Deficit Thinking: Why educators for the 21st century must confront the deficit model.

screen-shot-2012-09-20-at-7-51-33-amDeficit thinking is dangerous.  Too often in education we focus on what students can’t do.  But deficit thinking is not limited to students.  Most of what I hear in the teacher’s lounge is focused on deficits.  Students can’t remember a word from level 2 therefore they must not be proficient in that language.  But what can students do and why is that not the focus of what we do?

My mindset has changed significantly as I continue to strive to focus class on what students can comprehend instead of a focus on what students don’t know now.  It doesn’t bother me that some of my level 2 students do not seem to differentiate between present and past tense verbs yet.  This simply tells me that they have not acquired what is necessary to navigate between time frames.  Many of them can write 100 words in Latin for a timed writing in a way that creates an interesting story.  What they can do is so much more interesting than what they can’t do.

For me, this mindset change has brought so much more joy to my teaching life.  And I find it just as necessary to approach my colleagues from a position of strength thinking versus deficit thinking.  Our conversations center around important language ideas when we focus on what we can do.  And we make each other better teachers with a focus on what students can do with the languages we teach.

I find arguments that we must demonstrate how awful legacy style teaching is to make sure teachers understand comprehension based teaching, interesting.  Why do we naturally move toward point out the flaws in something else when there are so many good things to hold our focus?  My experience with colleagues face to face is much more productive when I approach discussions from a strength perspective.  Teachers are a lot like students.  I’ve never met someone in education who deliberately engages in teaching practices unless they think it is what is best for kids in their situation.

But alas, we work in a system that seems to create all kinds of problems for many different types of students.  Most teachers are extremely over burdened with work and pressure to create results with a room full of 25+ kids who have significantly different needs.  The system pressures us to focus on our deficits.  And these same pressures create many of the deficits that educators have.  If we are being honest, we can’t always make the decisions we want.  Time and the next group of students walking into our room is always on the back of our minds.  Teachers have to work miracles right now while planning for what is next at the same time.  We must inspire, hold accountable and offer counsel within the same class period.  So how do we counteract this system?

First, we must acknowledge that systems do not change but individuals do.  Normally I don’t resonate with ideas fostered by business organizations but these groups have actually studied what happens when organizations or systems change.  And it begins with individuals.  Read more about one theory of how change actually takes place, but be ready for the business type of jargon.

I know a language class based on what is comprehended is best practice because I continue to see the growth in students understanding of Latin, even when there are numerous variables getting in the way of their opportunities to process input.  I will no longer consider how bad the old ways of teaching are because I have so much more to figure out in respect to what the best ways to foster students’ comprehension of Latin are.  And when I share these results with my colleagues they try some ideas out in their own classrooms.  I’ve found that the individuals who take that first step to try something based in comprehension try again and again and even start to question some of their previous practices.  Change begins with individuals.

And deficit thought is dangerous.  Deficit thinking leads white students to believe that their classmates of color must not work hard enough because of the focus on what students cannot do.  Deficit thinking literally leads to poor educational reform policies.  Deficit thinking holds us, our students and our colleagues back from what we can actually do.

So how do we counteract this type of thought?  For me, the first step is to identify and define the principles that will foster thoughts of strength in the situations I’m involved.  For me that is creating a classroom based on Latin input that students comprehend.  So what are those principles?

  • The world language classroom should be centered around target language input that students can comprehend.
  • Students must be compelled to connect to the target language input for them to fully engage in comprehending the target language input.
  • To achieve the 1st two principles, instruction must be centered around the interests that the students in the room have.
  • Some amounts of output will emerge as students process a large amount of input that they are compelled to comprehend.
  • What students can do drives instruction more than what students cannot do as students will continue to acquire more language as they interact with more target language that they can comprehend.

These principles will create opportunities for students to acquire language.  For me, anything that moves my focus away from these principles is not worth the time.

Lastly, a hard reality to accept is that not all of my colleagues value these principles in the same way as me.  I’ve seen some Latin teachers claim that the acquisition of Latin shouldn’t even be a goal of a Latin program.  But I’ve found that the above principles allow more than acquisition to happen.  Students start to realize they can read and understand Latin.  Students start to realize that it can be interesting to read Latin about the Romans and understand cultural products and practices from the ancient world.  Students start to recognize patterns and they start to ask questions about syntax.  And it is extremely powerful when a student begins that work without my prompting.

We need to stop defining comprehension based principles by the flaws of what other principles may have.  What matters is the outcomes that comprehension based principles encourage.


  1. Hi Dan, I do value your principles just the same as you do. Yet, I’m also actually one of those people who say acquisition is not the goal of their Latin program. Acquisition does occur, but it just so happens that any approach to teaching itself based on acquisition is a very inclusive and effective one. That is, I value the process over any outcome.

    However, you are right to point out that the deficit thinking is something you perceived. But is that what’s actually going on? We…and I have been thinking you’ve been included in that…are doing work to educate Latin teachers because the system is broken. This work involves exposing that broken system. We cannot really do the work if that means not mentioning what’s broken. You keep using the word “focus,” yet what percentage of posts, discussions, and comments are actually isolated to *only* bad pedagogy, and what you perceive as deficit thinking? I would take a look at that, because from what I can see from searches, these discussions always include practical solutions and alternatives. Keep in mind that not all teachers are convinced they’re using bad pedagogy. The dots really do need to be connected for many teachers, yet you’re calling for this to be entirely up to the individual to figure out.

    I can respect a confrontation-averse approach, but that’s certainly not everyone’s m.o. Is being shocked that others don’t take a similar approach really what makes you “wonder if the comprehended mindset is really best practice at all?”


    1. Magister P,

      I made some changes in the post as an attempt to clarify my thinking. It seems you took the original post as pointed at one specific group, but this is a reflection of multiple groups and professional experiences I’ve had of late. Yes, one group may have more positive posts than another, but taken as a whole I’ve seen a lot of posts and comments focused on deficits.

      My point is connecting bad pedagogy to define what best practices are gives the bad pedagogy more air time. It also gives people an out if they perceive solid results from what they always have been doing even if what they have been doing doesn’t fit into a best practice.

      My experience is that teachers have the capacity to connect the dots themselves when they continue to have experiences of success when they try an activity or a way to implement a best practice. They don’t need me to spell it out. They need me to meet them where they are.

      I’m pretty certain I will read into your last question something that isn’t actually there. What do you mean by “what makes you….” Remember, my quote, which has now been changed, started with “the skeptic in me” which I hoped would make it clear to people that I’m not actually questioning the principles that I outlined in the post.

      Thanks for your thoughts


  2. Yes Dan, it “seems” I took the original post as pointed at one specific group because you described exactly what happened in one specific group.

    While your readers might need something from you, other readers need exactly the opposite of what you’re proposing.


      1. Dan, “deficit thinking” is a concept you’ve applied to all this. I’d say the burden of proof is on you.

        When exposing or even just acknowledging what contributes to the exclusivity of GT, people are presented with an example of what to avoid. It’s not the focus, but it builds the case and educates teachers who have been in the dark, mostly through no fault of their own.

        What you’re suggesting is like saying “hey, eat these mushrooms for health benefits” while avoiding the part about “yo, DO NOT eat those mushrooms…they are harmful.”


      2. Perhaps you should use the “deficit thinking” graphic, going trait by trait, one by one and show how it applies to discussing pedagogy, both avoiding exclusive GT practices as well as implementing CI-based practices.

        I tried and found conflicting ideas, if they applied at all.


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