As instructors, many of us may prioritize the materials and skills that we want students to learn. But studies have shown that too much of a focus on the skills and knowledge that students have yet to develop may perpetuate bias and inequitable learning environments within the classroom (Williams & Toldson, 2020; Garriott, 2020).
Specifically, cultivating a learning environment with assumptions about the skills and knowledge that students lack without finding opportunities to grow them makes instructors become susceptible to operating from a deficit model. These models are particularly problematic as they subscribe to the notion that students and their environments are responsible for their failures instead of acknowledging the role of dominant power structures in constructing those environments.
Instructing from a deficit model lens is especially harmful to marginalized students, overlooking their cultural strengths, diminishing the value of their lived experiences, and invalidating their communities’ sense of agency by assuming that educational institutions are the only “valid” sources of knowledge and rejecting long-standing cultural practices and ways of knowing. A common example of working from a deficit model is an instructor assuming that a first-generation student from a low-income household would not understand certain course materials due to a lack of exposure to “rigorous” curricula.
Often at the root of deficit-based approaches is the belief that if underserved students worked harder, they could achieve just as much or more than their privileged peers. Not only is this belief inaccurate, but it also places unfair expectations on students’ performance. It is important to reject the deficit model because it has the potential to predispose students to disengagement and undermines their success, perpetuating the very systemic oppression that oppresses marginalized students.
Here are some recommendations on how instructors may begin to reflect upon and reject the deficit model within the classroom:
- Foster a growth mindset: Instead of focusing on what students don’t know or can’t do, help students see that their abilities and potential are not fixed. Emphasize that their skills can be developed through effort and practice. Encourage them to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from failure. Provide feedback that focuses on growth and improvement rather than judgment or evaluation.
- Build relationships: Get to know your students as individuals. Find out what their goals, interests, and passions are. Create opportunities for one-on-one interactions, whether through office hours, online chats, or other means.
- Center social interaction and community knowledge: Encourage students to share their perspectives among each other via reflective activities. This often requires a certain level of trust to be established, so be sure to set the tone for the class environment early. Regularly incorporating small group activities and team building could encourage social engagement among students.
- Regularly reflect on your positionality: It is critical that instructor check in with themselves by asking questions such as “what are my salient social identities and how do they impact the way I show up in class and interact with students?”
Ultimately, dismantling deficit thinking requires a great deal of reflection and intentionality. Instructors can benefit from actively learning about how sociopolitical structures impact the conditions of students’ lives, and working with the knowledge that students have developed while navigating such structures. If you are interested in learning more about how to make your classroom practices more equitable and inclusive, check out our workshops or schedule an individual consultation! We welcome you to share with anyone who might benefit from this information.
Garriott, P. O. (2020). A critical cultural wealth model of first-generation and economically marginalized college students’ academic and career development. Journal of Career Development, 47(1), 80-95.
Williams, K.L., & Toldson, I.A. (2020). Reimagining Education as a Point of Resistance (Guest Editorial). Journal of Negro Education 89(3), 193-202. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/802523.