Saturday, December 31, 2011

Spotlighting the Strengths of Every Single Student: Why US Schools Need a New Strengths-Based Approach by Elsie Jones-Smith

I have just started reading this book and am only a few chapters in but am finding it to be a great read!  The premise of the book is to build classrooms and school that are driven by student and teacher strengths rather than on re-mediating weaknesses.  It is a pretty big paradigm shift because as teachers we want to find the things that students don't know and then teach those things to the students.  This book argues that our time and energy should be going in to finding what students are good at and growing that instead. 

The theme of the book is that we learn more from using our strengths than from trying to fix our weaknesses.  When we focus on the things that students are not able to do we will often use a lot of energy to only get a student to a point of mediocrity.  If we put that energy in to strengths, students would move to a point of excellence and because of the increase in self-efficacy and awareness, the student will often end up righting the weakness him or herself.  A teacher can also work with a student once he/she knows his/her own strengths around how to use them in all areas of schooling. We all need to stop and analyze why the things that are working work rather than focusing on why the things don't work aren't working.  We will learn more this way.  Seems simple... but do we put it in to practice?  I think of all the times that I've fallen back to deficit/remediation thinking through my career.

Another theme that has run through the book to this point is that self knowledge is the core of most learning and we need to put more effort in to developing meta-cognitive strategies with students.  Once students are aware of their strengths they can work with teachers to figure out how to address any area of strength (or do so on their own).  When students know more about what they can do they will take more responsibility for their learning as they are willing to take the risk.  Motivation to learn becomes internal.  Self knowledge of strengths also means that students do not see failures as the end of the line.  Because they are aware of what they can do they re-engage with what they are trying to achieve.  They have a toolbox to draw from to move through hurdles.  They come to believe that they have what it takes to get through.  The motivation to learn comes from them.

A third theme is the idea that learning happens in the middle of trusted relationships.  Learning is rooted in emotions and in order to learn students need to be in a state of "relaxed alertness".  Threat should not exist but challenge should.  An environment where it is okay to take risks must be created. What we do and say as teachers has a profound impact on how a child sees him or herself which has a profound impact with how he/she engages in learning.

A few other interesting points so far...
  • Other than a strength and deficit mindset, we often also think from a "settling mindset" with some students - believing that they will only do so much and trying to "help them" set realistic expectations.  This does not represent a strength based mindset and creates harm to a child.
  • Strength based approaches create a domino effect.  When people feel good about themselves, they will turn around and see the good in others and that will help others to feel good about themselves.  My thought here is that someone who is deficit based coming in a community that is strength based could tip the scale if the strength base is not well rooted.
  • In classroom practice strength based learning equates to experiential learning, use and understanding of learning styles, multiple intelligences and cooperative learning.  This is very much rooted in what we are coming to understand about education through neuroscience.
The book outlines a Strength Based program for schools that involves five components which are as follows.  I'm just at the point of starting to read about these.  
  1. Social Emotional Curriculum
  2. The Academic Curriculum
  3. The Caring School
  4. Prevention 
  5. Increasing Home-School Partnership
The book also talks about "Strength Zones" that people have.  It is important for all of us to understand our own strength zones so that we can use them to maximize our learning.  These zones are: 
  1. wisdom
  2. emotional strengths
  3. character strengths
  4. creative strengths
  5. relational and nurturing strengths 
  6. educational strengths 
  7. economic and financial strengths
  8. problem-solving, decision making and leadership strengths
  9. social support strengths
  10. survival strengths 
  11. physical and kinesthetic strengths
One more area that I'm interested in exploring in the book is related to how this all applies to "behaviour".  Just peeking ahead I was interested to read that on the behaviour front I peeked at a section on "pain-based behaviours" and how important it is to use restorative measures in helping students.  We need to understand rather than respond.  We also need to help students develop skills related to awareness of emotions (self and others), communication, self-expression, coping, relationships..etc.

So far it's a great read!

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