Is the Learner a Deficit or an Asset?

Broadly, two mindsets have been competing for the direction of learning in America. Classic mindsets: the quantitative, data-driven mindset and the qualitative, human-driven mindset.

And, clearly, one mindset has been winning.

Equally clear is the pedagogical cost of that mindset’s march toward elusive victory. Oh, and the psychological cost.

The pedagogical cost of the data-driven mindset directing learning is that administrators and teachers — those who want to keep their jobs — feel compelled to more-or-less teach to the test. This mind-numbing pedagogy confuses the means (learning) with the ends (assessment of learning). Further, this driven-by-test-data-rather-than-humans pedagogy alienates an increasingly vast swath of humans, the marginally invested to at-risk students. These are the students who, stereotypically, could care less about what their scores mean to society. These are also the students who most need to be connected to their learning.

The psychological cost of trying to drive learning in this as-measured-by-test-scores way is staggering, too. Those schools with smaller test numbers often come to understand themselves as deficit — not as endowed as those with bigger numbers. In fact, reflected in funding, categorization, and media treatment, society treats lower scoring schools as less deserving. (For the moment, if you will, please ignore the compelling correlation between standardized test scores and socioeconomic status; with restraint, this post is not about that.)

Deficit model psychology can imbue in the school community a profound lack of self-confidence and self-efficacy.

And, this “We are somehow deficit” psychology in schools becomes a license that is easily exploited. Granted by society, the license leverages well-paid-by-tax-dollars external assets to “transform” the deficit school’s learning. For many reasons, our three decade march in this direction informs us that this external assets approach has not been and is not the transformative solution.

So, is there a better pedagogy to bridge the gap between the agendas of the data-driven mindset, accountability, and the human-driven mindset, holistic human development? A pedagogy that is not based on perceived deficits?

Yes. Asset-based learning.

In asset-based learning, the learners come to understand — and employ during the learning process — the assets they own. Cognitive, social, and emotional assets. Curiosity and creativity are two critical assets. Asset-based learning acknowledges, leverages, and challenges internal assets, such as curiosity and creativity, to “drive” increasingly more difficult learning toward the learner’s mastery.

Self-confidence emerges, however gradually, from the realization that these internal assets are molting into wider, increasingly more powerful skill sets through engaging increasingly more challenging work. All the while, the teacher guides and expects the best from each learner.

Thus, the learner’s evolving self-confidence and hard work yield cognitive, social, and emotional skill sets for life. The learner owns them — for life.

So, how are “Deficit Model” education and “Asset-based” learning different from one another?

The Crisis of Deficit Model Education

Deficit-model Education Asset-based Learning
Goal The goal is mastery of learning. mastery of learning.
Design Design of learning focuses on what’s Broken. what’s Working.
Instruction The educator emphasizes Weakness emphasizes Possibility
by focusing on Standardized Test Scores. the Learner’s Assets:
Cognitive, Social, and Emotional.
The approach to learning is less like Real World learning: Multiple Choice. more like Real World learning: Inquiry-based; Critical and Creative Thinking; Project-, Problem-, and Portfolio-based.
Control of the learning process is Externally Driven Internally Driven
because the learner relies on external “Assets.” developed and emerging Internal Assets:
Cognitive, Social, and Emotional.
Evaluation Learning is evaluated by Standardized Tests. Multiple Formative and Summative Measures, including Performance Tasks and Standardized Tests.
Society Society values external reforms internal transformation
that highlight Past Failures. highlights Continuing Successes.
The challenge of this approach: “During the 30+ year Deficit Model approach, what evidence suggests that it is working?” Local Design Control, Scalability, Alignment to Standards
Ed Business Educational companies love this Model because Standardized Test Data make Dashboard Metrics Easy, i.e., “Learning” data. do not occupy this space.
The Purple Pen will Transform This Space.
Consequences In the learner, this approach creates a Social Dependency Sustainable Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Skills
because the learner develops a Dependency on External “Assets.” as an Independent Asset.
Socioeconomic Consequence: replicates Social Structure provides Transcendent Skills within Social Structure

Asset-based learning encourages local and individualized design of learning — if aligned to the accepted academic standards; invites the learner’s assets to drive the learning process; and facilitates a holistic evaluation process, which may include standardized testing.

Doing so, asset-based learning eliminates confusing the means (learning) with the ends (assessment of learning).

Consequently, asset-based learning bridges the chasm between the quantitative, data-driven mindset and the qualitative, human-driven mindset:

Start with the unique and extraordinary young humans, engage their assets, and the data of success will follow, no matter how it is measured!