Simple Interactions: The Flu Shot Theory of Change

I hope you’ve had your flu shot already. It’s that time of year, and getting a flu shot is pretty much a must for anyone who is around sneezing and coughing children. In my case, that means my kids at home and the “kids” in my college classroom.

For years, I didn’t know how a flu shot worked. It’s quick. It hurts (only a little). Yet, like magic, it protects us for the rest of the year. As a child, I imagined that a flu shot injected me with some incredibly potent medicine.

So it came as a shock when I eventually learned that there is no medicine in a flu shot—at least not “medicine” in the conventional sense. Instead, it contains benign fragments of flu viruses, which trigger our bodies’ autoimmune systems to produce antibodies. It is these antibodies—not what was originally in the shot—that sustain our immunity to viruses for the remainder of the season. In many ways, the way it really works is even more amazing than the injection of some magical medicine.

If a flu shot can work its “magic” by awakening a biological process that already exists inside a human body, what can we accomplish by identifying, sharing, and growing the good work that is already happening in places where children learn and grow?

For a number of years now, my colleagues and I have worked in mostly under-resourced child development settings (orphanages, low-income child care centers, urban classrooms, and after-school programs in public housing projects) to support the learning and development of caregivers, teachers, and staff. Our work is simple. We do not teach—certainly not in the traditional sense of delivering new knowledge or prescribing best practices. Honestly, we have very little useful knowledge to deliver. None of us knows how to work in these settings, and few of us have the stamina or skillset to be effective in such challenging settings day in and day out. Rather, what we do is support these staff—people that Fred Rogers would admiringly refer to as “children’s helpers.” We help them learn from their own experiences of being with and helping children.

The helpers who have the most experience working with children seldom brag about, describe, or even notice the tremendous skills they have developed intuitively through their labor of love. Their work often goes unrecognized or under-appreciated by administrators and outsiders. Sometimes, they are even criticized or evaluated with tremendous scrutiny, especially when they lack lofty academic credentials (as in the case of caregivers in orphanages and many child care centers.)

For many of them, learning from their own experiences—watching videos of their daily work; analyzing their “moves” when interacting with children; noticing the practices of their peers (and vice versa)—is a new, uplifting, and ultimately growing experience. In fact, it’s such a positive experience that despite most people’s inherent self-consciousness at being observed at their work, we have been granted the enormous privilege of being the fly on the wall (with a camera!) in their classrooms.

Here is a glimpse of what learning together looks and sounds like with our partners in the Teacher’s Innovation Project.

Through this program, public school teachers help young students becoming innovators—rather than consumers—of technology. At the same time, the project helps a group of teachers figure out how they are becoming innovators of teaching and learning.

Does this kind of learning work? Yes. Here’s an example: Once, I was genuinely puzzled at the attentive engagement of a group of rural Chinese orphanage staff as they examined videos of their own practices. I asked one of the caregivers, whose video was much admired by her peers, what value she saw in such learning sessions when she herself was already doing wonderful work. “I didn’t know what I did was of any value,” she said humbly, “so I felt better about my work. But what is more important is that knowing why my work was good gives me a sense of purpose and direction tomorrow.” Even when we are already good at what we do, it still helps to do intentionally what we already do intuitively.

Our research partners at the University of Pittsburgh took this approach to after-school programs in Pittsburgh’s public housing projects. They found that, in addition to staff feeling better about their work, the practices of the program staff actually improved after taking part in these learning communities.

We call this collective body of work “simple interactions.” Those of us with academic credentials from prestigious institutions are often in positions to teach, evaluate, and critique the real work of child development settings. We may feel, as researchers, that our primary contribution is to offer “research-based” prescriptions to inform, guide, or even correct the work of practitioners. What we do not do nearly enough is to apply our knowledge and insight to notice and describe what is already working within everyday practice in challenging real world settings. What consistently emerges from these “simple interactions” efforts is the idea that “finding the good within” can be an empowering and effective strategy to grow the good.

It took my colleagues and me a number of years to realize that this work adopts a theory of change similar to that of a flu shot. We do not need to inject “magical” outside knowledge to improve the practitioners’ work. We need to work from the trust that the practitioners, in their rich experience, already have most of what it takes to help children grow. Our primary job is to bring recognition to such strengths, and to help trigger a process of professional learning that can sustain its own growth, much like how the human body produces antibodies to fend off future viruses.

I recently visited the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, where I looked through the wonderful collection of photographs of Fred Rogers taken by National Geographic photojournalist Lynn Johnson. Next to the photographs was her tribute to Fred, which included this wonderful quote from Fred:

So the greatest thing we can do is to find what is healthy and laudable about somebody else and reflect that to them…. It’s a large assignment, to be able to help people look deep within themselves and find what is wonderful in there, because at the core of everyone is something wonderful….

It would seem that Fred had the idea of a “flu shot” theory of change all along!


Additional Resources

We have linked various sources and connections to our work in this post. There is no shortage of such ideas or processes that build on the “good” and respect the experience of real, everyday people. The following examples have inspired and informed our present work.

  • The “positive deviance” approach from public health sought to identify people whose exceptional positive practices can serve as seeds of change for low-resource communities.

  • The theory and approach of “community of practice” lay out a blueprint and practical processes by which a community of like-missioned professionals can grow their practice together through story sharing.

  • Appreciative inquiry” has a similar approach to identify and affirm the “strengths” that are already present in organizations and programs.



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