As someone who studies how teachers learn online, I spend a lot of time lurking among teachers on social media sites. When teachers enter these spaces, they gain a certain “invisibility cloak,” to borrow an image from one of my favorite wizarding book series, Harry Potter. This online invisibility cloak allows teachers to pose questions that they might not ask their school colleagues out of fear of retaliation or judgment—including candid questions laden with deficit language about students.
In the online communities of mathematics teachers that I study, such deficit language is often associated with labels about who can and can’t do math based on broad classifications of students. It is in these online spaces that deficit language can either be perpetuated or expunged. I would hope, at the very least, that it can be challenged.
The internet is an isolated teacher’s best friend. Access to information and learning communities online helps teachers combat geographical, philosophical, or temporal isolation. As easily as they could Google the correct temperature for roasting vegetables, teachers can access information to support tomorrow’s lesson instantly on the internet. Quick online searches or a question posed on social media will produce a multitude of resources specifically directed at their individual needs.
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Since teachers often prefer to direct their own learning, the internet is a valuable resource for overcoming isolation and finding tailored instructional help. So how can teachers work together in these spaces to combat deficit language? I would like to highlight one Facebook group of mathematics teachers that I have studied closely. While their interactions are not always deficit-free, teachers in this Facebook group continually challenge the language they use to describe students.
The group was created in 2017 by Stanford University’s professor of mathematics education Jo Boaler and her research team (which I was a member of at the time) in response to a growing demand by teachers for a space to work together. To become a member of the group, individuals must pledge their commitment to sharing growth mindset messages with others in work and life, believing that all students can learn mathematics to high levels, being a lifelong learner, affirming that the system can change and that they have agency in bringing about change, and asking questions when they need help.
Even after taking this pledge, members of this group do still fall prey to using deficit language and harmful teaching techniques. But this group has not become an echo chamber of negativity; instead, its members are comfortable highlighting and addressing one another’s poor language choices and teaching practices.
While their interactions are not always perfect, teachers in this Facebook group continually challenge deficit language that is used to describe students."
In my analysis of this group, I observed multiple instances where the group self-regulated their language and teaching practices in real time. Here is one example from the early days of the Facebook group that highlights the power of the pledge and the important work these teachers are actually doing together:
A member posted that she was concerned by the amount of deficit language used by members. She specifically referenced how members easily fell back on labels like “high” and “low” when describing students. This post whipped up an active debate in the community, quickly generating unusually large engagement among members.
While some participants defended this language as unintentional, most of the interactions focused on strategies to reframe such deficit language. One member suggested focusing on the strengths of the students and their communities by using the theory of Funds of Knowledge—that is, drawing on students’ cultural practices within an educational setting. Other members offer teaching strategies that provide all students with a chance to build on their strengths, such as through assigning tasks with a low floor and high ceiling.
The original poster remained in the conversation, highlighting how certain labels get used as proxies for who can and cannot do mathematics. She challenged the group to broaden their definition of being good at mathematics to be more inclusive of different kinds of success.
Within the comments, teachers shared personal experience, cited research-supported teaching practices, and participated in meaningful exchanges. These interactions allowed both participants and lurkers opportunities to reflect on the language they use to describe the performance and perceived abilities of students. They also offer a blueprint for how other teachers can improve their practice by challenging one another to view students through an asset-oriented lens.
Online communities offer teachers a space to be vulnerable. In these spaces, teachers should seek out learning communities with a diversity of beliefs about teaching and learning. With that cloak of invisibility offering comfort, I encourage teachers to build professional learning communities online where they can have a truly constructive, honest dialogue.
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A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2019 edition of Education Week as Unlearning Deficit Language, Together