From Average to Exceptional: Why Outliers Matter

“If we study what is merely average, we will remain merely average”

Psychologist Shawn Achor in a hillarious and wildly inspiring TED talk.

Walking into the shady classroom of the second school we visited last friday, we were disappointed to find only a handful of young, primary school students, one teacher and a parent inside. The two-classroom school in the community of El Terrero, adorned in blue and white colours of the Nicaraguan national flag, as all of the country’s schools are, was recently built as a joint project between Pencils of Promise and Seeds of Learning – two NGOs working to improve education and promote community cohesion in the Matagalpa region of Ciudad Dario.

The surface reason seemed to be that the teacher had fallen ill in the last few days and while the kids were welcome to return to school by now, this news had not yet reached most parents. You see, here, in the rural, dusty part of Nicaragua, people don’t have Blackberries and IPhones to keep them connected around the clock to their friends, social networks and school directors. Here, where fresh water, electricity and concrete walls are more rare than a Republican pro-abortion rally, even mobile phone coverage for those who do possess an early brick-style version of a Nokia or Siemens rip off, is hard to come by. Here, news of a school reopening travels Chinese whispers style, from home to home and mouth to mouth.

Much of the instigation of just such a message is done by Eddie, the quarter decade in service Director of the national Nuclear Rural Schools program Núcleo Educativo Rural (NER). He is in charge of a total of eleven primary and secondary schools in the Ciudad Dario Matagalpa region.

Slow communication channels were not the only reason that the El Terrero school sat all but empty on the scorching hot, dry-season day. Our visit happened to be in the late morning and, although the Nicaraguan government is said to be against afternoon education, partly because they prefer kids to come to school ready, clean and fed from home, not sweaty and tired from the fields, this community prefers to send their kids to school later in the day.

“Hmm, that is pretty unusual in my experience. Many parents we’ve spoken to like the early morning as the kids can come back later in the day to help out with household chores”, was the reaction of one NGO worker.

This may be so, but according to Eddie, this just is not the case in El Terrero. What’s really surprising is the effect that this outlier has on the kids’ education. Eddie does not know exactly why, but he can attest to the fact that this community outshines all others. Not only do they send the most kids through to secondary school, a privilege that only reaches 35% of the kids in the country,  but those who do make it outperform even the brightest of sparks from their neighbouring communities.

We discussed this anomaly with a USAID Team Lader for Health and Education in Nicaragua the next day and speculated on the possible reasons for this alleged performance. Perhaps the parents are happier because their kids finish their work in the morning, easing the adults’ burden earlier in the day and the children’s anxiety later in the afternoon. Perhaps the morning toiling is not tiring, but, instead, the early exercise kickstarts the children’s day, so they concentrate better when they do get to school. Perhaps the teachers focus better in the afternoon without knowing it themselves. It may well be a combination of all these factors or it could be none of them.

Bottom line is, we just don’t know. Yet, If Eddie’s statistics are correct, they illustrate how important local factors are in education and its outcomes. In that case, shouldn’t getting to the bottom of this positive aberration of superior performance be a priority? I mean, nation-wide and regional stats used by most governments, donor agencies and NGOs that tend to measure average enrolment, attendance and graduation rates, are useful to an extent. But outliers such as El Terrero, should not be simply swallowed up and normalised within a large database. Instead, they need to be qualitatively investigated and used as case studies on which to design policies that build not average communities, average schools and average students, but exceptional ones.

Have you had experiences with local level project or community data that challenges widespread accepted wisdoms in policy and social circles and outperform the designed systems? .Please leave a reply below.

Ioulia Fenton leads the food and agriculture research stream at the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD. 

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