Stop Deficit-Model Thinking


This is a guest post by Chris Lehmann, the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, a progressive science and technology high school in Philadelphia, PA. This post was originally published on Chris’s site, Practical Theory.

A few years ago, a vendor for one of the many online tutorial companies was giving a presentation at a principals’ meeting. The vendor was talking about how students could work independently and teachers could get an instant report of all of their deficits.

I raised my hand.

“Does your software have a joy report?”

“Excuse me?”

“How about a passion report? Is there anything in your software that tells me what my students enjoy or are passionate about or are even really good at?”

The conversation didn’t go well from there.

Whether we are talking about students or schools, too much of the conversation about education deals with fixing what is broken. There is article after article about all the weaknesses our students have, where we fall on the international tests, or what schools did not make AYP, or at perhaps the most cruel – which teacher ranked lowest in Los Angeles — an article that may have resulted in a teacher’s suicide. (

And in schools all over America, students are forced to “learn” in a way that befits deficit model thinking. We make sure that students are doubled and tripled up in the subjects they are worst at. Schools are reducing the amount of time students have music and phys-ed and even science so that kids have more time to raise their test scores. It is as if the sole purpose of schooling for many kids is just to make sure that they are slightly less bad at the things they are worst at.

We have created a schooling environment where the sole purpose seems to be to ameliorate the worst of abilities our students have, rather than nurture the best of who they are. We have created a public environment where “reforms” label schools as failing without ever stepping foot in them on the basis of one metric.

This has to stop.

And it has to stop, not because we should accept the current educational landscapes as the best we can hope for, but because the “fix what is broken” model is getting in the way of the evolution we need.

If we want kids to care about their education, we are going to have to encourage their passions.

If we want kids to believe in themselves, we will have to help them build on their strengths, not just mitigate their weaknesses.

If we want parents to believe that we see the best in their children, we have to remember to reach out, not just when something bad happens, but when something good happens too.

And if we are to ask students and teachers and communities to dream big about what they want the future of school to be, we have to ask them to take risks. We have to ask them to see beyond their current structures to envision the possible.

Deficit-model thinking will never get us there.

Yes, we need to make sure that we help kids to mitigate their weaknesses. Yes, we need to make sure that schools are doing right by the kids they teach. But we must do that without creating an environment – in schools and about schools – that makes all of us in school think the worst of ourselves. 

Photo Credit: .:AnnetteB:. via Compfight cc

Year at Mission Hill, Chapter 5: The Eye of the Dragon

missionhillSo much of the language that we know to be valuable in education comes alive at Mission Hill. Art. Empowerment. Choice. Voice. Inspiration. Creativity. Student experts. Student teachers. Community.

Every year they employ a school wide theme that aims for depth and breadth throughout the school. This year’s, “Long Ago and Far Away,” and the students share a seam of study (though not necessarily specific content) that everyone can relate to, no matter the age.

Year at Mission Hill, Chapter 3 Making It Real

missionhillThis chapter opens with the question, “What makes a mind come alive?”

It is an apropos question that is all to often left out of discussions about education and education reform. At Mission Hill it is central to the development of educational experiences for students. Check out this chapter that explores the idea of creating opportunities for students to create, engage, involve, and explore in meaningful ways.

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5 Steps to Overhaul Teaching

Once again, Columbia University professor, Christopher Emdin, puts forth a rapid fire and common sense proposal for rethinking urban — and really ANY — education to ensure it is student focused, relevant, and purposefully engaging.

The basis of this video: Reality pedagogy which is, “Teaching based on the reality of the student’s experience.”

5 C’s of Reality Pedagogy:

  1. The Cypher (or Co-genitive Dialogue)
  2. Co-Teaching
  3. Cosmopolitanism
  4. Context
  5. Content

(Notice that content is last. Students need to know that they come first if there is to be any meaningful delivery of content.)

This post is a part of our series based on our Transformative Learning Model. This piece relates to Student Investment, Context for Learning, Culture, Personalization, and Academic Access.

A Year at Mission Hill, Chapter 2: Beginning the Year

Chapter 2 of A Year at Mission Hill takes us to the start of the year, or as many educators see it, the laying of the foundation. While educators recognize the importance of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic, many see the first days of school as tone setters. In this, the educators at Mission Hill work to build community amongst themselves as learners before the students ever arrive.

By the time the students populate the walls and rooms, teachers are ready to engage the whole child and to work, first and foremost, toward the well-being of each and every student. They talk about providing opportunities for students’ voice to be an authentic and vital piece of the learning experience. They aim for transparency with the kids as an intentional pathway toward helping the students construct understanding.

Take a look at the second chapter below and see how they invest in students early to capture and employ student ownership.

Image: ScreenShot on StartEmpathy’s page from Sam Chaltain’s Prezi

The Antimatter Science Rap

The below video by educator/rapper Mike Wilson (aka Coma Niddy) is a perfect “storm” of things we love at QED.

  1. Content delivered in creative and engaging ways. 
  2. MC2
  3. Mastery of knowledge being demonstrated through music.
  4. MC2
  5. Positive role model for males, students of color, and fans of hip hop.
  6. Oh, and science.

Like this one? Check out more of Coma Niddy on the Coma Niddy University youtube channel.

The Changing Face of the Teaching Force (Infographic)

ingersoll_croppedPop quiz:

Q: What is the current mode for years of experience in the teaching profession in the US? 

A: One.

In other words, ask all teachers how many years they have been teaching and “one” is answered more often than any other number.

The reasons we have come to this are complex (see the below infographic from the work of Richard Ingersoll, Professor of Education and Sociology at Penn GSE). Those reasons aside, the implications for this trend should give us all pause. With an ever increasing percentage of teachers having fewer and fewer years of experience we have both responsibilities and opportunities. We have a responsibility to cultivate conditions in our schools that support and propagate adult learning at the highest level. New teachers need the conditions and support to develop into effective teachers.

At the same time, we have the chance to shape these new recruits into the kinds of teachers that can provide students with meaningful, relevant, and transformative experiences. We have an opportunity (obligation even) and urgency to ensure we  rethink, redesign, and reshape schools into learning communities where students and teachers thrive.



Source of Infographic: The work of Richard Ingersoll at Penn Graduate School of Education

Image: Richard Ingersoll


Gaming and Learning . . . Go Hand in Hand?

Emerging research is continuing to unpack some of the pros and cons of “gaming” on students, learning and behavior. For example, a recent study by Iowa State University professors, Dr. Craig Anderson and Dr. Douglas Gentile, found that prosocial games (defined as ones “in which characters help others in nonviolent ways”) can “increase helpful and decrease hurtful behavior.”  While another study by The Ohio State University professor, Dr. Brad Bushman, concluded that “the negative effects of playing violent video games can accumulate over time.”

Yet categorically qualifying video games as either good or bad effectively limits their potential in learning communities. As Dr. Gentile cautions in his article, The Multiple Dimensions of Video Game Effects:

Digital games are routinely vilified or praised. Critics often cite the research on the effects of violent video games, whereas proponents often cite the research on perceptual skills. The irony is that both the the critics and proponents are correct about the effects that games can have. the flaw is that they extend their arguments to conclude that video games are ultimately harmful or beneficial. Recognizing that games have effects on multiple dimensions allows us a way out of this dichotomous thinking.

That said, gaming is proving to be an invaluable tool in therapy related to “autism, cancer, and other disorders.” And it can be effective in classrooms, especially when used with an intentional focus on the “5 dimensions on which video games can affect players. . . ”

  1. The amount of play
  2. The content of play
  3. The game context
  4. The structure of the game
  5. The mechanics of game play

With these complex, dynamic and even subjective variables in mind, check out this (largely positive) infographic on gaming in education from the folks over at Online Schools. (For a more balanced look at gaming and its effects on the brain, see this post on the All Kinds of Minds blog.)

What are your thoughts? How have you utilized games to increase learning and positivitely affect students and what would you like to see in the future? What should we be cautious of when it comes to gaming and students? We would love for you to share your thoughts and in the comment section below.



Image: Online Schools

Education: A “Putting People First” Endeavor

What makes an educator an educator? Or, more importantly, where does “effective teaching” begin? Is it with standards, content, and resources? Or with relationships, connections, and shared experiences? Or perhaps some combination thereof?

The New York times recently featured a short award winning documentary about Jeffery Wright, a physics teacher in Louisville, KY. The video is moving, not just because he is clearly an inspired and passionate educator, but also because his “antics” stem from someplace deeper than scope and sequence charts, pacing guides, and textbook-based objectives.

While his experiments are entertaining and engage the attention of his students, it is the story behind the man — as a father — that sheds light on what lies beneath simply “teaching” students. Wright says,

“When you look at physics, it’s all about laws and how the world works . . . But if you don’t tie those laws into a much bigger purpose, the purpose in your heart, then (the students) are going to sit there and ask the question ‘Who cares?’”

It is this framing that speaks to the larger challenges of standardized reform — how can we ensure each and every student has access to educational experiences that speak to them individually within the context of a community who cares for them personally? Attentiveness to the people in education systems — and equity for each and every one — is the frontier for achieving the greatest short and long term gains.

At the heart of learning is relationships. To the material, peers, oneself and the lesson provider — whoever that may be: a 4-year old girl, a son with severe special needs, or a teacher. We must cultivate and tend to these relationships lest we forget what is most important — each other.

Side note: The documentary was filmed by 22 year-old photojournalist and filmmaker, Zack Conkle, one of Mr. Wright’s former students.

Image: From Zack Conkle’s “Wrights Law” documentary


Unpacking the Basics of Equity in Education

Equity Protest at UN Climate talksAchieving equitable classrooms, schools, and communities is vitally important, yet much easier said than done.

While educators and education leaders may sometimes feel powerless to affect change on a large scale, they do have control over their local environments — classrooms, schools, and districts. It is here where equity work can, and should, begin.

Below is a video of Rachel Lotan, the Stanford education professor who is director of both the Stanford Teacher Education Program and the Program for Complex Instruction. In it she outlines some of the basics of equitable education as well as some ideas for reframing how we view and envision our systems of education in order to move toward greater equity.

Hat tip to David Cohen, founder of Accomplished California Teachers multi-author blog, for originally sharing this valuable resource. See below for more resources on equity in education and add your own in the comments below. 

For more information about equity work, check out these valuable resources:

Image: Young FoEE, flickr