Topic 10: How to get rid of the ‘deficit thinking’ and ‘victim mentality’ that is so prevalent in our schools ?

In many challenging and depressing situations, people often have little clue on how to solve or improve learner outcomes. They often slip into thinking of themselves as victims who have little and/or no control over the situation. Given our high dropout rate, desperate socio economic context and dismal performance in international Math and Science tests over the past 20 years, it is apparent that we have sunk into ‘deficit thinking’ and ‘victim mentality’ mode.

Richard Valencia describes deficit thinking as “a pseudo-science founded on racial and class bias. It ‘blames the victim’ for school failure instead of examining how schools are structured to prevent poor students and students of colour from learning”. Peter Michaelson similarly describes, victim mentality as, “a repetitive way of negative thinking where the victim has come to believe that others, not them, are responsible for their experiences and fulfilling their needs.” Both these behaviours have a negative effect on schools and the way teachers see and react towards their colleagues and in particular learners coming from poor and marginalised communities. These behaviours are often ‘invisible’ to those who don’t have the awareness of these phenomena, and the consequences on the teaching and learning process in the school. These phenomena create an atmosphere of negativity where most energies are spent on ‘breaking down’ rather than ‘building up’, ‘blaming and shaming’ rather than ‘supporting and affirming’, ‘recycling the problems and symptoms’ rather than ‘seeking for solutions and understanding/eliminating the causes’, ‘it is not me/my fault/business ’, rather than ‘how can I contribute to be solution’, etc.

In our methodology, we place great emphasise on the development of ownership among the different role-players in education, and therefore the first phase of change in our project is OWNERSHIP. This ownership is not located in only one role-player, but we identify the roles and responsibilities over which the different role-players have direct control, and assist them in understanding and exercising their influence. In building up ownership, we have to assist role-players in overcoming the following:

  • Knowing when they behave ‘as victims’, as well as discussing ‘the benefits’ (reasons) why they behave like victims, such as ‘attention and validation’, ‘no need to take risk’, ‘don’t need to take major responsibility’, ‘it makes you feel right’;Being okay with ‘not being a victim’, and therefore ‘giving up the benefits’ (the bag full of excuses) which could result in people feeling ‘empty’ without their ‘bag’;
  • Taking responsibility what you have control over, by building up their self-esteem that they have the wisdom and means to solve the problems and challenges;
  • Taking on a sense of gratitude, by moving beyond a sense of ‘poor, poor me …’, narrow, self-centred perspective into a much wider one, by looking for ‘hidden opportunity with a situation’;
  • Stop blaming others, and to be bounded to the condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel, by ‘letting go’ (forgiving) they dissolve that link and free themselves from thinking about the problems rather than the solution;
  • Turning their focus outward helping their learners, rather than focusing on the ‘department’, ‘parents’, etc., and thereby getting the benefit and joy of successful learners … allowing them focus on their professional life rather than their ‘conditions of service/employee’ life;
  • Giving them a break when they slip back into ‘victimhood’, but to constantly and immediately remind them when they take on that ‘role’, and then to empower them with alternative strategies to be a victor.

All of the above is implemented through change management processes within the unique context of each school. We have realized through experience on the ground that it is easy the talk about change, but it is more difficult when you have to implement that change. We therefore ensure that our change agents (those who assist schools on a weekly basis) become the change they want to see within their schools.


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