Mark Ray, Sun Prairie, WI firstname.lastname@example.org
In February, I attended an Eric Jensen workshop in San Antonio, TX to learn more about supporting students who struggle in math. Eric was a compelling speaker, interesting person, and much of what he said resonated with me. During the workshop, one of his constant reminders was to be mindful of the detrimental language and thinking that can be used about students. Finger pointing, as he often called it, is also known as deficit language or deficit thinking. Reflecting on this was really an eye-opening experience and definitely changed my life. It is now a goal of mine to change the world by changing our language through awareness. The following information is intended to engage you in a way to raise awareness about deficit language and deficit thinking.
Read the following hypothetical teacher quotes and think about how language like this impacts teacher and student actions.
If my low students would just do their homework…
Oh, my honors class, I’m not worried about them.
They just can’t read the text.
There are always a couple who don’t care in each class.
There isn’t much hope for Joe Student.
There is not much we can do for those kids.
Even if these statements were made behind closed doors, I would argue they frame thinking in a way that is not supportive for any student.
Deficit thinking can also extend to how tasks may be modified. Consider the following task (that has not been modified) and think about how a student might answer this question.
Now consider a situation where the task has been modified to “meet the needs” of “those kids who need it.” As you complete this task, ask yourself, “How has the cognitive demand of the task changed?”
I do not necessarily want to tell you how the cognitive demand has changed, but I do want to mention one possible situation to consider. What if a student sees cubes? What now? It is important to remember that students who struggle still need support. The goal is to support productive struggle without reducing cognitive demand. (If you cannot see the cubes look at Figure 2 and adjust your eyes as if you are looking at a 3D poster). My hope is that by raising awareness about deficit language and deficit thinking we can be mindful of our language and actions. Maybe we can catch ourselves in moments of deficit thinking and learn to prevent these moments.
I recently conducted a professional development workshop and did a very short segment on deficit language with my participants to raise awareness. After the segment, a special education support staff member attending the workshop pulled me aside and said, “I’m not sure you have thought of it this way, but CPM is probably preventing suicides with this.” This powerful feedback, to me, is proof we can change the world.