Ditch the Deficit Thing

Instead of dwelling on deficiencies, what if we helped students use their talents — their abundance of abilities and skills — to help them grow and learn?

A student with question marks surrounding his head. These tips will help parents and teachers work with his strengths.

Uncover the jewels inside a child and make a list of them. Then use those jewels, through personalized instruction, to help him grow.

A child's education should be about more than one test, once a year, in one setting. And yet, it seems that too many schools and districts have lapsed into amnesia — a possible hangover from the No Child Left Behind law.

So here's a radical assertion: When assessing and teaching children, it is time to embrace the whole child. This approach calls for schools, educators, and parents to scrap the deficit model and replace it with the abundance model.

In a nutshell, the abundance model works this way: Uncover the jewels inside each child and make a list of them (skills, talents, and interests). Meet the child where he is academically, socially, and emotionally, then use the student's jewels, through personalized instruction, to help him grow.

Let's sidetrack for a moment to talk about a school seduced by standardized testing and the deficit model that it institutionalized. Students were issued ID cards that showed their standardized testing rank by color. If you had a black card, as a highest test scorer, you received special campus privileges. If you had a white card, as a lowest scorer, you received no privileges, and you stood in a separate cafeteria lunch line.

Students at this school were seen solely as standardized test-takers — a one-dimensional view of children. Parents eventually spoke up, state officials stepped in, and the school made national news.

Build on Strengths and Interests

Teachers and parents should know where students are academically in their literacy and behavioral development, as well as content knowledge. The best way to serve and support identified areas of need is to use research-based best practices to help students grow and catch up when they are lacking information and/or skills.

What if we worked on using their talents — their abundance of abilities and skills — to meet those needs? Here are a few strategies and activities that will enable teachers and parents to do that:

> SET A GOAL TOGETHER. Teachers and parents should ask a child to list the things she is good at, what she'd like to be better at, and what she can teach others to do. Think about assigning a writing activity in which students set personal and academic goals, highlighting how the skills and talents they already possess will help them grow and accomplish these goals.

> LET YOUR CHILD TEACH. Invite a child to teach or share something he is good at with the class or with you at home. I've seen students teach origami, dance steps, a martial arts move, basic guitar chords, cartooning, even Photoshop.

> ASK A CHILD TO LIST HIS FAVORITE WAYS TO LEARN. Ask students to write down the ways they learn best: by doing, by reading, by drawing, by seeing, by creating, by something else. Have them list things that have made their learning memorable: "a good book," "a nice teacher," "a fun assignment." Ask them to also list things that may interfere with their learning — "if something is too hard," for instance.

> FIND OUT WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO A CHILD. Ask students to choose something that is precious to them, an item that has value (personal, not monetary). Assign each student to bring that important item (a photo, an award, baby shoes) to class, and write about it. Then divide the class into small groups and talk about why each student's item is so special. Parents can do this at home as well, with siblings or just Mom and Dad.

> ASK A CHILD TO REFLECT ON "TAKEAWAYS." Self-reflection is critical to learning. Give students an opportunity to name and celebrate their "takeaways" — everything that they have gained from a specific learning experience.

> TAP INTO COOPERATIVE LEARNING. Working with others helps highlight strengths and deflects deficits. Teachers and parents need to let go and allow kids to explore and discover together, teach each other, and feel safe and valued enough to take risks while they learn. I'd much prefer to have my students be engaged and invested in learning rather than spend all of their time trying to get the "right answers."

These six activities will give teachers and parents important information about their student and child — positive and personal information that can be used when designing lessons and assessments, differentiating instruction, and working one on one with each student. And it will give parents a fresh perspective on the child they love and what makes him tick.

REBECCA ALBER is an instructor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and a consulting online editor at edutopia.org, from which this piece is excerpted.

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