This week’s post is another set of excerpts from Jennifer Stanchfield’s new book: Inspired Educator, Inspired Learner: Experiential, Brain-Based Activities and Strategies to Engage, Motivate, Build Community, and Create Lasting Lessons. This article combines a discussion of the power of a strength-bases approach and an activity to illustrate it’s application to teaching or training.
Strength-Based Teaching: The Power of a Positive Mindset
Trust people as if they were what they ought to be and you can help them to become what they are capable of being. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Researchers are continuing to find that the most effective social interventions and teaching strategies are those that focus on strengths and assets over deficits. For decades, positive psychologists have recommended that educators work to build the positive attributes that help people thrive rather than focusing on the negative behaviors. Many business and education leaders have been looking in this direction in recent years (i.e., Gallup’s “Strengthsfinder” [Rath & Buckingham, 2007] program and Strengths-Based Leadership, Daniel Pink’s  Drive on intrinsic motivation, and Carol Dweck’s  Mindset: The Psychology of Success).
Proponents of strength-based approaches have popularized the term “grit”—a positive trait based on perseverance, powerful motivation, and passion for long-term goals (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). This kind of perseverance is associated with long-term success in life. Angela Lee Duckworth and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have conducted studies on the impact of self-control and grit on academic and professional success and how educators can cultivate these traits.
The strengths-based view toward youth development and education is now being recognized on the federal level. In the U.S., federal human service agencies and policy-makers are now replacing deficit focused prevention and social intervention programs that focused on negative behaviors with strengths-based approaches designed to build assets and resources in youth. The “Positive Youth Development” approach is based on longitudinal studies by organizations such as the SEARCH Institute and the National Research Council on the specific physical, cognitive, social, and emotional factors that promote positive development and help youth avoid risks and thrive to become successful, productive members of society.
This research promotes the same connecting ideas we explore throughout this book, including experiential education, social-emotional learning, brain-based learning, and differentiation. It points to factors such as the need for a safe and supportive environment, clear boundaries and expectations, a sense of purpose, competency and mastery, positive relationships with adults and peers, social skills, positive identity, and caring for and service to others.
I believe a strengths-based approach involves a state of mind on the part of the educator to believe the best about their students or participants and an attitude that everyone can succeed, they just might take a different path to getting there than planned. It is a positive approach focused on opportunities, goals, and strategies. The foundational principles of this book are based on a positive, learner-centered belief in the power of groups and individuals to engage in meaningful learning when they are supported and guided in a positive way. Chapter four explores the power of our attitude as educators. For further research around the power of a positive attitude and strengths-based approach to teaching see resources.
Postcard Strength Activity
Purpose/Focus: celebrating/appreciating others, strengths and positive qualities of others, mindset, descriptive language, metaphor/imagery, reflection, community building, communication, citizenship, self-expression, peer interactions, group norms, writing prompt
Materials: postcards, images or objects
In chapters five and nine, we explore how using postcards and metaphoric objects and images can spark introductory conversations and initiate meaningful reflection on learning experiences. This Postcard Strength activity uses this technique as a morale and rapport-building experience that strengthens the whole team. Use this activity with smaller groups that know each other and with participants who are comfortable with group process and sharing with the whole group.
Outcomes/Reflections: Celebration the personal strengths and contributions of colleagues and/or fellow students is something that doesn’t happen enough in the workplace or at school. In my experience, people have regularly share thoughtful compliments and insights that go beyond the reasons the individual chose the card.
Resources/References: This idea was first suggested to me by a participant in my workshop at the Chewonki foundation. You can find postcards at yard sales and flea markets. Experiential Tools offers “Pick-A-Postcard” postcard sets for educators at www.experientialtools.com.