On Twitter the other day, I saw a great quote from Jerry Sternin. He said, ""It's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting." Sternin proved the value of learning by doing in an amazing project on malnutrition in Vietnam, while he and his wife were working for Save the Children. Most efforts to combat malnutrition in developing nations focused on big problems/solutions such as education, infrastructure, sanitation, etc. Sternin took a different approach. He talked to many families there, and he discovered that some children were better nourished than others, though they did not have higher incomes. These mothers had adopted a different approach to meals. What did he do? He asked the malnourished families to prepare meals alongside these moms who had discovered a better approach. The malnourished families learned by doing. Sternin had much more impact on their behavior than previous programs. Dan and Chip Heath explained in a column for Fast Company some time ago:
He (Sternin) knew that telling the mothers about nutrition wouldn't change their behavior. "Knowledge does not change behavior," he told us in the spring of 2008 (Sternin passed away in December of that year). "We have all encountered crazy shrinks and obese doctors and divorced marriage counselors." The mothers would have to practice it. They'd have to act differently until the different started to feel normal.
The community designed a program in which 50 malnourished families, in groups of 10, would meet at a hut each day and prepare food together. The families were required to bring shrimp, crabs, and sweet-potato greens. The mothers washed their hands with soap and cooked the meal together. Sternin said that the moms were "acting their way into a new way of thinking." Most important, 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, that they could conquer malnutrition on their own.
Dozens of experts had analyzed the situation in Vietnam, agonizing over the problems — the water supply, the sanitation, the poverty, the ignorance. They'd written position papers and research documents and development plans. But they hadn't changed a thing. Six months after Sternin's visit to the Vietnamese village, 65% of the kids were better nourished — and they stayed that way.