T1.3 Examine and disrupt dominant and deficit-based narratives in the curriculum and the classroom

Highlander Institute Spotlight Series


A dominant narrative is “an explanation or story that is told in service of the dominant social group’s interests and ideologies” (Inclusive Teaching). A well-known American example is the “bootstraps” narrative — the idea that anyone who is willing to work hard, live by strong values, and take personal responsibility for themselves has an equal chance of being successful in this country. This idea has become normalized through repetition and authority, the illusion of objectivity, and the silencing of alternate perspectives. The reality, however, is that opportunities within the United States do not exist on a level playing field, but are instead influenced by policies and systems that benefit certain people. 

Deficit-based narratives blame victims for their lack of success. In schools, deficit thinking faults students, their families, and/or their cultures for academic or behavioral challenges they are experiencing. Deficit thinking offers educators an “appealing explanation” when their instructional approach does not reach a student (Dudley-Marling, 2015), and can lead teachers to conclude that nothing can be done to support a student, resulting in decreased efforts and lowered expectations. 

Within K-12 curricula, dominant narratives “are influential in reproducing systems of power and privilege in schools and society” (Bacon & Lalvani, 2019). Many dominant curricular narratives are inherently deficit-based. Centering only White male authors, scientists, activists, etc. or perspectives within lessons suggests that people with other identities are not worthy of being included, and informs how our children define what is possible and who is valued in our society. Utilizing resources with diverse, asset-based perspectives elevates the intellectual traditions behind various identities, allows students to see themselves reflected in their academic work, widens the collective knowledge base, and provides opportunities for students to step into alternate worldviews with empathy and respect.


  • Education systems have attempted to remedy the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities through inclusion and detracking, but have failed to align these moves with an interrogation of dominant narratives connected to ability, standards, and structural inequality. Consequently, the goals of these reforms have been undermined, prompting teachers to “desire a return to more segregated forms of school organization” (Abu El-Haj & Rubin, 2009).
  • The null curriculum is what is not taught in schools (Eisner, 1994). The decision to omit socially challenging topics is influenced by a teacher’s upbringing, sociocultural environment and mindset. “When certain subjects or topics are left out of the overt curriculum, teachers are sending messages to students that certain content and processes are not important enough to study” (Chowdhury & Siddique, 2017).
  • Ensuring that student identities are represented in lessons and discussions fosters belonging and value for students — key components of identity-safe classrooms. The Stanford Integrated Schools Project, a year-long study of 84 elementary classrooms, found that in higher identity-safe classrooms, students had higher scores on standardized tests, wanted challenging work, felt a greater sense of belonging, and felt more positive about school compared to students from less identity-safe classrooms (Steele & Cohn-Vargas, 2013).
  • There is overwhelming evidence for the positive social and emotional effects of diverse curricula. Reading texts written by members of underrepresented ethnic groups in school curricula improves the self esteem of students of that ethnic group, and causes all students to have a greater appreciation for cultural difference (Zaldana, 2010).


  • “The only way to dismantle deficit thinking is piece by piece. First, we need to recognize deficit thinking when we see it. It requires critically reflecting on how we are socialized into perpetuating these myths…and understand[ing] that differences—…how we learn, speak, or listen—are not deficits. Second, …learners’ experiences, interests, and lives shape their perspectives on information and education, and these points of view must be made an integral part of teaching. The best motivations of all, for teachers and students, are learning something new from or with other people and knowing your perspective is valued” (Tewell, 2020).
  • ​​Convene a multi-stakeholder group to conduct a culturally-responsive curriculum audit.  Review materials to ensure they are representative of diverse groups and perspectives and promote teaching practices rooted in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Here is an example from Bexley City Schools, OH. Consult this tool from Learning for Justice to support the selection of diverse texts.
  • When introducing a new unit (biology, poetry, geometry, World War II, portrait drawing — any topic across any subject) present students with the biographies of scientists, writers, mathematicians, historians, artists, etc. that reflect their identities. Include their contributions and perspectives within the unit, and allow students to identify characteristics they share with the scholars presented.
  • Use the Whole Book Approach (WBA) to highlight how picture books can provoke meaningful, transformative conversations between children and adults that “embrace race.” 10 Tips for Reading Picture Books with Children through a Race-Conscious Lens.
  • Expose your students to books and sources that center different identities and are written by authors with different identities. Check out Social Justice Books for a comprehensive selection of multicultural and social justice books for children, YA, and educators.


Abu El-Haj, T. R., & Rubin, B. C. (2009). Realizing the equity-minded aspirations of detracking and inclusion: Toward a capacity-oriented framework for teacher education. Curriculum Inquiry, 39(3), 435-463. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20616440

Bacon, J.K., & Lalvani, P. (2019) Dominant narratives, subjugated knowledges, and the righting of the story of disability in K-12 curricula. Curriculum Inquiry, 49(4), 387-404. http://doi.org/10.1080/03626784.2019.1656990

Chowdhury, T.B.M., & Siddique, M.N.A. (2017). An explorative study on the null secondary science curriculum in Bangladesh. Science Education International, 28(2), 147-155. http://dx.doi.org/10.33828/sei.v28.i2.8

Dudley-Marling, C. (2015). The resilience of deficit thinking. Journal of Teaching and Learning, 10(1). http://doi.org/10.22329/jtl.v10i1.4171

Eisner, E.W. (1994). The educational imagination: On the design and evaluation of school programs. New York: MacMillan College Publishing Company.

Inclusive Teaching. Dominant narratives. University of Michigan. https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/inclusive-teaching/dominant-narratives/

Steele, D.M., & Cohn-Vargas, B. (2013). Identity safe classrooms, grades K-5: Places to belong and learn. Corwin Press.

Tewell, E. (2020). The problem with grit: Dismantling deficit thinking in library instruction. Libraries and the Academy, 20(1), 137-159. http://doi.org/10.1353/pla.2020.0007

Zaldana, C.J. (2010). Multicultural education: What is it and does it have benefits? CMC Senior Theses. Paper 64. http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cmc_theses/64