• Lisa Westman

The greatest deficiency in education is our obsession with showcasing deficits.

Updated: Jul 3, 2019

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This August marks the first time in 15 years that I didn’t have an official first day of school. Instead, this August, I transitioned to full-time educational consulting and I had numerous “first days” of school at districts in the Chicagoland area and elsewhere in the country.

As I wrap up my first month of consulting, I have one overarching takeaway: in every building, in every district, in every city, in every state, there are administrators, teachers, and students who are so passionate about learning that you can feel the positive energy in the room. It’s humbling, heartwarming, and inspiring.

Yet, what I also see are lots of educators and students who frequently second guess themselves, continuously ask for permission to do anything, or who render themselves silent in large groups and appear to have “given up.” However, behind closed doors, these are the same educators and students who are overflowing with enthusiasm and have a wealth of knowledge.

Naturally, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the strikingly similar behaviors both adult educators and student learners demonstrate in our current educational system. What causes passionate learners to become apathetic toward their passion? Why do students and adults alike ask for permission to learn? And, I keep coming back to one simple conclusion.

The Deficit Model of Education Has Worn Us All Down

Focusing on the deficits (or the kinder term, areas for growth) of students, teachers, and administrators is the go-to in education. We spend so much time beating ourselves up about the areas data shows we need improvement that we forget about our strengths. And, no one is pointing them out to us.

Our expectations are flawed. In theory, all students are expected to master all standards. All teachers are expected to be proficient at numerous criteria in a variety of categories, and all administrators are expected to cross every t and dot every i, always.

When a student, teacher, or administrator demonstrates expertise in one area (i.e. a student is strong in reading, a teacher is strong in curriculum mapping, an administrator has strong parent communication) we give them a quick pat-on-the-back and then immediately present them with their deficit (student- you need to work on math computation, teacher you need to differentiate, administrator- you need to improve student test scores).  Instead of celebrating someone’s strength and recognizing how this strength could help build the capacity of the entire organization, we treat individual’s strengths like items on a checklist.

But, strengths are worthy of more than a check.

What if, instead of focusing on what students can’t do, teachers won’t do, or administrators didn’t do, we focus on what we can all accomplish together? How might education look different?

We need to find systems to authentically detect individual’s specific strengths, share these strengths publicly, and create a culture where we tap into each other’s strengths to build each other’s capacity ultimately benefiting our organizations and the field of education on the whole. We need to retrain our minds to start looking for the skills and qualities that set people apart and focus solely on that.

One idea that can work if properly implemented is something I refer to as a reverse pineapple chart. The traditional pineapple chart is a popular system of professional learning that allows teachers to invite one another into their classrooms for informal observation. The chart is set up in a common location: the teacher’s lounge, the copy room, hallway, etc.

What I propose is that rather than putting the onus on ourselves to promote our own strengths, we create a reverse pineapple chart where we promote each other’s strengths and hang that in a high traffic area within the school. The items we celebrate must be authentic and unique, and not general statements like, “John is child-centered.”The key is that everyone in an organization is looking at each other to find the good and recognize them for that.

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The same process can be used in classrooms for students and in central offices for administrators. By using strategies that promote strengths over needs, we can create school climates where applause drowns out protest.

What are your thoughts on focusing on student, teacher, and administrator strengths rather than deficits? Share in the comment section or connect with me on Twitter @lisa_westman.


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