Anti-Deficit Narratives

I just read a great article in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, “Anti-Deficit Narratives: Engaging the Politics of Research on Mathematical Sense-Making” by Aditya Adiredja. I need to spend more time with the article, but I have two takeaways so far.

First, Adiredja shares the idea of “deficit master-narratives.”

Deficit master-narratives are socially circulated and reified stories in society that suppress morally relevant details about a person or group with the impact of disrespecting or misrepresenting such a person or group (403).

Deficit master-narratives impact who we perceived as mathematically smart. Whether I like it or not, these master-narratives bring the prejudices of the world into my math class. Adiredja distinguishes master-narratives from stereotypes in that master-narratives act as scripts that play out in everyday life, while stereotypes might only live in someone’s mind. In math class, the master-narrative is that only a narrow subset of students are likely to be mathematically smart. this script plays out in the ways that students look to others for help, the ideas they respect, and the voices they listen to.

I’ve seen conversations about asset-oriented teaching or strengths-based teaching become more prominent in the last few years. Deficit master-narratives are a useful way to understand the necessity for asset-oriented pedagogies. The opposite of holding an asset orientation is not being neutral; without an explicit asset orientation, deficit master-narratives creep into my classroom and undermine student learning.

Second, Adiredja breaks down what a deficit perspective looks like in practice:

I argue that deficit perspectives are generally supported by principles that overprivilege (a) formal knowledge, (b) consistency in understanding, (c) coherent or formal mathematical language, and (d) immediate change in understanding (413).

I find Adiredja’s perspective useful in being specific about the behaviors that lead to a deficit orientation. Sometimes in conversations about ambitious equity-oriented pedagogies like holding an asset orientation or rehumanizing mathematics, the ideas feel really big and broad and impossible to tackle. In some ways they are; that’s an essential part of a project that aims to reimagine mathematics education. But at the same time, Adiredja points to actions within my sphere of influence that I can take today. And there’s a bit of urgency. Without deliberate action, deficit master-narratives continue to undermine learning. Reimagining math class isn’t necessarily about tearing everything down and starting from scratch. It can begin with simple actions that undermine the systems that perpetuate inequities. A better understanding of deficit master-narratives and perspectives feels like an important step.

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