Asset-based Instruction versus Deficit-based Instruction/Learning

I recently facilitated the TEAL Student-Centered Learning online course focusing on writing. During one of the discussions, the idea of deficit-based versus asset-based instruction/learning came up. A participant said that in her experience one of the factors that motivates adult learners is their acknowledged weaknesses in certain areas. That made me think about deficit-based versus asset-based teaching and learning. I'd love to hear from this community what  your thinking is on this. In your classrooms, do you begin by focusing on the strengths of your students and use them as the foundation for building up areas they're weaker in or do you start by focusing on the gaps your students have and concentrate on strengthening them?

Thank you in advance for sharing your approach. I look forward to a thought-provoking discussion!

Kathy St. John


Hi, Kathy. For me this decision is a "no brainer."    Why? So many adults in our programs have never been led to think about strengths or weaknesses. Most just believe that they are weak academically or otherwise in every way!  Strengths? "Never thought of that!"   I believe in guided instruction that starts by building on what student have accomplished and know (scaffolding?), followed by practice in skills that are still to be accomplished. How? Small steps at a time that include the student in self-assessing growth along the way. Do we call that applying "independent-learning" strategies?   I have observed that once our students experience learning success, we can just sit/stand  back and direct, much like those airport agents who direct huge aircraft into specific  parking areas through arm movements and little flashlights or gadgets to help. Leecy

Thank you, Leecy. I love your image of adult ed teachers as airplane parkers! I think you're right!

Sadly, I too have seen too many students who have never realized they do indeed have many strengths. It comes as such a surprise to them when you help them develop a long and meaningful list of all of their strengths and accomplishments and name them as such. That is indeed a very powerful way to begin the adult learning experience for our learners. 

I'm curious as to whether asset-based approaches to learning and teaching is now just  the norm. I very much hope so but I have no way of knowing if this is the default way of teaching and learning in adult ed currently or if we still have some work to do in this area. I'd love to hear from other practitioners if  they, their colleagues and programs follow the asset-based approach. Some examples of this in action would be so great!  Would anyone else like to share your experiences with asset-based teaching and learning?


Definitely asset-based instruction!  So many of our students muster up the courage to return to school, and to take a chance on being successful.  If our focus of instruction is deficit-based, then our students often feel as if they never left their previous school.  They have so often been told what is wrong with them and that they are failures.  It is so important for us to focus on our students' strengths and to teach them how to build upon their own strengths so they can develop their areas of need.  I am currently facilitating a book club based on the book Teaching to Strengths.  As we are reading, we learn about ACES, adverse childhood experiences.  Many of our students come to us with unresolved ACES, in addition to the adult trauma they may have experienced, or are experiencing.  When we focus on our students' strengths we build their confidence and their resiliency, along with their academic and work skills.  When these students leave us with their secondary credential or training certificate, they have gained the self-determination and self-advocacy to rely on their strengths to help them to continue to be successful!


Thank you, Jeri. I couldn't agree more. I appreciate your sharing your perspective.

I'm really interested in the book Teaching to Strengths. What a terrific book for a book club! Who is in the book club? Is there a facilitator's guide or are you developing your own questions and topics for discussion? Are there any facilitation materials you could share with others who may want to borrow your idea?

You bring up another interesting point about trauma (recent and past) and its impact on learning. I see so many interesting PD opportunities focused on trauma-informed instruction but I haven't yet investigated it. I'm sure there is so much there that adult ed folks could use to enhance how we work with learners. That is on my  to do list!

Hi Kathy!  We are all enjoying this first book club!  Currently, the members are all correctional educators from both male and female facilities.  In the future, I hope to facilitate another group that includes community program members.

Yes, there is a facilitator's guide (check the ACSD site).  Because this book was published as a resource for K-12 educators, I have made some adjustments to some of the question prompts.  Also, because my current group members are all from corrections, there are concepts and situations that are addressed that do not, and could not, be applicable.  However, prior to beginning our read, I acknowledged that this was evident, and that our goal was to approach each question and/or situation with, "How can we adapt or apply this to corrections?"  We complete written responses the first week of a chapter and come together for a phone conference discussion on the second week of the chapter.  We have had some very insightful discussions about how many of our students come to us with trauma, violence, and chronic stress in their lives, and the importance of focusing on students' strengths.  This helps to avoid trauma triggers in our classrooms and helps our students realize that they actually do have strengths to bring to the classroom.

Thank you for asking!


Wow, Jeri!  This sounds like a truly wonderful experience. Thanks so much for sharing this information with us. I hope it inspires others to start their own book club around this book. It sounds like you've morphed a book club and a community of practice with great success. Having people share written responses about each chapter is so clever! I'm sure that helps everyone to become more engaged and accountable. Talking about the book chapter by chapter by phone rather than in person is a great way to break down some participation barriers and make the club more convenient for members. I could see a Zoom videoconference as a very effective tool for that piece of the club since you can all see each other at the same time, like the Brady Bunch television show  introduction. I guess you know about how old I am now, right?!

Thanks again, Jeri!

Hi Kathy, 

Thanks for the opportunity to reflect on a situation I experienced just today.  I accidentally had a cry with a new student. I teach ABE Reading. Since I began having students fill out a profile questionnaire that asks about their school history, their spoken language history, and their reading habits and self-assessment , I continue to learn more about each student and am getting more savvy at seeing their strengths in overcoming situations they most often had no control over during their school years. This allows me to note all the strengths I see in how far they have come DESPITE all that. A woman self reported experiencing some mental health characteristics that caused difficulty in reading - all her life.  It was why she quit school.  Anxiety, etc. YET she made a very strong showing on the CASAS GOALS pre-test and is a strong and dedicated student already in the first 2 days.  When I spoke to my understanding of anxiety, and showed her that I understood she was likely working HARDER than most others because of her strong skills, and we started to discuss small strategies that she had never heard of before, she broke down.  She had not ever felt actually SEEN before.  Of course, I cried with her, because I can't NOT! 

This questionnaire has been a boon to my work as a reading instructor. 


Thank you so much for sharing this experience!  You were probably the first teacher to acknowledge the hard word and dedication this student has exhibited over the years.  Kudos to you and her!  According to Teach to Strengths, there are four essentials of an asset-based relationship:  feeling safe, experiencing a real sense of belonging, feeling competent, and feeling valued.  Sounds like you have accomplished all four!


Hi Jeri--thanks for sharing about the book and book club. Before I realized you were facilitating it with corrections educators, my first thought was, that sounds excellent for those of us in corrections!! I've written the title down and plan to get a copy myself and see if we can do a book club next year with it.

You're so right--these students have never felt successful and have a hard time seeing anything about themselves as positive. We have definitely had several people who have felt both SEEN and HEARD and have told us so.

I have only recently become aware of "asset-based" education mindset and definitely think it's the best way to view our students.


Thank you for your message, Michelle. I'm so excited that you plan to try to develop your own book club with this book. 

Asset-based teaching and learning is even more powerful in correctional education so good for you for putting it in action. If any of our learners need this positive and affirming approach it's those who are incarcerated! How wonderful that you've seen such impressive results. I hope your post inspires others in corrections to follow suit. 

Thank you for sharing this nugget of gold, Jeri. This is essential information for how to create a safe learning environment for our learners in a nutshell. 

  • feeling safe
  • experiencing a real sense of belonging
  • feeling competent
  • feeling valued

So simple but so critical! And such a welcome change for most of our learners!


Hi Ann,

I'm sorry I've been away from this conversation for a couple of days. What a wonderful surprise greeted me this morning! Thank your sharing your  experience which absolutely illustrates the benefits of an asset-based approach to teaching and learning. I would have cried too!

Thanks also of reminding us of the importance of using an intake questionnaire with new learners. I'm always so surprised to learn that many programs don't do this and the only information they're using to evaluate and plan for their learners is some sort of skills test, usually a standardized one like TABE or CASAS. As you've so heartwarmingly demonstrated, that one-to-one conversation is so valuable and telling! It does take time but it's such a worthwhile investment. I hope one day soon all programs will have the resources and mindset to use interviews in their intake/assessment procedures.


Dear Kathy and everyone,

Just getting back to following this thread, and in the interim I had an eye-opening experience. When evaluating work with a student whom I am struggling to support effectively, I discovered that, even though I am adamant about using time to discover more about the student personally through an initial questionnaire (see post above), I ALSO use the CASAS score report to right away discuss the areas we are going to work on.  Whaaat?  I have focused on the areas that are lower than 85% to think about planning instruction.  While we all know that we should plan the instruction to support the needs, even this initial discussion could be a glaring red flag to any student with a particular background. That st. would immediately hear DEFICIT in my message.  RE Leecy's note above about starting with assets being a no-brainer, how did I miss this? As I approach next week's new cohort, I aim to update that message. WIth this new understanding also comes even more record keeping; required to effectively manage the knowledge of where everyone is RE Strengths - Needs - Progress. Thoughts?   


You certainly make a valid point.  The reality is, our students come to us with deficits in their educational backgrounds.  It is our responsibility to help them build upon these deficits so they can meet their goals of education, employment, and life!  I think what is important is HOW we deliver the information.  When we begin our discussion with strengths documented on a CASAS/TABE score, then we allow our students to feel some success from the beginning of their educational experience.  Once strengths are established, we can then talk about a plan to address a student's needs.  (I much prefer the words strengths and needs over assets and deficits.)  We can address the needs of our students much more effectively when we recognize their strengths.  This also provides them with more incentive and motivation to continue in an environment where they have previously struggled.