Cracking The Deficit Mindsets in Education - Pushing The Edge with Greg Curran

Challenging the Deficit Mindsets in Education

Deficit Mindsets predominate in schools especially in relation to minority communities. How might we think outside such limiting parameters?

 They’re at the Top of all the Wrong Lists and Bottom of all the Right Lists.

That’s the view of Maori people that Surin McGrory (a Pushing The Edge Podcast Guest) took away from her pre-service teacher education in New Zealand.

As she began teaching Maori students though – in a Maori Immersion School – a different picture emerged.

The reality of her students’ lives and capabilities were far more complex and positive than the deficit perspectives she encountered in her teacher education course

Press Play & Listen to my insightful and inspiring chat with Surin below:

It got me thinking about the dominance of deficit mindsets within education, and how we might think outside such limiting and often problematic parameters.

Three situations came to mind.

Struggling Victims

I’m at a Professional Development Session on teaching adult refugee students.

It’s run by an organisation that works with refugees who’ve experienced torture and trauma.

The presenter (reflecting on his centre’s research and work in the field) says that many teachers have a deficit view of refugee students.

They feel sorry for their students, seeing them as victims of awful atrocities, struggling to fit in and adjust to a new country, he says.

Acknowledging that such views are understandable and borne of good intention, he proceeds to challenge us.

He paints a different picture of our refugee community that contrasts sharply with the prevailing deficit, victim mindset.

It’s an infinitely more complex picture that emphasises strengths – skills – capacities – possibilities – risk-taking and opportunities.

It gets me wondering:

  • How do our deficit views serve our students?
    • How might they work against the interests and well-being of our students?
  • How do our deficit views of students serve us as educators?
    • How do they privilege us (as educators) – our status – our views and approaches?
    • How do deficit views serve the majority and the status quo – at the expense of minority populations?
  • If we view refugee students (or other minority students) as having agency, what possibilities might ensue within our classrooms?
    • Here I think about the range of Social Enterprises (Example 1 & Example 2) that culturally and linguistically diverse communities are running outside schools.

At Risk and In Need of Protection

As part of my PhD, I compared how same-sex attracted young people (SSAYP) were viewed (or described) in different settings.

A key view of the school teachers interviewed (consistent with educational research) was that SSAYP were ‘struggling’ with their sexual identity, ‘at risk’ of bullying, and subsequently lacking agency.

There was no doubt that these teachers were well-intentioned. They saw themselves as allies of SSAYP and worked to improve the conditions in schools for them.

Examining the implications of teaching approaches based on deficit and victim-related lenses however, highlighted a number of problems:

  • A Top-Down approach prevailing with teachers speaking for SSAYP since it’s considered too dangerous for them to be visible and speaking for themselves;
  • A discouraging of greater visibility of SSAYP (who are struggling) due to the risk of bullying;
  • Avoiding or containing the discussion of sexual diversity-related issues in the classroom (and thus the maintenance of the status quo) since:
    • it might lead to classroom disruption and conflict;
    • it might lead to SSAYP giving themselves away, and then copping abuse from other students.

Within youth-group settings by contrast, a bottom up approach to change predominated.

Same-Sex Attracted Young People along with their communities were recognised as best placed to deal with the specific issues that confronted them.

Yes there was a recognition of the problems that same-sex attracted young people faced. However, they weren’t defined by these problems.

Here they were seen as having agency, and encouraged to speak for themselves.

Spaces were provided where they could be open, exchange strategies for dealing with sexuality-related issues with other Same-Sex Attracted Young People, and have fun participating in community events.

Here it was about taking charge of your life – building a life where you could be proud of yourself (however you defined yourself)  – not hiding or toning down your sexuality.

Cracking The Deficit Mindset - What we Think determines what we see

Celebrating Diversity within Limits

Working as a Teacher Educator we often talk about diversity.

A common question we explore is: How might we build schools and classrooms that recognise and celebrate diversity?

The most common suggestions are multicultural events (usually limited to racial or ethnic cultures) – where a diversity of costumes, food, games, music, and dancing are showcased.

Other common ideas include students creating posters or giving presentations on their birth country or that of their ancestors.

Pre-service teachers generally have fond memories of participating in such events both inside and outside school.

It’s certainly a far cry from the deficit and victim views of cultures I have discussed thus far in this post.

Yet I often encourage the pre-service teachers to think beyond these familiar events or activities asking:

  • Does the recognition of, and tapping into, students’ communities go beyond these special days?

Importantly, do these one-off events serve to highlight the marginality and silencing of minorities (within school life, policy and curricula) the rest of the year?

  • How might we show students that their identities along with their worlds matter beyond these one-off days?


  • How might we get beyond tokenism or the exoticisation of cultures – and in so doing extend our ideas about what celebrating diversity might look like?
  • How might we demonstrate that identities are complex and multifaceted?
    • ‘Cultural Diversity’ should therefore encompass gender, belief systems, sexuality, age, socio-economic status and other aspects of who we are, alongside race and ethnicity.

Related Resources

Deficit-based thinking takes on a variety of guises in education settings and I’ve only touched on a limited range in this post.

Here’s some additional resources that provide a broader perspective on the issue, as well as useful teaching approaches:

  • Surin McGrory challenges the notion of Teachers speaking for students – in my chat with her.
    • She puts the students voices front and centre and in so doing comes to see their strengths.
    • LISTEN to how she does it from the 15 minute mark in my Pushing The Edge Podcast

Here’s a couple of articles that provide greater depth on the limits of deficit thinking:

Related Pushing The Edge Podcasts & Posts (Clicking Opens Podcast Player or Post)


  1. Dawn Addis June 18, 2015
    • Greg Curran June 18, 2015