Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Lose That Deficit Mindset

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I am once again inspired by some of my favorite writers to write a post integrating some of what I have learned from them. Today they’re Barry Dyck and Jesse Stommel

Barry writes on the deficit mindset (it’s a great long quote, so i’m just inserting it as is):

A deficit model of education has been creating generations of people who say, “I’m no good at ________.” This fixed mindset perspective does not happen by accident. Ever hear a teacher say, “I’m no good at ________ referring to a subject area outside her/his speciality?” The traditional notion of “learning” (which is actually schooling), is that the teacher holds knowledge that gets revealed and delivered to students. The teacher holds power, and the student acquiesces, as the narrative holds that this is the way to future life successes.

Curriculum acts as a social filter of what one should (or could) learn. Who makes these choices? Who benefits and who is marginalized or not included? The notion that everyone should know and be able to do the same thing (whatever those “base” things are) completely disregards that learners are unique and individual. Learners who “get it” are viewed as competent and capable, while others are viewed as deficient, some significantly enough to warrant remediation, as though they are “defective” products, not meeting the standards of production.

He is asking questions that a critical approach to curriculum asks. They’re questions every critical educator should ask, continually, as they enact and not only design their curriculum.

Jesse’s blogpost, addressed at Chronicle Vitae’s “Dear Student” series tackles a similar problem (it’s one of the best things Jesse’s ever written, and that’s saying a lot, because I love Jesse’s writing). I’ve only read one of the “Dear Student” pieces and it was extremely irritating. It was full of derisive teacher responses to students asking for a grade change. I know some faculty do this or feel this way, but I was amazed that
A. they felt it was ok to actually collect all these derisive comments and post them all in one place. It was an overwhelming amount of negative energy
B. they could not find a single person like Jesse or myself or any number of other people I know who would have either given a completely different type of answer, or at least responded to students more gently or compassionately. I’m reminded of Jay Leno’s Jaywalking which makes it look like there are no intelligent people on the streets (when I assume they cut out the intelligent responses because they’re just not funny enough).

My point is that the Chronicle Vitae “Dear Student” series was taking a deficit approach to students, and also highlighting insecurities of teachers, thus showing readers a deficit perspective on teachers. At this point, I am not blaming the teachers for thinking this way (well I am, but not solely), but I am blaming whoever was collecting these quotes for highlighting only one perspective of college teachers. Jesse writes

Everyone that comes into even casual contact with Vitae’s “Dear Student” series is immediately tarnished by the same kind of anti-intellectual, uncompassionate, illogical nonsense currently threatening to take down the higher education system in the state of Wisconsin.

The word “entitlement,” used pejoratively about students in two of the four articles, needs to die a quick death. College students ARE entitled — to an education and not the altogether unfunny belittling on display in the “Dear Student” series.

Jesse says he understands that teachers sometimes need to vent, but it should not be in a public place like the Chronicle. In a comment supporting his post, Annemarie says:

I just have to imagine what it would be like to stumble on a professional publication by medical doctors making sarcastic jokes about patients bodies and ailments. It would, for me, be traumatic to see that from people I expect care and compassion from. I think our students should have the same expectations of us.

What a beautiful point to make. I think taking something and comparing it to a more extreme form highlights the dangers so well. I come from a family of doctors, and it is very very rare to hear them or their friends make sarcastic jokes about patients, but it is definitely something they would not dream of doing in public. The worst I can remember of them is talking about patients dispassionately, but that’s not at all the same as making fun of them. Sure, they get frustrated by patients who don’t follow instructions (then again, doctors are themselves the worst patients so i don’t think they have a right to even complain about that one) or who harm themselves or refuse help… But they wouldn’t do it sarcastically in public. That’s just cruel.

But back to the deficit approach. Faculty developers (including me) can fall into the trap of taking a deficit mindset against professors, assuming they don’t care about or don’t want to improve their teaching to what “we” think is best; parents sometimes take deficit approaches towards teachers blaming them for the ills of education; teachers take deficit mindsets towards students and their parents… It’s a cycle of blame, and it is dehumanizing and ignoring people’s agency, but also a cycle of mistrust that needs to be broken.

One of the “Dear Student” pieces was about students’ grandmas dying before exams or something, and the problem with that is, I understand a faculty member getting jaded with the number of students who lie about this kind of thing, but I also can’t imagine how the person whose grandmother really dies would feel… And how a faculty member doesn’t imagine that this might actually ever be the case. I once had a student who kept coming up with excuses for why she kept missing class, a different one each week. It did get to the point where it was difficult for me to believe her, but I did not have it in my heart to call her a liar – I just tried to find a way for her to do the work she was missing, because the point was for her to learn, not to come to class.

The year I was pregnant was a year that was unbelievable, but neither my boss nor my PhD supervisor were ever unkind to me… Not once did one of them question my need to ask for leaves of absence. From the need to rest early in the pregnancy, to the revolution happening in my country, to my father’s accident, to my husband’s illness, to my own threatened miscarriage, to my husband’s illness flaring up, to my father’s death… All in the space of 5 months. I’m just imagining now how a “Dear Student” would have responded to me. I’m so happy to say that there are many more compassionate and kind educators in the world than the “Dear Student” series would imply.

One Comment

  1. Students lie for a reason. For many reasons. My point is that there IS a reason, one that reflects on the institution and its players. In this case it reflects on the need that we seem to have for excuses. You do not need an excuse to miss my class. My colleagues might argue further, “Exactly, you just have to live with the consequences.” Well…I suppose that is true, but truth is that we all have to live with it. We all have to live with the misery that comes from the lies. The lies are consequential to us all. Ask students what they need. I think often that is all they want is for someone to help them address what they need. Sometimes that means they need to not be in school wasting everybody’s treasure–time and money. Sometimes that means they need a respite or a chance to rest and redefine their deadlines. Sometimes I have no idea what it means, but I know calling students liars out of school is the most cowardly proposition. We do need to use a kind of embodied knowing to privately call out students who do not know themselves well enough to know they are self-deluding. That is my hardest job as a teacher. I often feel the most compromised when I am called to that role. Sighs all around and opportunities to fail rise like a high tide in a hurricane, but we must rise to that occasion. But privately. Anything else is just shaming behavior, one of the few qualities I will not tolerate in my students or colleagues. One of the reasons I only read Profhacker in the Chronicle. Know doubt I miss a lot by ignoring most of CHE just as I did by not EVER going to the teacher’s lounge when I taught high school. Well…maybe not.

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