You might have suspected by now that your thoughts influence your actions and words. But have you considered how it can prevent you from seeing your students’ full potential?
When your students do not perform well in class, do you attribute it to your teaching method or style? Or do you think it has to do with your students’ innate intelligence, family background or personality?
If you think that their poor performance was caused by either genetics, culture and class, or familial socialization, you may be guilty of what researchers call “deficit thinking” (Kwek, 2009).
What is Deficit Thinking?
Deficit thinking results when we assume that certain groups of students, because of certain characteristics such as race, class, gender or family background will exhibit certain behaviours that would prevent them from succeeding in life (Byrne, n.d.).
It’s easier to understand this concept with an example.
When researcher Dennis Kwek visited a secondary school to conduct a research project, he realized that the teachers had certain stereotyped ideas about their students, who came mostly from the working-class estate.
One of the teachers summed it up for Dennis: “[The majority of them] are likely to have single parents…majority of [broken families and divorce] cases here are extremely unpleasant.”
“Our neighbourhood school students have a different definition of success – keep a family together, pay HDB installments, etc.,” said another of the teachers.
What is worrisome was that most of the teachers jumped to conclusions about the kind of skills their students need based on these preconceived ideas. And whether consciously or not, they adjusted their teaching styles and the material they used accordingly.
“We tell students to get their basics rights first before they try anything harder. The ones who write more complex things and take risks are the ones who lose. So we have to teach them how to play safe in exams.”
One teacher explained their teaching strategy, “They cannot make it lah!… [We] aim for D7 because that is what the students need to go into polytechnics or ITE.”
Why Are Beliefs Like These Dangerous?
When you have preconceived ideas of what your students can and cannot do based on factors such as their family background, race, gender, it may constrain the way you teach – like the teachers Dennis encountered.
This is especially dangerous as teachers are “the most important variable in making a difference for students” (Comber & Kamler, 2004, as cited in Kramler-Dahl & Kwek, in press).
How Do You Know If You have Deficit Beliefs?
There are simple ways to test yourself.
- Conduct a survey
Instead of assuming your students’ prior knowledge before class, you can create a simple survey before the start of the school term or class to find out how much they already know.For instance, if you are going to introduce the concept of biography in the your writing class, you can do a simple survey asking your students if they know what it is, if it is the same as an autobiography, or if they have read one before? Ask them to name examples so that you can gauge their literacy levels.This simple survey would allow you to solicit from your students their prior knowledge and allow you to tailor your lessons based on what they can bring into the classroom.
- Introduce the content before the lesson
In cases where you are not sure if your students have the background knowledge, introduce the content in class before the formal lesson starts.For example, if you want to introduce the concept of narrative, you could choose a movie that illustrates the different forms of narratives that you are going to teach. You can then make connections between the movie they have watched, and the narrative genre you want them to explore. Do not assume that all of them are already familiar with the term.
- Getting to know your students outside the classroomGet your students to keep a media diary to record everything they read, watch and listen to daily. Alternatively, you could visit them at home and observe their activities for a day. Compare their diaries or your observations to your preconceived ideas of what they read and write outside the classroom.
- Bring an independent observer to class
An independent external observer, who is familiar with the notion of deficit thinking, would be able to tell you if you possess any deficit beliefs after observing you in a few classes.
There are many ways to surface deficit thinking but it is dependent on how far you would like to go to question your beliefs about your students. And when you recognize that you have deficits beliefs, it is important that you find ways to change your lesson, pace or curriculum to cater to this group of students in a meaningful way.
Byrne, L. D. (n.d.). The danger of deficit thinking. BellaOnline. The voice of women. Retrieved August 14, 2009, from http://www.bellaonline.com/articles/art22021.asp
Comber, B., & Kramler,B. (2004). Getting out of deficit: Pedagogies of reconnection. Teaching Education, 15(3), 293-310.
Kramer-Dahl, A., & Kwek, D. (in press). Reading the home and reading in school: Framing deficit constructions as learning difficulties in Singapore English classrooms. In C. Wyatt-Smith, J. Elkin, & S. Gunn (Eds.), Multiple perspectives on difficulties in learning literacy and numeracy. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.
Kwek, D. (2009, June). “They cannot make it lah!” Deficit beliefs and learning difficulties in Singapore English classroom. Paper presented at the international conference on Redesigning Pedagogy: Designing New Learning Contexts for a Globalising World, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore