AEL Volume 38 Issue 4 November 2016
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AEL November 2016; 38 (4):
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Strengths in schools

Robert Biswas-Diener

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Have you ever watched children in a physical education class divide up and choose teams? It’s an interesting process. The team captain – when I was a child that would have been Jeff Miller – begins by choosing the most athletic kids from the lot. In my case, that would have been Jude Nolen, Jenny Davis, and Troy Price. Back and forth the two captains would go; making their selections, unti l – somewhere around Mark Russo – the plan would change. Once all the athletes had been gobbled up the captains tried to mitigate any potential damage that might be caused by the less coordinated students. There are many criticisms of this approach to choosing sides. It plays into popularity, it sets up a ‘class system’, it has the potential to leave some kids feeling badly. Despite those drawbacks the example of team captains illustrates an important lesson: it is smart to focus on strengths and to do so even before focusing on weaknesses.

As surprising as it may sound, the idea of a strengths approach can be controversial. In business, some managers put their efforts toward redressing sub-par performance. In the classroom some teachers focus on managing individual problem behaviors often at the expense of collective learning. Even in our love relationships we can fall into the habit of pining for an improved version of our partners (meaning one with fewer flaws) rather than wishing we could just get more of them at their absolute best. This issue is important in the educational context because strengths is one way to engage students. In a 2016 Gallup poll of more than 10,000 Australian students only 59 per cent reported being enthusiastic about school and having the opportunity to do what they do best. Of the students, 27 per cent said that they were not engaged and the remaining 14 per cent were actively disengaged. Strengths is one possible answer to this problem.

If you are one of those people’s whose attention is drawn toward shoring up weaknesses don’t worry; you are in good company. Humans are evolutionarily evolved to notice problems. Threats, setbacks, and stressors tug at us in a way that compliments, successes, and progress do not. A recent study by psychologists Andreas Steimer and Andre Mata show another reason that people are inclined to think weaknesses can change, but not strengths. It’s as simple as self-esteem. People want their shiniest qualities – their intelligence, their humor, their kindness – to be stable. We want to think that if we are creative today we will likely be creative tomorrow and next month. By the same token, we want our flaws – our jealousy or our disorganisation – to be able to improve.

Despite these natural tendencies toward a weakness focus there is a mountain body of research pointing toward the usefulness of strengths. In a study of a speed reading course in Nebraska (USA) the students who had the most exceptional reading comprehension scores at the outset benefited disproportionately from the program even though all students showed gains in reading. In a study of the most effective managers from dozens of sectors one important differentiator was the fact that they spent disproportionately more time cultivating their top performers. In a study of university students, researchers found that a strengths focus was associated with more vitality and happiness. Finally, a strengths focus helped both foster children and their caregivers in a program in the United Kingdom. I am not suggesting that a strengths focus is a magic bullet but there is enough evidence to suggest it is worth considering.

Strengths are largely behaviors, and they are those that come naturally to us, that energise us, and at which we excel. Strengths are also democratic in that everyone has them. Some folks lean toward strategic thinking, planning and organisational strengths. Others are improvisational and creative. Some are charismatic and tell a great story. Others can adapt to virtually any situation. Interestingly, the Gallup organisation has found that specific roles do not call for specific strengths. Being a great teacher, for example, does not require that a person has a natural flare for oratory. A great teacher might find success by applying his natural empathy or her natural humor. What this means Is that everyone’s unique strengths have a place in the professional world and all are worth cultivating.

Jennifer Fox Eades, an educator in England, has designed strengths based curricula for primary schools. It might be refreshing to learn that her approach is not to clobber children over the head with how amazing and awesome they are. Instead, she threads intelligent conversations about strengths into existing curriculum topics. Teaching about ancient Rome? Why not facilitate a discussion about the types of leadership qualities Caesar would need. While you’re at it, why not draw parallels from those identified strengths to the strengths of the kids in the classroom. Teaching the book I am Malala to year 7s and 8s? There is a natural opening to expand the conversation to include strengths and how they are developed. Interestingly, students tend to react well to a strengths focus. They may not wish to be singled out for their strengths in front of a group but they tend to like to know that they have strengths and that these qualities are valuable.

Strengths are just as promising for faculty and staff in education as they are for students. Understanding strengths, it turns out, can be an important element of effective teamwork. Because strengths are so closely aligned with our personal values we can fall into the habit of prizing our own best qualities while denigrating those of others. Don’t believe me? Try this thought experiment: if you are a planner chances are it drives you up a wall to work with people who are more spontaneous, and vice versa. It can be hard to appreciate what the other person offers. Planners tend to make the most judicious use of resources and improvisers tend to work well under pressure. By labeling and understanding the wide gamut of strengths it is possible to take a more appreciative orientation toward co-workers.

About the author
Dr Robert Biswas-Diener is widely known as the ‘Indiana Jones of psychology’ because his research on positive topics has taken him to such far-flung places as Greenland, Kenya and India. His research has resulted in 50 published academic articles and chapters as well as eight books on topics ranging from happiness to courage to strengths.
Robert is an ICF certified coach and runs a coach training program. He lives in Portland, Oregon and rock climbs whenever possible, which is quite a bit.
Robert will be conducting a series of national workshops – ‘Strengths Based Schools’, in February and March 2017. Robert will also present a Keynote at the 2017 ACEL Wellbeing Conference on Feb 22nd in Darwin.

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