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Deficit thinking 

Deficit thinking isn't talked about as much as it should be. We think deficit thinking is important for everyone working with young people to know about, which is why we have created this helpful summary.


The topics covered are based on common questions from past training participants. Teachers seeking practical ways to challenge deficit thinking in their classroom should check out our training An Anti-Racist Understanding of Deficit Thinking

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Deficit thinking refers to the idea that students from various “at risk” groups fail in school due to their internal deficiencies. This could be a number of different factors: home life, social and economic status, gender and race. It is safe to say that deficit thinking affects the majority of young people you work with. 


What is Deficit Thinking ?

So why haven't I heard about it?


The likelihood is that you have. But, what deficit thinking does really well and what Dr Tomas Arciniega called the ‘perfect crime’ in 1977 is to blame the victim (the young person) and hold them responsible for change. A somewhat historic example would be the promotion of self defence classes to women in the 90’s to keep themselves safe. Unfortunately this harmful type of thinking is all too familiar. 


Within the education sector we see a plethora of youth mentoring programs seeking to build confidence, resilience and self esteem to succeed or survive in school.  What assumptions are Aspire Youth making? Does any of this seem familiar? 

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Resilient to what?


When we talk about building a child's resilience and/or confidence, we should ask ourselves resilience to what ? In preparation for the real world? The likelihood is that children targeted for these interventions are by virtue of their identity already some of the most resilient. We believe that building resilience to structural inequality should never be a requirement for children to access learning.  


But, what about strengths based thinking ?


Although it feels intuitive, the opposite of deficit ideology is not a strengths-based one. That is because it's possible to embrace a strengths-based view while still bypassing the institutional racism that deficit ideology hides. The only way to dismantle inequality is to name it. In the case of racism therefore, the opposite of deficit ideology is anti-racist, anti-oppressive ideology and action: an unbending commitment to become a threat to all forms of inequality.


Examples of Deficit Thinking



Statistics about the disproportionate exclusion of Black boys have been a mainstay in our education system since Bernard Coard first published his pamphlet ‘How the West Indian Child is made educationally subnormal in the British School System’ in 1971. Some may argue that statistics like this raise awareness. But they also encourage us to think there may be something wrong with the Caribbean culture, family structure, or something else associated with being from the Caribbean. As a result we end up attempting to solve disproportionate exclusion rates through direct work with Black Caribbean boys, instead of grasping the problem of racism in education at its root.


Black Caribbean boys are three times more likely to be excluded than other students:
The attainment gap:



A key priority in education at the moment is closing the attainment gap for students eligible for Pupil Premium. This concept relies on deficit thinking because it asks students to ‘catch up’ to a target that we as professionals have set. If we want all students to succeed, it is crucial that we acknowledge our history in England of denying some children access to the quality education they deserve. In 2006 Gloria Ladson-Billings wrote a paper called ‘From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt’. In her paper she questioned the sectors’ focus on catching students up, and refocused professionals on the debt we owe to children from groups we have historically excluded from learning.


Boycott Inequility

Become a website member today! By registering, you will become part of a group of like-minded teachers dedicated to recognizing, reflecting upon, and responding to the effects of deficit thinking in their classrooms. Website members are able to register for our training, and are the first to hear our latest news.


Reading list

We are on a mission to spread awareness of the harm deficit thinking causes in the education sector. ‘Deficit Thinking’ is a fairly academic term, and better known in North and South America than in the UK. Below we have provided a number of authors who discuss deficit thinking in varied, and accessible ways. Class 13’s CPD offer begins by building an Anti-Racist Understanding of Deficit Thinking. We have taken the time to research and understand deficit thinking within the UK and more specifically the London context. 


  • Franz Fanon - Black Skin White Masks

  • Richard Valencia - Dismantling Contemporary Deficit Thinking: Educational Thought and Practice

  • bell hooks - Teaching to Transgress 

  • Paul Gorski - Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap

  • Katy Swalwell - Educating Activist Allies

  • Paulo Freire - Pedagogy of the Oppressed


We recommend - New Beacon Books, but If you do use Amazon please sign up to smile.Amazon and donate to Class 13. 

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