Observe with an Asset Orientation

This is the fourth post in a five-post series. Read the first three posts at these links:

  1. Four Verbs to Hone Your Observation Superpowers
  2. EXPECT – Expectations Define What We See
  3. OBSERVE – Observation Begins with Active Engagement

An Asset Orientation Is Everything

We have high expectations. We actively engage students. We observe to take notes on what they say and do. We are feeling on top of our formative data-gathering game!

Then, brain science enters the equation with humbling news: We don’t always see what’s right in front of us. This is especially true when we have implicit biases—which, as humans, we always do. We have all been conditioned by false narratives about racial difference, language hierarchies, and gender differences—whether we believe them or not.

Implicit Inheritance

In culturally and linguistically diverse schools, false narratives about racial difference and language and class hierarchies are elephants in the room. They shape our biases and life experiences in different ways depending on how we self-identify and how we are perceived by the world. For example, as a white woman with unearned privileges of race, language, and class, my relationship to these biases centers on seeing and dismantling implicit assumptions of my superiority that I do not explicitly believe to be true. Not seeing these biases or changing them perpetuates my advantage. How I approach (or avoid) seeing and changing these biases is shaped by this unjust truth.

This differs from internalized racism—one way some people of color may experience the same false narratives of racial difference. I can’t know this from my experience, so don’t learn this from me. Read and listen to multiple perspectives including Donna K. Biven’s “What is Internalized Racism?” (chapter 5 in the linked book), and Mikey Makey’s blog, “Woke Girls”: Pushing Back Against Internalized Racism in Students of Color.

Even across our very different identities and lived experience with false narratives about race, language, and class hierarchies, we have internalized implicit biases that shape what we see (and don’t see) when we watch students. It takes intentional awareness of these unintentional patterns to change them.

Looking at data is not enough. It takes a critical awareness of our own internalized deficit defaults to accurately see current levels of student performance and what they mean for our next steps in teaching and leadership.

Seek Assets

When watching students or analyzing student work, seek to understand their strengths. This sounds easy, but in reality can be challenging because we humans have a negativity bias.

Have you ever left a day of teaching and fixated on the one part of a lesson you feel could have gone better? Or walked about of a party where you had many satisfying conversations, and yet you fixate on the moment you wish you had said something differently? These are both examples of negativity bias, the human tendency to pay more attention to a negative experience than a positive one.

Negativity bias impacts the data we notice about our students, and what we remember. It can lead us to focus on misbehavior again and again, and miss the moments a student does what we expect. It can lead a teacher to see in student writing all the grammatical errors, and conclude a student “can’t write a sentence!” even though the majority of the sentences in the essay use correct grammar.

A great way to work with negativity bias is first to acknowledge it is there.  When you see what’s not working, appreciate the insight and then pause to ask, what strengths can I find?

I like to use a simple T chart like the following table to make it a practice to notice strengths in addition to goals.  For on-the-spot feedback, I jot a T chart on a self-stick note and share a strengths and goal in a quick conference with a student or group. When analyzing student writing or conversations with a team, we use a T chart to organize our observations of strengths and challenges.

T Chart Example Analyzing a Student Conversation


 Next-Level Learning Goals

  • Students look at their partners.
  • Students each share one idea in a complete sentence.


  • Expand the conversation building up ideas together.
  • Ask questions or elaborate.

The more a student is struggling, and the more preconceived notions we have about a student’s performance, the more critical it becomes that we stop and ask ourselves – what is the student doing that is working?  What am I not seeing?

If the student is fluent and literate in a language beyond English, seek to understand the students’ proficiency in that language and ways you can build on that powerful language asset to deepen learning for your classroom.

Seek to understand the assets your students have that you don’t share. What assets does a student bring that perhaps weren’t valued in your family or your community growing up? Be in humble inquiry about which social and academic strengths you privilege in your classroom community.  Do students who thrive with humor, leadership, resistance and critical questioning, for example, thrive in your classroom and school?  Or is conformity more strongly rewarded?

Reflect: What strengths does the student demonstrate in this moment?  When do I see the same student most engaged, confident or joyful? What else do I need to learn and understand to see the assets this student brings to life and learning in and beyond school?

Take Action

Take Action: Collaborate with colleagues, students and communities to identity the many assets the students you serve bring to learning.  Get specific together about how to connect to students’ home languages, cultures, values, and life experiences in the classroom.

Engage in lifelong work to know your biases. Read Get Explicit About Implicit Bias. You’ll find links to relevant TED talks and the humbling IAT test, too.

Stay tuned for the next post: Use Observation Data to Reflect in Humble Inquiry.

Related Readings and Resources

I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.

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