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Debunking Deficit-Centered Views of Our Children

 //  Nov 2, 2020

Debunking Deficit-Centered Views of Our Children

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad is the author of Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. In this post, she shares her thoughts on how educators can shift away from deficit-centered views in their own teaching practices.

Every time I work with a new group of teachers, I introduce myself and ask them to tell me their names and the meanings of their names. We then move on to listening to each other’s “name narratives,” which not only describe what our names mean, but also, whether we carry these meanings into our daily lives.

We share stories related to our names that we have collected along the way, and I tell them that my name, Gholnecsar, which is Persian, means “to share beautiful flowers.” Of all the stories I have collected related to my name, one that I often share is the typical first day of school in my K–12 experiences. I always knew when the teacher came to my name on the student roster, because a long pause would occur as the teacher attempted to muster the sounds that started with the letter G. I would slowly raise my hand to indicate I was present with a gentle correction offering the proper pronunciation. And nearly every time, without an attempt to say my name, the teacher would request a nickname to use instead.

When teachers share their name narratives and their identities, the conversation quickly fills with joy, love, and laughter. Some teachers talk about being named after a beloved grandmother, or share the negotiations in which their parents partook, eventually compromising on a name that worked for both of them.   

After sharing names and perhaps a few name narratives, I ask teachers to tell me about the children they teach. I attend closely to their responses. I have come to understand that what they tell me, still a relative stranger, about the children they teach and love speaks to their pedagogical approach. Sadly, some teachers begin with what Eve Tuck (2009) has called “damage-centered” narratives. They begin by cataloging what their students can’t do, or their students’ greatest struggles. Some of the responses I have heard include:

  • “My students can’t read, and they don’t want to write.”
  • “Their test scores are low.”
  • “My students hate reading and never take ownership over their own learning.”
  • “My students are not invested in education and don’t try in class; they lack motivation.”
  • “One kid in my class is particularly problematic. He doesn’t make any attempt to try.”

I’ve noticed that despite all the ways we have the opportunity to introduce an individual who isn’t in the room, some teachers choose to begin with what their students “lack,” instead of focusing on their strengths, as we do when we introduce ourselves and our name narratives. What a contrast. And the students are not present to confirm, deny, or speak for themselves. I wonder how they might feel if one of the most trusted people in their lives introduced them by naming the challenge they struggle with the most—or perhaps, a trait or an experience that they find the most embarrassing. I also have pondered a few other things that could be true of the teaching and learning that takes place in these teachers’ classroom environments:

  1. Their pedagogy reflects a skills-focused way of teaching. Maybe these teachers focused on test prep and worksheets that feature one correct answer.
  2. Literacy is defined as a skill, and the purpose of literacy is defined solely as the ability to read and write.
  3. Motivation seems to be student-centered and not focused on the sociocultural environment that creates the interpretation of the “unmotivated student.”
  4. It is a deficit viewpoint to label particular youths as problems when they find a skill-oriented classroom a challenge. What if doctors labeled patients who are not well as “problems”? This is not to imply that children in schools are sick, but I wonder why we assume all students should come to us as proficient skill-learners.
  5. The discourse around “ownership” and “investment” reflects teaching and learning in a capitalistic society, which could imply that the class is grounded in individualism and competition rather than collaboration and social responsibility for each other’s learning.
  6. The teachers may assume that their students’ low academic achievement is such an all-encompassing challenge that there is no time to mention the rich cultural experiences and values that define their students’ lives—and thus, these qualities are ignored in early conversations.
  7. What the teachers focus on in their introductions of their students reflects what they value in teaching and learning.
  8. The teachers assume that their students are failing, while never questioning whether the school curriculum and their instruction may be failing to meet their students’ needs.

What would it be like if teachers made it impossible for the students to fail? If students tried every day to learn and succeed at school, would they be perceived any differently?

It is also important to note that the teachers did not introduce themselves with their own shortcomings. It is fair to say that we all have struggles and shortcomings. When I work with teachers, I challenge them to do something for me. I ask them each to close their eyes and consider one imperfection they may have. I ask them to think of the one thing they would be most embarrassed about if their colleagues knew; that one thing they desire to keep concealed because it was long a time ago, and they have since changed. I ask them to consider that thing about themselves that they might regret, or prefer to keep hidden.

Then I say, now, what if you were introduced to a group of people who did not fully know you, and your introduction mentioned only this one thing? The discussion of your identity did not reference how incredibly gifted you are, or how much you are committed to your work or all the other ways in which your life is defined.

Typically, we all want others to see us for our greatness, not the aspects of life we struggle with the most. And many students know that while they struggle with school learning and feel badly about it, they still show up at school longing to achieve. I follow this exercise with a charge for teachers to “start over.” I ask them not to begin their students’ narratives in ways that perpetuate what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called “the danger of the single story.” Because, additionally, we then further project fault onto the students rather than attend to debilitating educational systems and structures.

This practice of beginning someone’s story in a deficit way is also present in research articles and reports. I have observed researchers who create problems in their work by basing it on empty statistics that speak to a narrative of failure. The more effective approach would be to begin their stories with the brilliance the youth carry, and not to focus on others’ voices before the voices of the youth. Even more problematic is that marginalized populations, particularly Black and Brown youth, have a history of others focusing on a perceived lack of ability rather than their excellence. Teachers cannot claim to be social justice educators and engage in such behaviors.

Educators who work with youth should strive to understand their personal development, not just their academic development, so that they can see the complete vision of their lives—how well they perform on one standardized assessment is just one aspect. If we stop there, we run the risk of being incomplete with our teaching practices. Teachers should ask themselves, how could I introduce my students to the world in a way that would focus on their modes of learning and their talents? What are their methods of comprehension in their lives? Who are my students outside of their reading and writing skills? How can I authentically use what I know about my students (outside of test scores) to teach them more excellently? If I asked my students how they would like to be introduced, what would they say? How do the ways in which I talk about my students speak to the ways I choose (or don’t choose) to teach?

To debunk and avoid perpetuating deficit-centered views, we must be critically reflective practitioners and interrogate our own ideologies, teaching practices, ways in which we learn, and the ways in which we love ourselves and our students. Finally, we must (re)center our youth in everything we do. Critical reflectiveness is not just thinking deeply about these items, but also questioning them to better understand the distribution and presence of power, privilege, social justice, and oppression. This moves us into a space of treating students in our classroom as if they were our own children, and understanding the more complete narrative of their lives.