Stop Deficit-Model Thinking

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This is a guest post by Chris Lehmann, the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, a progressive science and technology high school in Philadelphia, PA. This post was originally published on Chris’s site, Practical Theory.

A few years ago, a vendor for one of the many online tutorial companies was giving a presentation at a principals’ meeting. The vendor was talking about how students could work independently and teachers could get an instant report of all of their deficits.

I raised my hand.

“Does your software have a joy report?”

“Excuse me?”

“How about a passion report? Is there anything in your software that tells me what my students enjoy or are passionate about or are even really good at?”

The conversation didn’t go well from there.

Whether we are talking about students or schools, too much of the conversation about education deals with fixing what is broken. There is article after article about all the weaknesses our students have, where we fall on the international tests, or what schools did not make AYP, or at perhaps the most cruel – which teacher ranked lowest in Los Angeles — an article that may have resulted in a teacher’s suicide. (http://articles.latimes.com/2010/sep/28/local/la-me-south-gate-teacher-20100928)

And in schools all over America, students are forced to “learn” in a way that befits deficit model thinking. We make sure that students are doubled and tripled up in the subjects they are worst at. Schools are reducing the amount of time students have music and phys-ed and even science so that kids have more time to raise their test scores. It is as if the sole purpose of schooling for many kids is just to make sure that they are slightly less bad at the things they are worst at.

We have created a schooling environment where the sole purpose seems to be to ameliorate the worst of abilities our students have, rather than nurture the best of who they are. We have created a public environment where “reforms” label schools as failing without ever stepping foot in them on the basis of one metric.

This has to stop.

And it has to stop, not because we should accept the current educational landscapes as the best we can hope for, but because the “fix what is broken” model is getting in the way of the evolution we need.

If we want kids to care about their education, we are going to have to encourage their passions.

If we want kids to believe in themselves, we will have to help them build on their strengths, not just mitigate their weaknesses.

If we want parents to believe that we see the best in their children, we have to remember to reach out, not just when something bad happens, but when something good happens too.

And if we are to ask students and teachers and communities to dream big about what they want the future of school to be, we have to ask them to take risks. We have to ask them to see beyond their current structures to envision the possible.

Deficit-model thinking will never get us there.

Yes, we need to make sure that we help kids to mitigate their weaknesses. Yes, we need to make sure that schools are doing right by the kids they teach. But we must do that without creating an environment – in schools and about schools – that makes all of us in school think the worst of ourselves. 

Photo Credit: .:AnnetteB:. via Compfight cc
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Comments

  1. I am so happy to read this. So happy it has brought me to tears. I have talked and worked and reminded and bought books and given books TRYING TO GET ADMINISTRATION AND MY POLITICIANS to listen. HOW can we make this happen?? If there is a collection of people gathering to discuss this I want to be there (and not just electronically…in person!)
    Sonja Dziedzic
    Middle School Art Teacher of over 25 years
    Park Ridge, IL
    sdziedzic@d64.org

  2. Joanne Roark says:

    It’s never been more important than now to remind kids they are the sum of their strengths not their weaknesses!

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