The greatest deficiency in education is our obsession with showcasing deficits.

focus image final

This August marks the first time in 15 years that I didn’t have an official first day of school. Instead, this August, I transitioned to full-time educational consulting and I had numerous “first days” of school at districts in the Chicagoland area and elsewhere in the country.

As I wrap up my first month of consulting, I have one overarching takeaway: in every building, in every district, in every city, in every state, there are administrators, teachers, and students who are so passionate about learning that you can feel the positive energy in the room. It’s humbling. It’s heartwarming. It’s inspiring.

Yet, what I also see are lots of educators and students who frequently second guess themselves, continuously ask for permission to do anything, or who render themselves silent in large groups and appear to have “given up.” However, behind closed doors, these are the same educators and students who are overflowing with enthusiasm and have a wealth of knowledge.

Naturally, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the strikingly similar behaviors both adult educators and student learners demonstrate in our current educational system. What causes passionate learners to become apathetic toward their passion? Why do students and adults alike ask for permission to learn? And, I keep coming back to one simple conclusion.

The Deficit Model of Education Has Worn Us All Down

Focusing on the deficits (or the kinder term, areas for growth) of students, teachers, and administrators is the go-to in education. We spend so much time beating ourselves up about the areas data shows we need improvement that we forget about our strengths. And, no one is pointing them out to us.

Our expectations are flawed. In theory, all students are expected to master all standards. All teachers are expected to be proficient at numerous criteria in a variety of categories, and all administrators are expected to cross every t and dot every i, always.

When a student, teacher, or administrator demonstrates expertise in one area (i.e. a student is strong in reading, a teacher is strong in curriculum mapping, an administrator has strong parent communication) we give them a quick pat-on-the-back and then immediately present them with their deficit (student- you need to work on math computation, teacher you need to differentiate, administrator- you need to improve student test scores).  Instead of celebrating someone’s strength and recognizing how this strength could help build the capacity of the entire organization, we treat individual’s strengths like items on a checklist. ✅

But, strengths are worthy of more than a check.

What if, instead of focusing on what students can’t do, teachers won’t do, or administrators didn’t do, we focus on what we can all accomplish together? How might education look different?

We need to find systems to authentically detect individual’s specific strengths, share these strengths publicly, and create a culture where we tap into each other’s strengths to build each other’s capacity ultimately benefiting our organizations and the field of education on the whole. We need to retrain our minds to start looking for the skills and qualities that set people apart and focus solely on that. 

One idea that can work if properly implemented is something I refer to as a reverse pineapple chart. The traditional pineapple chart is a popular system of professional learning that allows teachers to invite one another into their classrooms for informal observation. The chart is set up in a common location: the teacher’s lounge, the copy room, hallway, etc.

What I propose is that rather than putting the onus on ourselves to promote our own strengths, we create a reverse pineapple chart where we promote each other’s strengths and hang that in a high traffic area within the school. The items we celebrate must be authentic and unique, and not general statements like, “John is child-centered.”The key is that everyone in an organization is looking at each other to find the good and recognize them for that.

pineapple chart revearse

The same process can be used in classrooms for students and in central offices for administrators. By using strategies that promote strengths over needs, we can create school climates where applause drowns out protest.

What are your thoughts on focusing on student, teacher, and administrator strengths rather than deficits? Share in the comment section or connect with me on Twitter @lisa_westman.

 

 

10 thoughts on “The greatest deficiency in education is our obsession with showcasing deficits.

  1. Kevin Word says:

    Lisa,
    WOW!! Just what education needs to be! Meeting students’ and teachers’ needs by learning from each other-is that novel? It may not be novel, but in the world of standardization of instruction and practice–RARE (maybe extinct). Now how do we convince educators from the top down and the bottom up to use that artful side and work for the individual again?? After all, we know no two people are alike and we want everyone to be the same!
    Great read!
    Behind you 100%,
    Kevin Word

    Like

    • Lisa Westman says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Kevin! I am so happy that post resonated with you. I think we start “living” this by recognizing that there is more than one way to skin a cat and we are all striving for the same result- student success, so we can allow educators and students to present in different ways and accomplish more than we expected. Worth a try at least.:) Thank you again for taking the time to read and give your feedback.:)

      Like

  2. RewardingEducation says:

    Great post, Lisa. This deficit model is what finally drove me from my beloved (yet chronically unperforming, according to a deficit model) school. After 21 years, I simply could not take being praised one moment and then hearing a “But…” the next moment. I consider myself a strong person, but if you don’t think being constantly blamed doesn’t wear a person down, try walking a semester in my shoes. Your article articulated this dilemma perfectly!

    Like

  3. Chris Wejr says:

    You are speaking my language! There is such power in starting with strengths when working with colleagues and kids. I did a TEDx talk on this topic. Would love your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

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