Lani Horn gave a great talk at the University of Utah earlier this year that I just stumbled across a video of on Twitter. The title of the talk is, “An Asset-Orientation is Everything: How Strengths-Based Approaches to Math Teaching Help Teachers and Students. The heart of the talk is about 40 minutes and it is absolutely worth watching. I want to pick on one small element of what she said that resonated for me, and also poke at it a little bit.
In her talk, Lani focuses on the challenges of ambitious teaching in math and the influence an asset-orientation has on teachers’ ability to improve their practice. More specifically, she makes this claim:
An asset-orientation is necessary (but not sufficient) for math teachers to improve their practice.
If you’d like to see her reasoning and the breadth of research she cites to back up this claim, go ahead and watch the talk. In this post I want to focus on exploring what an asset-orientation is and also what I think it is not.
Lani defines an asset-orientation in her talk:
When teachers take an asset-orientation toward students, they seek to understand their strengths and value them as whole people.
She then offers a contrast between two ways of talking about a student:
It’s worth unpacking the first image, because those phrases and similar phrases can seem benign on the surface, but function in ways that perpetuate deficit thinking. Things that seem descriptive, like “a C student” can actually essentialize that student’s capabilities. Even when we mean well, phrases like “at-risk” can surface a deficit framing for a student that assumes they are less capable, assumptions that are likely to play out in practice.
An asset-orientation focuses on strengths and values students as whole people. Here’s another quote from Lani:
Doesn’t mean I’ve given up on her as a student, though. Doesn’t mean that I’ve excused her or written her off. I am going to work with her. to figure out how she’s going to develop her student skills, despite the challenges that she has, building off of the strengths I see in her.
Lani addresses a misconception I had about deficit thinking. Lani is talking about a shift in language from looking backwards — at prior performance, at demographics, at other things that are currently out of that student’s control — to looking forwards at the work that is necessary to help that student reach their potential. The purpose is not to pretend that deficits don’t exist. Instead, the purpose is to frame problems of teaching practice in ways that are solution-oriented and value what students bring to our classrooms. Deficits do exist, but focusing on deficits and framing problems around deficits makes them suddenly intractable. An asset-orientation is solution-oriented and focuses on where the work forward begins — building off of student strengths and capabilities.
In the past I’ve felt a bit queasy about some of the language I hear teachers use when they chide others for using deficit framing. If deficit framing is being replaced with fluffy language that just replaces a deficit with a euphemism and offers no path forward, that’s not a useful change. If avoiding deficit framing is only focused on language and not what teachers do next, it’s just semantics. That’s why I think Lani’s conception of an asset-orientation is so important. It’s focused less on eliminating deficit framing — necessary, but not sufficient — and more on the language we should be using and the influence that language has on everyday practice.
If you’re interested in another thought-provoking talk from Lani, check out this video on what it means to have the knowledge one needs to be a teacher.