Look at 'What's Strong, Not What's Wrong' With Our Students EdWeek Classroom Q & A with Larry Ferlazzo

What can teachers do to help highlight student assets and not their deficits? In other words, what can teachers do to help create that mindset for themselves when they look at students and what can they do to help students develop the same view? 

Response From Dr. Alison J. Mello

Dr. Alison J. Mello has been in education for over 25 years as a classroom teacher, math specialist, director of curriculum, and is currently the assistant superintendent of the Foxborough public schools in Massachusetts. She holds an Ed.D. in educational leadership, and her research focuses on classroom learning environment and relationship to mathematical disposition. In addition to her work in the district, Alison is a national speaker, math consultant, and graduate instructor of in-service teachers:

As educators, we are in relentless pursuit of data. This data comes in many forms, and at the risk of oversimplifying, is typically intended to inform us about what students know and what they still need to learn. This helps us to plan and hopefully to teach more effectively. Makes sense, but how do students perceive this? Are we so busy focusing on what students can’t do that we are not seeing or valuing what they can?

The importance of this distinction became clear to me when interviewing a 3rd grader about math. She had one of the most outstanding teachers I knew, yet as she told me about her experiences, I watched her burst into tears as she shared how the teacher often made her feel stupid. When I probed, she explained that the teacher regularly pointed out what she did not know and what she did wrong. Of course, I knew that this came from a place of the teacher wanting to clarify and correct misconceptions and guide the student toward proficiency. Unfortunately, this was not how it was received. Instead, it led to the student perceiving herself as “bad” at math. What was worse was the student had become fearful of answering questions, frequently avoided school, and refrained from interacting with peers in the classroom. When I shared this with the teacher, she was stunned. She shared that the student was one of the strongest in her class.If we hope to highlight student strengths, we must understand what a deficit mindset looks and sounds like and move away from it with intentionality. We must be willing to make a commitment to focus on “what’s strong, not what’s wrong.” Below are some simple strategies to begin to make this important shift.

  • When providing feedback on work that has multiple parts (think math problem, science procedure, writing piece), focus comments on the parts that are done correctly. Help the student see these parts by posing questions that draw their attention to what is good about their work. From there, pose questions about where they may be stuck and provide small scaffolds to move them to the next step.
  • Pose questions that have more than one solution. These are often referred to as low-floor/high-ceiling tasks or open-ended tasks. These allow multiple entry points and foster a culture where all students can make valuable contributions.
  • If you are not using standards-based grades, swap out a “score” on top of a paper for a fraction. This removes the tendency of students to classify their achievement based on a percent. Resist the urge to mark up everything that is wrong. Keep the focus on the learning by allowing error analysis and take time to celebrate growth.
  • Help students to set goals and monitor their own progress. In this way, they will own their learning and be attuned to their improvements.
  • Avoid moving on too fast from a student who is struggling to respond. While it may seem kind to ask if they would like help from a friend, it may also inadvertently say, “I don’t think you can do this.” Instead, reframe the question or see if they know some part of what you are looking for—and then validate that.
  • Create a Wall of Fame where students can display work that they are proud of.
  • Fail forward in front of your students. Be cognizant of your own self-talk, how you react when you don’t know something, and how you characterize your own weaknesses. Be vulnerable and show your students that you make mistakes and are always learning, just like them.
  • Embrace the Power of Yet. When students say, “I can’t do this,” be there to add YET to the sentence!

While the above suggestions may appear simple, their power cannot be overstated. All students possess strengths, and we have the opportunity and privilege to recognize them and leverage them on the pathway to proficiency. What are we waiting for?