A few years back, I was sitting in an office with my best friend Javier, scribbling out a web of ideas for our upcoming STEM Camp and Lab School.

“What if we . . .” He stopped mid-sentence and looked at his phone.

“You were saying?” I asked.

He stared at his phone and tapped away.

“Dude,” I said in the most accusatory tone you can have with the word “dude.” It was our most solid afternoon of collaboration and I didn’t want any interruptions.

“I’m sorry but I need to go. A principal wants me to show her how to use iMovie and I told her she could reach me whenever she needed.”

“Can’t she find someone else to help her? Or maybe a tutorial on YouTube?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“Aren’t you at least irritated? We’re not supposed to be the tech help. We’re supposed to be instructional technology specialists,” I pointed out.

“A principal that was tech-resistant is now making her own videos. If I need to do some hand-holding, I’m fine with that. This is how change happens.”

It struck me that the very task that I had viewed as a problem was something he saw as an opportunity for innovation.

The Deficit Mindset

Looking back at it, I had approached the situation with something called a deficit mindset*. This is what happens when you approach a situation and only see the negative elements and miss the opportunity.

It’s what happens when teachers say, “These kids can’t . . .” It’s what happens when teachers in low-income schools say things like, “Our parents are disadvantaged and can’t . . .” It’s what happens when people look at school and say, “The system is broken” or when they mock teachers for failing to use technology correctly.

A deficit mindset can skew how we think of people. For example, that demanding parent is actually someone who is deeply involved in the educational process. That student who won’t stop talking is also incredibly socially adept and that “standoffish” student is actually an introspective genius. That brand new teacher who seems to struggle with classroom management is actually on a learning curve – the same one you were on – and she has tons of great ideas and passion and a willingness to grow. And that “stuck in her way” veteran happens to know a ton about teaching.

A deficit mindset can also shape how we view situations. Yeah, bus duty can be boring. However, it’s also a chance to greet each child at the start of the day. Grading can get old but it’s also a chance to offer meaningful feedback and get a sense of how students are doing.

The goal isn’t a blind optimism. You don’t want to ignore problems and hope they will simply go away. The goal, instead, is a developmental mindset, where you can approach situations as opportunities to affirm what’s right, solve potential problems, and ultimately see things as opportunities to do something creative.

The following questions can help along the way:

Is there a reason for this? Is there a perspective I’m missing?
What strengths does this person have that I’m not noticing?
What are some potential opportunities in this situation?
Is there something I can learn from this situation?
Are there any positive aspects we can build upon?

I haven’t figure this out yet. There are still way too many moments when I view situations through a deficit mindset. However, I believe there is power in moving past a deficit mindset. Often, the initial challenge becomes an opportunity to solve a problem and be creative.

* Note that a deficit mindset isn’t the same as a fixed or growth mindset (which can involve both a negative or positive outlook).

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • David Geurin says:

    Wouldn't it be great if we viewed our challenges more as opportunities? Good stuff.

  • corriejb says:

    Yet another great post John, thank you. I have been thinking a lot lately about the current state of affairs in regards to how we elicit change and why we look to change in the first place. Mindset, or lack thereof plays a large part in the change process and assisting and helping people see the bigger picture should happen from a perspective of opportunity rather than sole necessity.

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