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Tools for Teaching: Ditching The Deficit Model

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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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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Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS's picture

Everyone is a teacher! Everyone is a learner! Let's invite kids to notice when someone is struggling, then ask if they need help, and if so, help (scaffold) that person by working alongside him or her for awhile, demonstrating, modeling. LESSONS FROM CHILDREN! (which is also the name of my upcoming teacher memoir).

Megan Bodie's picture
Megan Bodie
2nd Grade teacher from Pennsylvania

So many times in classrooms, I see teachers who refuse to view their students as individuals. Teachers pass out worksheets and expect each student to complete it. Those days are long gone! Today's teachers much be flexible and uncover each student's strengths and weaknesses. Teachers must take time to really know their students on an individual level in order for them to succeed.

We can not put regular gas into a Porche an expect it to perform at optimum capacity nor can we put the same tasks in front of each student and expect success from all. Each student is different and learns in different ways. As teachers, we must find those ways and help each student!

In my classroom, students are given choices to the tasks they complete. This my be done in the form of a tic-tac- toe board, stations, etc. Students perform better when given control over their learning. My students complete centers that are all based around the same skill but are set at various levels. The centers challenge my high students while allowing my lower students to complete the take without frustration. If students become frustrated they will shut down for the day.

TEACHheartSOUL's picture
I have always been a teacher and a learner.

It's so important to begin working with students at the point of what they know. Beginning with an expectation that they have a knowledge and skill base from which to launch their learning is essential to their future success. It is sometimes so easy to find the deficits and weaknesses of our students, and to focus our energies there, but they will make the most gains when we discover their strengths and talents and use them to stretch their knowledge and skills.

TEACHheartSOUL's picture
I have always been a teacher and a learner.

It's so important to begin working with students at the point of what they know. Beginning with an expectation that they have a knowledge and skill base from which to launch their learning is essential to their future success. It is sometimes so easy to find the deficits and weaknesses of our students, and to focus our energies there, but they will make the most gains when we discover their strengths and talents and use them to stretch their knowledge and skills.

R. Chapman's picture
R. Chapman
Second Grade Teacher from Michigan

First of all, we teachers need to find our students' strengths so that we may build upon these to increase their knowledge. Unfortunately, most schools are now driven by high-stakes tests. The test my students take in October isn't even standardized; it changes year after year. In fact, since NCLB, it seems as if many schools in my state, especially county, are actually doing worse! Anyway, I will never teach to just one test, once a year. Instead, I show my students that I care about them as individuals and get to know them on an academic, a social, and a personal level. I strive to build on my students' strengths and interests.

During my word study time, my students work at stations to practice reading and writing their words in a way that works best for them. During reader's workshop, my students choose "just right books" from an abundance of genres while they independently practice the strategies learned during the mini-lesson (based on the core curriculum). During writer's, they all write in the same genre but utilize their own personal experiences and interests. In math, however, I am still working on getting a math workshop started; I have been to a few conferences about it, but just can't seem to get it going. We have just begun a new math program this year, and I struggled jumping right into a workshop. I use computer software to differentiate but only get to the computer lab a few times a week. Our homework is differentiated, but I just have not been able to start small guided math groups. I used to have centers for students while I worked with small groups, but this tended to get too noisy for me and my hearing is awful; I am deaf in one ear.

I'll keep plugging away, though! I like to make every minute count with my students--with or without high-stakes tests!

Luria Learning's picture
Luria Learning
3rd Grade Teacher and Founder of Luria Learning

Thank you for reminding us to see what kids are doing instead of what they can't do yet!

I have been using the super improver wall from Whole Brain Teaching for the past two years with a lot of success. All students are encouraged to make improvements and earn stars (which are just stars made with a marker, nothing more) for improving.

Improvements can be in behavior, test scores, reading, kindness or anything! If a student's high score is a 12/20 on the spelling test, the week they earn 13, they earn a star. The student knows that their goal is 13 correct. This is an attainable goal. The next week their goal is 14 correct.

On the other hand, my student who normally gets 20/20, has to get a perfect score to earn a star. Every child is challenged at their own level to make improvements!

Thanks for the wonderful article. All children have skills and talents!

LAvida's picture
middle school SpEd teacher from LA

The glass is definitely half full! It was refreshing to read your article as I have been thinking a lot about meeting students where they are and embracing their strengths and areas of interest. My course work in educational therapy has really made me reflect on my dual role as an educator - one where I can identify students' academic needs, and the other where I celebrate with streamers and balloons to praise their individual successes. Part of the role of an ET is to listen to the child, all while cheering them on in order to encourage their perseverance and motivation. It is always so much more motivating for the student and us as teachers to focus on the whole child and all of the wonderful attributes, knowledge, and experience that he or she brings to the table.

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