Moving from a Deficit to a Developmental Mindset

Deficit (noun):  Inadequacy or insufficiency, an unfavourable condition or position, to be lacking or a shortage. From the Latin – it lacks

Developmental (noun):  The act of developing from a simpler or lower to a more advanced, mature or complex form or stage


I received a call this morning from a teacher friend of mine. Claire[1] is a second year out teacher who began her teaching career after a varied and wondrous life journey.  Her life is a litany of success and achievement. She has been a nationally ranked gymnast, playwright, leader of transformational seminars, managed sales teams, mother, and carer. She rang me because she needed to talk to someone who understood the life of a teacher but was outside her school environment.

Claire felt that she was struggling at school. The school had asked her this year to step up to co-coordinate and rejuvenate English at a critical year level whilst taking on managing the school play and teach more classes. The school leadership team obviously thought a lot of Claire and her capabilities otherwise they would not have given her this opportunity. Claire’s challenges echo that of most teachers in the profession – the feeling that there is never enough time to get everything done that you need to do, let alone what others expect of you. Claire was currently experiencing her work as never being complete to her satisfaction, teaching as well as she would like to with a particular group, as well as having times of being overwhelmed.  Much of her concern was self-talk about not being enough and that other staff members were judging her performance.

In my experience this is a common feeling amongst teachers. With the relentless day-to-day nature of education many teachers rarely have the time to neither reflect deeply nor acknowledge the progress they make each and every day.  The feeling of needing to be constantly driven yet never enough is familiar to many. It is an experience of deficit – and I assert it is symptomatic of the paradigm in which education currently swims.

Recently in my work with a school to create supportive structures to empower and develop teachers I had a blinding insight about what we were actually trying to achieve – and it was far larger than I had anticipated and could explain why “performance” and “teacher evaluation” was resisted by many teachers.

Human beings, for the most part, live in a deficit paradigm. It is everywhere. It is in how we see ourselves, how we see the world, how the media portrays the world, in how politics is currently working, it is endemic in our schools. It is how companies sell us products, programs and desires. We aren’t doing enough, productive enough, rich enough, thin enough, smart enough, careful enough, etc. The recent viral Dove Real Beauty Sketches are a perfect example of how people see themselves from a deficit paradigm and the impact of that viewpoint.

Our education systems are then built upon this deficit thinking. We need to “improve” our schools. We need to “evaluate” or “appraise” our teachers and get rid of the bad ones and pay the good one’s more. Politicians use the language of deficit and impose deficit thinking models on schools and school systems. They look at other countries like Finland and Singapore through deficit eyes. If you just look at the language alone (e.g. ‘appraisal - the act of estimating or judging the nature or value of something or someone’) I am not surprised teachers and schools are resisting this thinking.

If you look at ANY high performing school, school system, team, organisation anywhere in the world, the paradigm that they operate from is one of nurturing, growing, building and development. This is not the language or viewpoint of deficit. There is nothing lacking but something to grow and nourish. Two recent TED talks by Rita Pierson and Sir Ken Robinson both point vividly to this.

Currently, we are immersed in a world of deficit and because of this we develop learning in schools from this mindset and we relate to one another from a deficit mindset. Our school structures hamper and hinder developmental thinking. Teachers need time to think, to reflect, to develop, to grow. Running from one class to another limits this. To improve performance in schools we must create structures for teachers to develop their own meta-cognition as a core part of being a teacher (or as I like to refer to them – master learner).

If we wish to create and transform the education system to unleash the potential of young people (and of ourselves) it is critical we create a developmental mindset and view the world through the eyes of “developing from a simpler or lower to a more advanced, mature or complex form or stage”. When something is developing it experiences stages of growth and stages of challenges. It needs to be nourished and watered and fed to grow.

The real battle we need to be fighting is one of context.

Inside a developmental paradigm there is empathy for the stage of development people are currently at. There is not judgement just an acknowledgment. It allows for acknowledgement of progress, and celebration. It realises there are muscles to build, and capacities to grow. In the realm of agriculture one does not judge the value of a plant and ask it to improve. We create an environment for it to flourish and grow. That is what we are actually trying to do with students and staff in schools – aren’t we? In fact, I assert that wherever you find a great teacher, a great school, great parents, great coaches, great teams and high performance – you will find this paradigm. Not surprisingly you will also find habits, structures, practices and actions that develop and grow learning.

My coaching to Claire was simple. As we spoke she became clear how hard she was on herself. She saw that she could have a lot more empathy for herself and also share and communicate with people at the school what she is dealing with right now and what support she would like. She left clear and empowered.

How does deficit thinking play out in your school? Where do you struggle with deficit thinking? Where do you see developmental thinking?

[1] Not her real name

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Comment by Adrian Bertolini on May 16, 2013 at 10:39pm

We just need to keep talking and not stop!

Comment by Nina Smith on May 16, 2013 at 8:43pm

Oh, I agree completely. Instruction is just a minor part of teaching - or learning facilitation, as I prefer. Teaching often has too heavy emphasis on the transfer of knowledge, while in the modern society where information is freely available more than ever, the knowledge must be seen as a dynamic construction of the learner (or group of learners). From my point of view cooperative and constructive learning that employs cognitive (and metacognitive) tools is the best approach - but communicating that is not easy. :)

Comment by Adrian Bertolini on May 15, 2013 at 4:11pm

What I am distinguishing is that even the common concept of being "teachers' can have a deficit mindset to it. "Teachers' or Master Learners create the environment for a learner to learn. There are certain actions are Master Learner can take to create the learning including explicit teaching and activities, etc but the focus is not to TEACH.

Comment by Nina Smith on May 15, 2013 at 3:33pm

I think the problem arises when standards create a distorted picture of "normal" learning. There is no such thing! Learning is individual and should be supported, not restricted. The normality  (conformity) is a problem everywhere, yet we can remind all teachers how they can (and should) choose how they teach, and parents about how every child is unique and learns in a personal way. I am checking out your blog as well :)

Comment by Adrian Bertolini on May 15, 2013 at 2:23pm

Thanks Nina. I have spoken to schools about developing students to have growth mindsets and how they can begin to structure their classes as such but what I realised is that the teachers in schools can be challenged by their own deficit mindset about learning (isn't that what they mostly experienced?) and also the school structures could be set up from a deficit paradigm. I shall check out your blog. My normal blog is

Comment by Nina Smith on May 14, 2013 at 11:45am

Hi Adrian,

Thanks for sharing this nice post! Growth mindset/developmental mindset makes a real difference in education. From my point of view it is also one of those things we could (and should) learn from Finnish education system (but I am biased, because I was trained as a teacher in Finland), among emphasizing process over product and cooperation over competition. I blog about these at

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