Deficit model in education: a dangerous conceit?
If only we filled our minds up with even more knowledge, even more skills, GDP will dog-leg upwards, productivity will soar and all will be well. The conceit of education is that the answer to bad schooling is always more schooling. The glass is always half empty, even when the data suggests it is close to the brim. We always seem to have deep deficits and divides; digital divide, digital skills, maths, 21st C skills, qualifications, even happiness!
It is easy to see why the ‘deficit’ model of education has taken root - it’s a means to an end – always a demand for more money and more research. The problem with the deficit model, is that it has an unexpected consequence. Your enemies pounce upon the same arguments to promote fiercer regulation and control on education, as you have already defined yourself as having created those deficits, you find yourself being branded as the blob, where standards have slipped and some stern discipline is needed to reduce the deficit which you admit is a massive problem. In the current climate, if you promote the deficit what you get is, not increased investment, but austerity. The exaggerated deficit model becomes the rod for education’s own back.
1. Digital divide
The most obvious exaggerated deficit is the digital divide, where, no matter how positive the data on mobile penetration, broadband take-up, massive use of Wikipedia, YouTube and social media is presented – there’s always someone in the audience whining on about the relatively small number of people who are ‘disadvantaged’. Yet when I speak to these people, the elderly, the disinterested and the downright skeptical, they don’t feel disadvantaged at all. They choose to live without this stuff and that’s fine by them and fine by me. Even those who want, but can’t afford, to get online invariably have a library, community centre or other way to access if they make the effort. I’m not saying that there is no digital divide, only that it is alluringly alliterative and not so much a divide as a vanishing problem.
2. Digital skills deficit
Again, the deficit model suggests that even the young lack the digital skills they really need. Digital literacy, the phantom that launched a thousand grant applications, is bandied about, as if it were a chronic disease. In fact, it is a phantom limb, a largely imaginary appendage that allows armies of adults to sell their services in reducing the so-called deficit. In truth, schools are ill-equipped to deal with digital skills, as the deficit, if it exists, is more prevalent among the teachers than the learners. Sure there’s some work to be done on digital safety but let’s not brand it as some huge deficit.
3. Maths deficits
Wherever we turn the maths Taliban are there, demanding more maths. The graduate baristas in Brighton don’t even have to work out the change as the till does it for them. Yet we need more algebra, quadratic equations and surds. You will be forced to take and retake GCSE Maths, even though most of it will be of absolutely no use to you in your later life. Maths teachers are the last people I’d turn to for help and advice in the real world. The illusory maths deficit is the leaning tower of PISAs awful legacy, branding education as a failure and wiping out huge swathes of useful knowledge and skills in favour of illusory benefits.
4. 21st C skills deficits
It’s become a weary PowerPoint cliché – 21st C skills. We need to teach collaboration, communication, creativity, critical skills. Yet, the learners already communicate, collaborate and create using tech, every five minutes or so. We come along and claim they have a skills deficit (21st C skills) and want to teach this stuff, usually in a classroom, where all of the tech is banned. I’m hugely amused at this conceit; that we adults, especially in education, think we always have the skills we want to teach. In my experience, it’s schools, colleges and Universities that need to be dragged into the 21st century, not their users.
5. Qualifications deficits
If only more people had more certificates, more degrees, more paper qualifications, we’d live in a utopian paradise of massive productivity and wealth. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. As more and more people get bits of paper, those bits of paper become commoditized and worth less. In fact, the massification of Higher Education may have led to even more inequality, acting as a sorting mechanism in the job market, rather than being related in any meaningful way to the economic growth.
6. Therapeutic deficits
The weird assumption that all learners and employees are mentally deficient and in need of therapeutic help from educators and HR types has taken hold, resulting in mindfulness, wellness and happiness jargon being bandied about like ant-depression tablets. Well meaning but naive types crow on about the assumed emotional deficit in us all (the glass is not half empty but completely empty) and demand that it be reduced through half-baked, new age fads.
Meanwhile - real deficits ignored
Every year there’s recognition of vocational skills’ deficits. Every year there’s educational and political intent to reduce those deficits. Yet, every year we demote, diminish and destroy whatever vocational skills delivery we have left in our system. This is a deficit of education’s making. Our political class largely comes from two Universities, the reports are written by abstract academics, with no real understanding of the mess they’ve created – endless bodies, changes, fiddling and procrastination. Apprenticeships is but one of a long list of messy failures. Massive amounts of financial resources, especially from public sources, are being spent on the wrong things, peripheral, exaggerated deficits, as opposed to real and valuable education.
Deficit models demand calls for reducing the deficit. But where the deficit is exaggerated it creates a climate of distrust, where politicians dismiss the deficit mongers or worse, turn their own arguments back on them, to ridicule and diminish them even further. What has worried me recently is education’s tendency to turn the deficit definition of education into something far worse – the pathological definition of education, where our emotional well-being and health is a target for schooling. When education is seen as a cure and cognitive deficiency a disease, we need to worry.