of the Positive Deviance (PD) approach to understand positive outliers among educators in Kenya. PD is a research and intervening approach to social and behaviour change that enables the society to discover and adopt successful cases while tapping into their inherent wisdom.   Through PD, Twaweza hopes to unearth successful practices that yield to better performance in public primary schools, especially in counties where poor performance is the established norm. Rather than looking for external solutions, or relying solely on experimental evidence, PD identifies and study successes discoveries of outlier schools, what the schools have tried out, and what then drives their success, despite being disposed to all the inhibiting circumstances faced by failure schools.

The PD study employed a combination of random and purposive sampling to identify the best schools in the worst performing areas. Six schools in three counties were identified following a multi-phased selection process that included desk analysis of Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) performance data, consultations with county education officials and deeper exploration of 14 PD ‘suspect’ schools. The in-depth study utilized interviews, and focus group discussions to collect data from head teachers, teachers, children, education leaders and parents.

Preliminary findings expose three critical secret ‘recipes’ to improving learning. First is community engagement. The PD schools have discovered a way for their communities to particpate – inviting, opening up, and creating platforms for meaningful engagement with parents in ways that created a sense of ‘ownership’ with the school far beyond the ordinary parent-teacher meetings. In these schools, we see inspiring relationships among the head teachers, teachers, boards of management, parents and community members. The results are extra resources and motivating environments for greater accountability, transparency and better performance.

Second, we encounter effective teachers in the PD schools – committed and caring teachers filled with enthusiasm, willingness to learn and with empathy. Pupils appreciate their teachers’ commitment of being punctual to school, regular in lesson attendance, have good subject mastery and are patient to explain concepts to them. The schools had a way of appreciating their teachers, specifically by rewarding performance. Teachers were judged against their holistic nature rather than towards the development of pupils in test scores. Similarly, learner achievement was recognized through subtle and meaningful ways such as a mention at the school assembly, or simple prizes that motivate performance.

Third, PD schools have effective school leaders. The head teachers are decisive, inspire performance and lead by modelling – they demonstrate what good teaching should look like, and expose themselves to judgement by everyone. The head teachers are happy with their role, they recognise that they are only part of a whole; they also recognise the important role of others and make extra effort to ensure that the entire school fraternity is happy in their contribution to learning.

These three ‘secret recipes’ provide us with a good beginning in interrogating the drivers of learning in our public schools. It is the home-grown solutions that have greatest potential for replication and adoption. Moving forward, Twaweza intends to scale up the study and market the positively deviant practices for the improvement of learning in all schools.

Zeinab Mzungu is an intern at Twaweza East Africa. For Feedback, please email or