College students are confronted daily with a variety of pre-existing expectations and biases: You should behave this way in classrooms. You should already know this material before enrolling in a class and understand this process to navigate the labyrinth of university life.
As higher educational professionals, our first instinct may be to focus on everything we want students to learn from us. But focusing too squarely on skills and knowledge that students may not yet have, even unintentionally, can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and stifle student engagement.
This concept of deficit thinking — a ubiquitous and harmful mindset that views individuals outside the “norm” as being individually responsible for any perceived shortcomings — is the topic of a new book by UNLV librarians Chelsea Heinbach and Rosan Mitola, and co-author Erin Rinto. "Dismantling Deficit Thinking in Academic Libraries: Theory, Reflection, and Action" explores the concept in higher education and academic libraries, analyzes the ways it negatively impacts student learning, and proposes a new way of approaching students.
“Deficit thinking ignores students' cultural strengths, diminishes the value of their lived experiences, and falsely validates negative perceptions of students' families or their communities,” says Mitola.
Heinbach concurs, adding, “In the library classroom, one common way deficit thinking manifests is by assuming that students don't know how to do research or find credible sources. However, students research every day to make decisions, find employment, learn about politics, navigate higher education, and more. We find that when we engage students’ interests through things like creative research projects and personal research topics while building bridges between academic research and everyday research, students find more meaning in the work.”
In this interview, Heinbach and Mitola discuss how deficit thinking negatively impacts students – especially those from historically marginalized groups — and how educators can reframe their thinking about the value students from different backgrounds and experiences bring to the classroom.
Can you start off by walking us through what deficit thinking is? Where does it come from?
Heinbach: Deficit thinking is the belief that there is a prescribed “correct” way of being — also known as the norm — and anyone who operates outside of that norm is operating at a deficit. They are perceived to be lacking something and therefore need to be “fixed'' and brought into the norm in order to be successful. Unfortunately, the burden of the prescribed “fix” usually falls entirely on the individual by suggesting that they “try harder” and ultimately conform to the practices of the dominant culture. Historically, if there is support available, it is entirely focused on bringing others into the norm, rather than changing the norm to accommodate others. This can be a painful, even violent experience.
Mitola: This thinking doesn’t exist only in education — this mindset permeates our society — influencing our social programs, community organizing, businesses. And it can pervade many people’s worldview without them even realizing it.
In education, deficit thinking can discourage teachers and administrators from recognizing and acknowledging the positive values, traits, and dispositions of certain students. Deficit thinking focuses entirely on what these students may not have access to. This results in educators ignoring the lived experiences and knowledge students already have that they bring with them into the classroom and could enrich the space.
How has deficit thinking been especially harmful to students at a Minority-Serving Institution like UNLV?
Heinbach: Unfortunately, deficit thinking often focuses on groups of students who are discussed as being “nontraditional” in educational spaces. This includes students of color, first-generation, international, disabled, neurodivergent, and transfer students, along with really anyone who doesn’t fit in the “traditional” student category. For example, students who work, have caretaking responsibilities, are veterans, and many others also don’t align with the so-called “traditional” student experience as it was originally envisioned. Deficit thinking perpetuates the idea that the students who belong to these groups are the exception to the rule and that they don’t truly belong.
Mitola: This is especially true for students of color who face structural, systemic barriers throughout their educational experience. By the time they reach the university, they’ve likely experienced harmful constructs such as being labeled “at-risk.” And now in college, students of color may also have to overcome structural and social inequities like learning the hidden curriculum — the unwritten rules that impact how a student navigates and succeeds in higher education.
Heinbach: And even though sometimes educational interventions like addressing the achievement gap come from the well-intentioned place of wanting to help students succeed, we need to ensure we are not telling only one story about these students. Moreso, we should be doing just as much to change the inequitable systems of the university as we are to teach students critical thinking skills and subject content.
How do we move away from a deficit-based approach to working with students to something more productive?
Mitola: We’ve found in our own work that dismantling deficit thinking requires a great deal of reflection. It requires that as individuals we recognize the dominant narrative, take time to identify where we have accepted it in our teaching and work, and ultimately identify how to disrupt it and let it go. As educators, we have to commit to continuously questioning and reflecting on the deficit mindset and how we encounter it in ourselves, our classrooms, and our institutions. This internal reflection will help transition to a strengths-oriented mindset. The next step is then enacting equitable principles through practices that we can employ in our research, teaching, and actions.
Heinbach: Which is really what our book is all about. In our research, we set out to determine what liberatory pedagogies had in common. As a result, we believe that in order to dismantle deficit thinking, educators must commit to:
- Honor students prior knowledge
- Create opportunities for genuine engagement for students
- Center social interaction and community knowledge
- De-center classroom learning
- Work against systems of educational oppression
You’ve presented on deficit thinking with the Flora and Stuart Mason Undergraduate Peer Research Coaches. How has your interaction with these students shaped your research?
Mitola: Working with the Mason Peer Research Coaches has shaped my research throughout my entire career at UNLV. When Chelsea, our colleague Brittany Paloma Fiedler, and I worked together on a research project on the lived experiences of transfer students at UNLV, we shared that project with the current cohort of Mason Peer Coaches. They were really inspired by the project and it piqued their interest in research in academic libraries. One of those students then reached out to see if they could participate in a future research project.
In thinking about how to best support their academic goals and provide professional development opportunities, instead of having them participate in maybe the less desirable tasks of a project (citations, transcription, data collection), we decided to have them take the lead. When they learned more about deficit thinking, they immediately shared memories both as student employees and as students at UNLV where they had experienced the harm of this mindset. Hearing their stories firsthand provided incredible insight into how important it is to deviate from a deficit approach in my work. Working with them on their research project “#NotYourDeficit: Honoring the unique strengths of first-gen students through community-based participatory research” was the most rewarding experience. It solidified my commitment to challenging and dismantling deficit thinking and systems of oppression in my day-to-day work at UNLV.
Heinbach: I completely agree. Working with the Peer Coaches confirmed what we believed about how the deficit mindset can negatively impact students. Rosan and I were both first-generation students as well, so it was incredibly meaningful to work with the Peer Coaches and discuss the ways this approach had affected us all. They improved the work we were doing every step of the way with their unique perspectives and insight. I learned so much from working closely with them on that project and encourage others working with students to create space for them to take the lead more often.
What do you hope readers of your book will take with them?
Heinbach: I hope readers who find upon reflection that they have absorbed the deficit mindset about themselves or others will feel energized, informed, and emboldened to shift their thinking and practice. I hope those who have been impacted by deficit thinking recognize what a disservice it was to them, and I hope everyone creates space for a broader, more hopeful perspective of what is possible in education and in our communities.
Mitola: I have similar hopes to Chelsea. I hope that readers will feel inspired to share these liberatory methods for countering deficit thinking with others so that together we can create a supportive and empowering learning environment for all students.