|Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell|
What if We Focused on What is Right?
Part I in a Series on Empowerment and Potential
Humans find great joy in getting better at something. It is probably not an exaggeration to state that the evolution of our species depends on this characteristic being passed along from generation to generation. For example, our entire educational system, when working properly, should ultimately empower students and move them towards their potential. Drawing on a wide variety of resources and discussions with staff at Currey Ingram Academy, I will write a series of Extra Credit articles for the 2015-2016 school year on the topics of empowerment and potential as they relate to education. The articles will focus on how individuals and groups can take purposeful steps towards empowerment on the road to achieving their potential.
What if you focused on what is right?
With another school year underway, what if we all pledged to focus on what’s right about ourselves and our loved ones? The history of psychology and education is much more a history of pointing out what is wrong (i.e., abnormal, deviant, incorrect) rather than pointing out what is right. You might remember that Psychology 101, albeit interesting, was full of when things go wrong examples. This attitude has been so prevailing that it has spilled over into everyday life, including educational practice. For example, when you think about evaluation in schools, it immediately becomes apparent that the focus is often on what’s wrong.
To a certain extent this has to be so. After all, we must be aware of incorrect ways of thinking in order to correct them. However, I believe we have overly relied on a negative focus and that this is not the best way to help students reach their potential. There’s increasing support for the idea that focusing on what positive psychology calls strengths is a more effective means of moving towards empowerment and potential.
Thanks to some interesting and very practical research by the positive psychologist Donald Clifton, an accurate online assessment of one’s strengths and talents exists. I had 120 faculty and staff at Currey Ingram Academy complete the assessment and found overwhelming support that it seemed to be doing what it claimed it was doing – identifying people’s top strengths and talents.
Why is this important?
This is important because people’s strengths and talents can vary greatly. This assessment identifies 34 “talents” that fit into four “domains.”. Human beings vary in these talents, just like they vary in height and hair color. Also, just like height and hair color, it makes no sense to say there’s a “best” strength. Some of the 34 strengths include learner, achiever, empathy, focus, competition, includer and responsibility.
To understand more, imagine signing your name. Piece of cake, right? Now imagine signing someone else’s name as they would – not so easy. Now imagine, signing someone else’s name with your non-dominant hand – even harder. Similar to signing your own name, your particular strengths and talents come naturally.
What is the right way to learn how to swim?
To dive into the idea even more, let’s say I wanted to get better at swimming. A logical question might be, “Is there a correct (or better) way to learn how to swim?”
To demonstrate that there is no right way to learn how to swim, we can use some of the terminology from the strengths and talents assessment noted above. The strengths-related domains are Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building and Strategic Thinking. Very crudely you can think of people falling into one of four strengths domains.
How does an “executer” learn how to swim? Basically, an “executer” is described as someone who finds it relatively easy to implement a solution to a problem and will work very hard to get it done. They might be more likely to create and follow through on a well-conceived plan to learn how to swim
What about an “influencer”? The essential characteristics of “influencers” relate to their ability to take charge, speak up, and make sure they are heard. In learning how to swim, you can imagine this type of person proactively surrounding themselves with people and resources that they can readily utilize (influence) on the path towards the ultimate goal.
“Relationship builders” will likely seek out a social context in which to learn how to swim, since they thrive on personal contact.
Finally, “strategic thinkers” will seek out ways to absorb and analyze information as they learn how to swim. For example, they would be much more likely to read a book, analyze videos or have technical discussions about the nuances of the swimming stroke.
So, what is the “right” way? As you likely figured out, there is no correct way to learn how to swim. Learning and getting better at swimming can be achieved from entirely different approaches and mindsets. We will achieve our potential in swimming and elsewhere much more readily and effectively if we focus and capitalize on our particular strengths and talents to do so.
What’s the take-away for the educational setting?
To the extent that it is possible, the educational system ought to acknowledge the differences in strengths among students. Research supports that this will help increase student potential. Every school and system would possibly need to take a different approach. At Currey Ingram, all students are required to undergo psychoeducational testing every three years. We use this testing (and other observations) to help craft an individualized learning plan (ILP) uniquely suited to that child. For us, this is one way we can help our students gain the vital confidence children need to work on the tough “not right” things and move forward with success.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is the head of school for Currey Ingram Academy. “Extra Credit” is provided each month by Currey Ingram Academy to help parents at all schools and at all stages of the parenting journey.
Currey Ingram Academy is a private K-12 day school for bright students with learning differences and unique learning styles. For more information, click here.