From a Deficit Model to a Human-Centered Approach

By Byron McClure

Despite our roles in the field of education, we have all been misled, leading us to focus on the wrong things for way too long. It's not our fault. We shouldn't blame any one person, group, or philosophy.

The truth is that if you are a teacher, school administrator, paraprofessional, school psychologist, school counselor, nurse, or any professional within education, then we have all without a doubt been conditioned—or shall I say trained—to pinpoint what’s not working! Like star athletes or skilled artists, we are masters of identifying what's wrong with people. Simply put, we've believed the deficit model is the right system.

Educators must ask the most pressing question: why do we (educators as a collective, despite your position) continue to use practices rooted within a deficit model? I argue that this is due to an inherent belief that stems from our training and practice.

Most teacher prep and graduate training programs are hyper-focused on training students to identify weaknesses, and it's been this way for decades. The good news is we can move away from solely identifying flaws and move toward a more holistic approach that also elevates a person's strengths.

To move toward a well-balanced approach, you must intentionally put in the work to shift from what's wrong (a deficit approach) to what's strong (a strength-based approach) and shift toward figuring out what is right with them.

To do this, we must first understand human needs. We must adopt a human-centered approach. The basic idea is putting people first. Simply put, we need to shift away from a deficit-focused approach to a human-centered approach, which puts people at the core of everything we do.

Here are three tips to help you begin.

1. Understand the Meaning of a Human-Centered Approach

As stated earlier, if we are in education, chances are we have been trained and conditioned to identify problems using a deficit lens. This lens then creates a deficit approach to how we practice. This approach to our practice prioritizes what is wrong, weaknesses, and eradicating problems. To be clear, I am not saying that we should ignore our faults and only focus on our strengths. Ignoring our weaknesses and concentrating ONLY on strengths can present its own set of problems.

Rather, I suggest that we leverage strengths to build up skills in a thoughtful and meaningful way. More specifically, we must use a human-centered approach by putting people first into how we solve problems. This human-centered approach focuses on developing solutions to problems by prioritizing the needs of people. It is a problem-solving process designed to meet the needs of others.

2Seek First to Understand

This shift requires us to really understand others. More specifically, people are our key stakeholders in everything we do within education. They are our most important currency. Therefore, to do anything meaningful in education, I believe we have to prioritize understanding their needs. So, how do you know what people need?

3. Start with Empathy

You can begin by building empathy—but not the cheesy kind of empathy. In this context, it runs deeper than just putting yourself into the shoes of others. Within a human-centered approach, empathy requires us to understand the thoughts, feelings, passions, and unmet needs of people on a deeply intimate level. Developing this requires putting in real work, and it begins with asking the right questions.

Check for the forthcoming book Hacking Deficit Thinking.

Photo by Liza Summer from Pexels
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