Strength-based learning:A positive way to engage students
Editor’s note: The following is the first of a three-part series on strength-based learning. Thursday’s installment explores the concept in action.
CULVER – You may remember when “positive thinking” was the byword of the day. Advocates such as Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, recommended surrounding yourself with positive affirmations to counteract the negative influences of life. This reporter was not above looking in the bathroom mirror and repeating the mantra “I am the best I can be. Today will be the best day of my life.”
Criticism of this approach suggested that it was not realistic—that it ignored the facts of life. It was called “pie-in-the-sky” and “a Pollyanna view of life.” The general field of study dealing with the effect of positive emotions on the psyche is called applied positive psychology. It has advanced considerably in the last few years. Specifically, this field of study has led to the concept of “strength-based learning,” which uses students’ individual strengths to enhance learning.
Marshall County has its own pioneer in this field, especially as it relates to student education. Dr. John Yeager is the Director of the Center for Character Excellence at Culver Academies. He has co-authored a book entitled SMART Strengths: Building Character, Resilience, and Relationships in Youth (Kravis Publishing, 2011). This generally supports the educational concept called “strength-based learning,” a very different approach from the earlier positive thinking.
Yeager said: “Education has primarily focused upon ’what you haven’t done well’—deficiency mechanisms.” This view is supported by Donna Burroughs, Superintendent of the Triton Community School Corporation. “The idea behind it [Yeager’s approach] is to work with students/staff based on helping them soar with their strengths and not always focusing on remediating ‘weaknesses’,” she said. “I think this is particularly interesting in light of how ‘No Child Left Behind’ has had the schools constantly looking at where students are weak in academic skills,” she continued.
Yeager’s odyssey toward highlighting strengths accelerated in 2004-05 as he explored available inventories for determining strengths in individuals. Criticism of this concept harked back to earlier positive thinking models. “Some people considered it ‘happiology,’” said Yeager.
In 2005-06 he studied at the University of Pennsylvania in the area of applied positive psychology. There, he connected with his co-authors—Sherri Fisher, an education management consultant, and David Shearon, an attorney working in professional development and K-12 education. From this background, the team realized that the best way of working with student strengths is to first have their teachers, parents, and coaches doing personal strength work. Then, those who regularly contact students can be equipped to lead their students down this path.
Consequently, Yeager has worked with staffs of educators in various settings. The logical starting place being Culver Academies, he has led workshops there, and is developing an online SMART Strengths course for parents of Culver students. SMART is an acronym for the skills of spotting, managing, advocating, relating, and training. Coming up in March is an Ethics Day with Academy seniors, and he is working on a model which can be translated from Culver Academies to schools with underserved students. Also, locally, he has trained staffs at Triton Elementary School and the Plymouth School of Inquiry. His influence extends far beyond Marshall County, however.
Some of the research for his book was done with the Toronto, Ontario public schools. He has interacted with Christel DeHaan, head of the Christel House in Indianapolis, one of the state’s most successful charter schools. In January, he worked with the psychology classes of Conway Saylor at The Citadel in Charleston, SC, where he and co-author Shearon led students in field work in underserved public schools in the area. He also delivered the annual Leverett Lecture and trained the cadet leadership corps there. While in Charleston, he met with the Charleston Public School officials and established a plan to work with the school corporation in the future on research in PBIS—positive behavior intervention support.
Other future plans for Yeager include doing more local research and then going national with his SMART Strengths model of strength-based learning. A version of his approach is even now being used in Australia. There is a good possibility of working with the Calumet New Tech High school in the near future.
“SMART Strengths emphasizes a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset,” said Yeager. “It works in the areas of strengths, resilience (bounding forward, not just bounding back, from adversity), and relationships,” he continued. It helps to counteract “negativity bias” (looking to the “dark side”—his phrase). All strengths, according to Yeager, have a shadow twin. A strength of group leadership might become a detraction if the group perceives the leader as bossy.
For a snapshot of how the SMART Strengths system works in practice, the final two articles in this series will detail procedures at the Plymouth School of Inquiry and the Triton Elementary School. John Yeager and colleagues have advanced student development far beyond what Norman Vincent Peale espoused. As another researcher has said, systems such as Yeager’s encourage respectful engagement, task enabling (allowing others), and trust. For more information, go to www.smartstrenghs.com