The Malta Independent 18 May 2021, Tuesday

Addressing ‘deficit-thinking’ to sustain inclusive and culturally responsive schooling in Malta

Saturday, 17 April 2021, 08:25 Last update: about 30 days ago

Sean Zammit

I was recently awarded the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Research and Development from the University of Lincoln School of Education, after the completion of an in-depth study on the interplay and effects of ‘neoliberal approaches to education’ (i.e. the re-imagining of schooling purposes from an economic point of view) and ‘deficit-thinking’ (i.e. the practice of holding low expectations for minority students) on the ‘restructuring’ process of the Maltese educational system. The aim was to present a solid theoretical framework on the concept of ‘inclusive education’ and to develop a solid platform for action to ensure equitable, socially just, and quality education for all students.


For this purpose, the research study utilized the pragmatist notion of ‘what works’ (i.e. the mixing of qualitative and quantitative research methods) to uproot the negative effects of neoliberal-deficit-thinking approaches in education. 

Apart from the identification of different cohorts of minority learners at risk of early leaving from education and training (ELET) in local schools (namely: learners suffering from physical disabilities and psychological conditions; learners with below average intellectual quotients; learners holding negative aptitudes towards schooling; learners living in difficult socioeconomic conditions; learners from diverse ethnic backgrounds; learners holding diverse religious creeds; learners with different sexual orientations), the research study also highlighted the beliefs, relationship status, attitudes, and working approaches of diverse educational stakeholders and revealed the major challenges and barriers to ‘inclusive education’. Essentially, collected evidence showed that ‘deficit-thinking’ in Maltese educational settings intensified with neoliberal approaches to education, which generated ‘power imbalances’, created a culture of blame and of stereotypic labelling, limited collective accountability for all students’ learning, produced an overreliance on compensatory (additional) support services, and pushed true ‘social justice’ to the margins.

By adopting a ‘critical lens’ to data analysis (based on the concept of schools as mirror images of societies), the research also managed to extrapolate positive correlations between the latter findings and nation-wide challenges to ‘sustainable social development’ to generate ‘common good’ and shared prosperity.  

To curb the negative educational and social effects of ‘deficit-thinking’, I proposed the ‘repositioning-of-the-self’ technique to create ‘communities of difference’ that respect and celebrate diversity; embrace inclusivity, democracy, and equity; stimulate commitment to deep reflection and constructive dialogue; and promote collectivism over individualism.

Essentially, the technique embeds first (linear development), second (transformational practices) and third (support to change present schemata) order change to stimulate ‘an equitable continuum of practice’ to raise awareness, enhance understanding, develop competences, and ensure responsiveness towards ‘person-centered processes and practices’ (through fair distribution of power and resources) to redress attainment gaps and social disparities.

Hence, the ‘repositioning-of-the-self’ technique encourages all social and educational actors to awaken their ‘socially dormant conscience’ (by gaining passion for the plight of the non-privileged or minority groups) and to challenge their cultural-deficit-theorising (beliefs, attitudes, actions, discourse, and behaviours) with new practices and understandings for inclusive education.

For this purpose, the proposed technique presents five system-wide components (rooted in an ‘ecology of equity’) to replace ‘deficit-thinking’ with: (a) ‘agency’ to balance power and to eliminate inequities; ‘community’ to create ‘communities of difference’ based on social participation; ‘social justice’ to identify injustices and develop equitable policies and democratic practices; ‘deep democracy’ to build a shared understanding on inclusive education; and ‘academic excellence’ to question ‘comfort zones’, challenge the ‘status quo’, and to move schooling beyond contrived collegiality towards shared responsibility and collective accountability for all students’ learning.

Together the latter components serve as a vehicle to develop a vision-based, value-driven, and communication-oriented system, i.e. an emphatic, socially just; democratic; and optimistic educational system to sustain the wellbeing, dignity, and capacity of all educational stakeholders through dynamic initiatives and productive relationships to increase social participation, self-confidence, friendship, self-awareness; self-esteem, and social skills.

The proposed technique also helps stakeholders to understand: (1) how disparity problems and intervention actions are enacted – from deficit-framed practices (that aim to ‘fix’ minority learners) towards equity-framed strategies (that target systemic changes); (2) how governance and leadership are practiced – from traditional and role-based hierarchical governing towards leadership through collaboration; and (3) how critical inquiry is integrated with organizational culture – from engaging in narrow inquiry towards continuous and systemic critical reflections.


Thus, the ‘repositioning-of-the-self’ concept rests on three intertwined systemic tools, namely: (a) good and strategic educational governance rooted in six interrelated domains (capacity, accountability, knowledge governance, stakeholder involvement, whole-of-system perspective, and strategic thinking and planning) to create highly inclusive educational settings; (b) inclusive leadership to allow educators to guide meaningful change by using authentic, distributed, and transformational leadership styles simultaneously to enhance strong commitment for equitable education; and (c) critical reflection for evaluation to create a culture of profound deliberation across all system levels to not only identify, but also address challenges for inclusive education.

Directly emerging from the ‘repositioning-of-the-self’ technique are the ‘model-for-strategic-action’ and the ‘diversity framework for strategic repositioning’, which provided practical and pragmatic recommendations for a comprehensive ‘rethinking’ process of the local educational system. My hope for the future is that local authorities utilize this research study to stir constructive dialogue on how to redress educational and social inequities to create inclusive societies. The study was fully funded by the Endeavour Scholarship Scheme. Full access to this research study can be found at this link:

Dr. Sean Zammit (PhD) (Senior Manager, National School Support Services Directorate, Ministry for Education)

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