George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Tools for Teaching: Ditching The Deficit Model

April 2, 2013
Photo credit: iStockPhoto

Children are more than one test, once a year, in one sitting. It seems as if many schools and districts have lapsed into a deep state of amnesia of Maslow's hierarchy of needs -- a possible lingering hangover from NCLB. So here's a radical assertion: When assessing and teaching children, the time has more than come for education to embrace the whole child. This approach calls for schools and educators to curtail the deficit model and replace it with the abundance model.

Let's take a look at the abundance model.

First, unveil the jewels inside each child. Make a list of those jewels (skills, talents and interests). Meet the child where he/she is academically, socially, and emotionally then utilize those jewels through personalized instruction to help that student grow.

I hate to go here, but let's sidetrack for a moment to a school seduced by the pressures of standardized testing. Here's the heavy-handed deficit model they institutionalized: All students were issued ID cards that showed their standardized testing ranks by color. For instance, if you had a black card, the highest test scorers, you received special campus privileges. If you had a white card, the lowest scorers, you received no privileges and even stood in a separate cafeteria lunch line.

Yep, this really happened. Besides the scary labeling and civil rights infringement part, the students at this school were solely seen as standardized test takers -- a flat, non-dimensional view of learners. Ultimately, parents spoke up, state officials stepped in, and the school made national news. (Coincidentally, I attended this high school.)

Building on Strengths and Interests

As teachers, we must evaluate where students are academically, and this includes their literacy and behavioral development as well as content knowledge. And the best way to serve and support those identified areas of need is to use research-based best practices to help students grow and catch up when they are missing information and/or skills.

But what if from there, we used their talents, their abundance of abilities and skills -- those jewels -- to meet those needs?

So, as mentioned before, we must first uncover those hidden interests, talents and skills. Here are a few suggested strategies and activities to do just that:

1. Goal Setting. Ask students to list what they are good at, what they'd like to be better at, and what they can teach others to do. Include a writing activity where students set personal and academic goals, highlighting how the skills and talents they already possess will help them grow and accomplish these goals.

2. What I Know Well. Invite students to teach or share something they are good at with the class. Here are some examples of things I've seen students share: origami, dance steps, a self-defense move, basic guitar chords, cartooning, Photoshop.

3. My Learning Inventory. Ask students to list all they ways they learn best: by doing, by reading, by drawing, by seeing, by creating.... Also, have them list the things that have made their learning memorable (possible answers: "a good book," "a nice teacher," "a fun assignment"). Ask them to also include things that may interfere with their learning (possible example, "if something is too hard").

4. Artifact from My Life. Students choose something precious to them, an item that has value (personal not monetary). Create an assignment where the students bring the item to class (a photo, an award, baby shoes). They can write about it and then share in small groups why the item is so special.

5.Takeaways. Remember that critical to the learning process is self reflection. Provide students with an opportunity to name and celebrate their own "takeaways" -- all that they have gained from a specific learning experience.

These activities will give teachers important information about their students -- positive data -- that can be put to use when designing lessons and assessments, differentiating instruction, and working one on one with a student. Cooperative learning, as a routine in our classrooms, will also help in highlighting strengths and deflecting deficits. For such learning, teachers need to remember to let go and let kids explore and discover together, teaching each other and feeling safe and valued enough to take risks while they learn. I'd much prefer my students engaged and invested in the learning than getting all the "right answers."

Teachers: How do you apply the abundance model in your classroom? Administrators: How do you utilize it with the teachers you support? Please share with us in the comment section.

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