January 10, 2017 in School Culture

            One thing is certain when it comes to your students – what you look for, you will find. If you look for problems and deficits, you will find them. If you look for gifts and strengths, you will find them. Thanks to an overabundance of data, we know more about the deficits and strengths of our students than we ever have before. Why is it that we immediately zoom in on the weaknesses? This laser like focus on remediation seems to drive many of our policies and practices. But perhaps a focus on students’strengths would be a better use of our time and energy.

            I recently visited a school with big challenges, where teachers and leaders talked about the overwhelming task of bringing so many low performing students up to minimal grade level standards. I couldn’t help but wonder if what they really have is an abundance of students with untapped potential. It is a big paradigm shift to move from a focus on deficits to a focus on capacity. It requires us to see the adversity that our students have overcome as evidence of their ability rather than evidence of their vulnerability.

            A focus on weaknesses leads to a lack of confidence, which leads to disengagement, which leads to inhibited learning. And when student learning is lagging, we are led right back to a focus on weaknesses. This disengagement-remediation cycle is a difficult cycle to break. In contrast, a strengths-based approach is built on a foundation of hope and optimism. It is built on a fundamental belief that students already have strengths, abilities and assets useful for navigating through challenges. Perhaps building on students’ existing strengths gives them a head start in terms of confidence and competence.  

            You see, data only shows where a student was at one point in time. Data cannot possibly paint a picture of what the student will be in the future. There is really no way of knowing, with time and effort, where a student will end up. In the words of journalist, Malcolm Gladwell, “A prediction in a field where prediction is not possible is no more than a prejudice.” Instead of being driven by data, let’s be informed by data and driven by a powerful vision for each student’s future success. Instead of just mining for minimal mastery, let’s start prospecting for potential.

Questions for Reflection:

What do you know about your students’strengths?

How much of your time, energy and resources are devoted to building upon strengths? To remediating deficits?

How can you build upon students’strengths as you move them toward content mastery?

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