The approach originated in Vietnam in the 1970s, where multiple efforts to address childhood malnutrition had proved fruitless.  But then someone noticed that children in one village looked extraordinarily well nourished. They found that these children were being fed on a diet other villages thought was better suited to animals. In two years, by getting the ‘positively deviant’ villagers to share their practices, childhood malnutrition in Vietnam fell by 85%.

I am a member of a group of researchers who have delivered The Future Ready Grads Project, working with four NZ universities, supported by AKO Aotearoa, and with the advice of the New Zealand Association of Graduate Employers, we have used the approach to investigate university teaching. We set out to find unusual teachers who were successfully developing complex capabilities in their courses.

We hear much about the 4th Industrial Age and, as educators, we know that to thrive in the future, today’s graduates need to be many things: lifelong learners, open minded, global citizens, adaptive, flexible, creative and able to innovate, to name a few. Universities have embraced this thinking in the development of graduate profiles that promise students the opportunities to develop ‘future-ready’ capabilities. Teachers are generally on-board with this idea, but say they are uncertain about how to educate students who are expected to know more, do more and, importantly, become more.

The Future Ready Grads Project began by identifying the common features of strong portable transformational learning. We found that because standard teaching methods were developed at a time when university education was about conceptual knowledge, they were no longer sufficient. To put it bluntly, we can teach people so they know more or we can teach people in ways that allow them to emerge as capable, principled and confident nascent professionals. It’s all about how we design our courses and engage with our students. This shift from a focus on teaching discipline knowledge to teaching capabilities within the context of a discipline involves a radical move away from traditional teaching.

Additionally, teachers, like the parents of hungry children in Vietnam, are subject to pressures, that make changing the way they teach difficult. These include already having full curricula; being under pressure to publish their research; assessment requirements; course approval processes, an unclear license to be creative and a risk averse culture. Some teachers say they and their colleagues do not possess the capabilities they are supposed to teach; and/or are unsure how to teach them. All of them are under pressure and are time poor.

Our team followed two prongs of research at once.  One prong reviewed the (vast) literature while the other focused on finding and interviewing unusually successful teachers. Through the literature we identified four principles necessary for transformational learning and developed a new, but universally and easily applicable, pedagogical framework. We also identified the teaching practices that served each of these principles.

To validate our work, we checked in with the growing sample of positive deviant teachers. Thankfully, they were enthusiastic in their endorsement of the principles we had outlined, identified additional practices that served each principle, and confirmed that they could utilise the framework within the constraints of their credit courses.

I found the interviews with positive deviant teachers a revelation. It was a real privilege to hear how they had designed their courses and how they approached their teaching. You can read about one of our teachers here

Although the positive deviant teachers came from a range of disciplines and occupied a range of roles, they seemed to share a common mindset. They focused on students’ likely needs, were committed to the learning of all their students, had a seemingly immovable conviction that their teaching was vital and made a difference, and finally, they listened, learned and collaborated with their students.

It has been a privilege to lead such an important project that has the potential to help deal with one of the most pressing issues in tertiary education today; preparing graduates for the workplace of tomorrow. In my 20 years’ experience of developing graduates’ business and employability attributes, this has been one of the most rewarding research journeys.

I am keen to share our work, which is why we have developed six different workshops and a host of tools, case studies and guides. All are freely available through our website, ready for people to use. The people who have attended our workshops have left buzzing with good ideas. The principles and practices are easy to learn and are designed purposely for busy people. I encourage you to consider using these resources in an effort to help your students become Future Ready.

Professor Susan Geertshuis BA(hons), PhD, AFBPS, CPsychol, FHERDSA, PFHEA.
Professor of Lifelong Learning,
Graduate School of Management,
The University of Auckland Business School


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