Rejecting the Student Deficit Model
Teaching from where students are, not where we might want them to be.
If you asked me five, or maybe six years ago, what was the biggest problem with incoming college students, I might’ve said something like, “They’ve only ever heard how great they are.”
At the time, my thinking was closely aligned with the “students are coddled” school of thought. They were overly driven by extrinsic motivators like grades, rather than embracing the deeper pleasures of genuine intellectual curiosity, and in pursuit of those grades were willing to cajole, cheat, and lie.
I endeavored not to punish students for attitudes that I believed had been forged by systems and cultures outside of their control. After all, if they really were the “everyone gets a trophy generation,” the blame belonged to whomever was handing out those trophies.
But, for sure, my perspective colored my instruction. I ran my courses in a way that sought to make up for this perceived deficit, a kind of “tough love” of accountability – tough (but fair) grading, hard and fast deadlines - while emphasizing the skills they would acquire in the course. I meant to sell them on the “practical” benefits while alerting them to the fact that life could be tough when someone like me who couldn’t be gamed was around.
I now recognize that I framed my teaching around what I viewed as my students “deficits,” the parts of them that were flawed and needed fixing, according to…me. I always mean well, and I want to believe that by and large my students have benefitted from my instruction, but additional experience and reflection has caused me to see its flaws.
First, I now see that years of asking students to compete with each other inside a system of standardization and accountability has left students not coddled, but “defeated.” We have created an educational system that has students as young as Kindergarten cancelling the school pageant so they can work on becoming “college and career ready.” We’ve put the current generation of students on a relentless academic grind, the result of which has been to divorce school from learning, and leaving in its place an academic treadmill, where the point of school is to do well in school, and each incoming class has higher incidences of depression and anxiety than the last.
I now see all those A’s and trophies as a collective case of “whistling past the graveyard,” as we eroded institutions and communities that were once central to human flourishing and substituted an individual “race to the top.”
More importantly, I now believe that it is dangerous and damaging to define students by their perceived deficits, particularly when those deficits are the product of one person’s (my) entirely subjective judgment prone to all matter of biases, only some of which I’m even aware of.
I see a lot of hostility directed towards students when they can’t do what we think they should be able to do (“criminally unprepared”), or hold attitudes with which we may differ (“coddled” “special snowflake” “entitled”).
Perhaps the era when professors were meant to be “revered” is gone. I’ve never been a professor, so that doesn’t bother me much. I’ve never longed for disciples.
If it’s irksome to have students who seem insufficiently appreciative of the intellectual delights of a college education because they’re focused instead on job and career, rather than seeing students as flawed, we can invite them in to experience those pleasures by starting with where they are.
Maybe we can replace reverence with something better, respect.
Now, rather than focusing on the ways I believe students lack preparation, I instead begin with what students are prepared to do, and I’ve started to see some universal things.
Students want to be curious. They want to figure out what they should do in the world. They want to matter to others and leave a mark. They want to learn stuff that matters. It’s not incidental that these are the same things many people desire.
The deficit was not in them, but in school itself, which in their experience has not been a good place to pursue these goals. My deficit thinking perpetuated the worst parts of the system they’d come to distrust.
Rather than view students through their deficits, I would try to engage their potential. “Sentimental tosh,” perhaps, but a framework that I believe has made me a more effective instructor.
This has resulted in a gradual shedding of both ego and authority, as I worry less and less about judging student achievement according to “academic” criteria (which students largely experience as arbitrary), and instead try to empower them to become curious and pursue a path of personal interest inside the course.
Students are writing more, and with greater enthusiasm. Attendance and participation are up. By any traditional measure, the rigor of my creative writing course has increased.
Most importantly, more and more students express a wish to continue to write in some form once the class is over, and the vast majority wish to take another creative writing course.
Students know stuff. In many cases, they are more than capable of teaching me a thing or two. When we emphasize what students can’t do, we are missing out on this pleasure.
When my instruction was centered on compliance, I was selling my students way short.
Students are never who we may wish them to be so we have to learn to honor and work with who they are.
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