Focusing on Strengths: A Lesson from Rudolph

Hermey and RudolphEditor’s note: This piece was first published in December 2018.

As this holiday season ramps up, we are reminded of diversity and the gift such differences offer us in the tale of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

How sad that Rudolph’s difference was scorned:

“All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names. They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.”

No one even was even curious about the delight of that shiny nose and what potential it had to bring happiness and light to others. In fact, in the famous cartoon version of the story, this theme is expanded. We see Rudolph’s parents’ original joy with their son jeopardized when they acknowledge his obvious difference from the other reindeer. And rather than recognizing this difference as a special talent, the parents tried to fix the problem and conceal Rudolph’s nose by covering it up and not allowing it to shine. However, their plan was exposed when the disguise fell off after his exceptional performance in leaping class with the other reindeer.

Rudolph was by far the best of the class in a talent area coveted by all. However, once his red nose was noticed, Rudolph’s world fell apart. Not one reindeer focused on Rudolph’s leaping prowess or considered positive implications of the unique nose; indeed he was scorned and isolated by his peers. Rudolph withdrew and became anxious and depressed.

Rudolph was in hostile territory, where his way to survive would be “fight or flight.” Rudolph chose flight and went off on his own to find a safe place. Over the course of the story, he meets other loners who have unique strengths and abilities but also have been identified by their differences. This little group included Yukon Cornelius, a silver and gold prospector, who while talented with his ice pick hasn’t found any riches; and Hermey, an elf with a passion for dentistry who failed at toy-making, as he had no motivation for or skills in that area.

Faced with a myriad of challenges throughout the story, the solutions always relied on the group using their strengths or personal talents. At one point their common enemy, the Abominable Snowman, was inside an ice cave about to demolish Rudolph when the miner used his advanced, self-proclaimed, superior intelligence to arrange their escape. Being an expert on Bumble behavior, the prospector devices a fool-proof plan. Luring Bumble out from the cave with Hermey’s hog calls, Cornelius uses his ice pick and mining talent to chip off blocks of ice from above the cave entrance that successfully knock out the monster. Hermey then contributes by pulling out all the Bumble’s teeth, and when they all return to Christmas Town, the Bumble is encouraged to use his great height to put a star on the Christmas tree. Ultimately, Hermey is encouraged to pursue dentistry, and Santa finds good use for Rudolph’s shining nose.

In contrast to the deficit model, the solutions lay in finding strengths and personal abilities to create a sense of belonging and to feel valued (Maslow, 1958).

Faced with a myriad of challenges throughout the story, the solutions always relied on the group using their strengths or personal talents.

In some recent articles, looking for personal styles, learning preferences, and strengths has been disparaged, as these approaches don’t share a strong research base even though their presence cannot not be ruled out. In fact, the research upon which these conclusions were based is sketchy at best due to narrow definitions and hypotheses. But more troubling is the latest article appearing summarized in Education Week Blog (December 3, 2018). In it, the authors conclude that even though there may be cognitive differences in how students learn, the emphasis should be to lean away from strength-based approaches and to also stress fixing their weaknesses.

“We shouldn’t only work on the students’ strengths, but also try to work on their limitations. Because outside in the real world, they’re going to be facing all kinds of stimuli,” explained Marietta Papadatou-Pastou, a lecturer in neuropsychology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens who was interviewed in the blog article.

For students who are twice-exceptional, the development of personal strengths, interests, and talents are critical for their intellectual growth and ultimate success in society as shown in the Rudolph story. In fact, at Bridges Academy, we have found a body of research that negates the efficacy of using a deficit model (Baum, Schader & Owen, 2017). But more than that, the observed differences seen as problems often come with possibilities. In this case, Rudolph’s nose was different and glowed, but having a nose that glows is also a gift.

At Bridges we understand that with unique wiring comes both strengths and challenges. In fact, the child with autism spectrum wiring may have difficulty understanding the “bigger picture” but is excellent with details. Some students with dyslexic brain wiring may abhor details, especially in reading and spelling, but excel at metaphorical thinking and visual design.

Likewise, students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder seem to falter at focus and following directions, but when out-of-the-box thinking is required, they outperform their peers. Using diverse abilities fosters greater success at problem solving and creative productivity among members of a community.

Indeed, Rudolph and his friends may have been considered twice-exceptional — having special talents and learning differences. It was when the conversation focused on what was good about their unique “wiring” that the narrative changed to a learning community where all members can contribute their special abilities to work together in harmony and shared pride.

We must look at the talent that our twice-exceptional youngsters bring to the table because of their learning differences — and develop the talents of our students both for their own sense of worth and the value they contribute to their community.

After all, there always will be a need for those who can, literally or metaphorically,  guide the sleigh.



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About Susan Baum

Susan Baum, Ph.D., is an educator, author, consultant, and Director of the 2e Center for Research and Professional Development. The author of To Be Gifted and Learning Disabled, her writing and research cover many areas of education, including differentiated curriculum and instruction, gifted education, gifted learning-disabled students, and gifted underachieving students.

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