Photo: José Antonio Morcillo Valenciano/Flickr CC BY 2.0
Meena was walking back from gym in her pink shorts when a gang of hoodlums on bikes passed lewd comments at her. She reached home and cried. Her parents listened to her hurt and then asked her to dress “more appropriately”.
Rahim scored poorly once again in math and the teacher remarked, “I know this is your best effort, why don’t you take Arts after tenth?” Later, in the staff room, feeling sad, he explained Rahim’s scores by how having no ‘educated’ parents makes all the difference to a child’s grades.
“Blame the victim” is the thinking inherent in both cases above. This kind of ‘deficit thinking’ or pointing to the victim as deficient and thereby the cause of her own suffering is so widespread that it is normal. Especially after COVID-19, I hear school teachers and principals implicitly blaming children for hyperactivity and reduced attention span. Even during research, I often catch myself formulating a research question such that it frames the teachers as responsible for their struggles or claims arrogantly that I am ‘giving voice’ to my respondents.
Deficit thinking side tracks real issues. Instead of highlighting more potent factors (in Rahim’s case – rushed schooling, educational indifference to mental health, or poor quality mid-day meals), we first blame and then try to ‘fix’ the victim for their supposed ‘deficiency’. In a somewhat similar case as the chilling instance of blaming Nirbhaya for getting raped, educators fall into the trap of blaming the child as the implicit cause of her/his failure.
Deficit thinking is pervasive. I hear deficit thinking in my conversations with principals and teachers who think that because the children have poor sanskars (upbringing) or unschooled parents or are of a particular caste or stay in a slum or don’t have good food at home – the children are not smart or capable. Teachers contribute with caste-based slurs, put downs and discouragement. Consequently, children feel humiliated and drop out. Disabling and incorrect labels such as ‘first-generation learners’ or ‘handicapped’ declare deficiency and absolve the school and the schooling system of modifying its teaching and support.
Despite research showing its prevalence and harm, deficit thinking persists because of superficial rationality and feeble systemic action.
It seems rational to say that if Meena wore pants or if Rahim was a bit more persistent and motivated, all would be okay. But such rationality is a coverup because any oppressive system is unlikely to blame itself for its problems.
Krishna Kumar tells the disturbing story of Ashok who fights his family to join school but finally drops out because of a lethargic one-size-fits-all pedagogy and poor school infrastructure coupled with an absence of educational leadership. Yet, the school surveyors, instead of blaming these systemic factors, indicate family poverty as the reason for Ashok’s drop out. Or consider Hoff and Pandey’s provocative account of how simply declaring a child’s caste publicly makes them perform poorly. In other words, a student’s performance is shaped by larger socio-cultural forces than just innate intelligence. Or Singh and Kumar’s study of how teachers’ beliefs in child’s poor sanskars lead them to stop mid-day meals, not fix school infrastructure and end school days early.
Despite Dalit children sharing stories of being forced to sit separately at lunch, clean urinals and being excluded from leadership opportunities, systemic response to deficit thinking is usually limited to policy formulation and show-cause notices. Thirteen years after the Right to Education was passed, forget integration, the system is still trying to force schools to allot 25% seats to students from marginalised communities. just Delhi has allegedly over 50,000 such children awaiting admission. To explain how big is the number of marginalised children waiting to get back to school, if we requested these children to simply stand in a queue – the line would stretch 30 km.
To be fair, simply admitting students would work only when there are efforts to ensure integration and celebration of socio-cultural diversity in the classroom. The B.Ed curriculum, for instance, must address leveraging diversity and countering deficit thinking; however, there are no readings or experiential activities on deficit thinking. I have yet to witness an in-service training programme for teachers or headmasters that challenges harmful ways of categorising students.
What can we do? I offer three strategies.
1. Make deficit thinking and action visible. A powerful way to address deficit thinking is to first make it visible. Research indicates that having such thinking come into light through teacher preparation can be transformative. Using comparative data from schools to show that marginalised students can perform well when treated fairly may shock established thinking patterns. Using detailed accounts of school life and individual stories of how students may suffer when they are blamed by schools can open educators’ hearts to consider other ways of responding.
2. Encourage asset-driven thinking. Replacing deficit thinking with appreciative inquiry that focuses on strengths would help. Keeping a register at each school that documents each child’s strengths and the school’s plan to nurture each child would force teachers and principals to start looking at each child afresh. Consider a child’s native language as an asset, for instance, rather than a defect to be replaced with English.
3. Make the system responsible. Make drop out not a child’s, but a school’s, failure. Incorporate readings on equity and deficit thinking in B.Ed programmes, and follow up with action research. Quick and firm punitive action on cases of caste or religious discrimination are necessary to show that the system cares for its marginalised students. Changing systemic thinking would also require the active support and pressure from citizens and a joint effort of scholars, NGOs and corporates interventions focused on equity and fair treatment for all children.
Throughout the above strategies, the focus is on the deficit thinking and not on treating the people as deficient or in need of ‘fixing’. Blaming teachers or principals instead of caste-based school mindsets, poor professional development, predominant focus on paperwork and inspectorial raj would be another example of deficit thinking.
Deficit thinking must be challenged. Millions like Meena and Rahim deserve that, don’t they?
Gopal Midha holds a PhD in educational leadership from the University of Virginia. He is currently setting up a Center for Research on School Leadership in Goa.