What Do We Mean by ‘Strength-Based Learning’?

Boy with binoculars and booksOf late, the term “strength-based learning” resonates throughout the educational world — especially as it pertains to twice-exceptional students. But the term is open to many different interpretations. Some emphasize developing the strengths of the teachers to improve their own methods and practices, thus modeling life-long learning to students and creating enthusiastic life-long learners (Lopez and Louis).

Then we have the perspective of positive psychology, which acknowledges strengths as a portal to develop a good and meaningful life and find a sense of fulfillment and gratification (Seligman). There is also the view that a true strength engages us in a state of flow and satisfaction rather just defining something we are good at but may not approach with passion (Buckingham).

These viewpoints of “strength” can aptly be applied to a lifetime of growth but are more difficult to apply in traditional educational settings. At schools employing strength-based learning, the idea can drive both curricular and instructional approaches by identifying students’ preferred learning styles, their strongest abilities, and especially their interests. Sometimes those strengths are not obvious and lie as “potential energy” (latent). Teachers have a variety of methods to discover student strengths — from specific questionnaires to astute observation — and then, especially, to build a strong relationship with each student. As strengths emerge, teachers use various ways to develop the strengths (shown in the chart below). Finally, through consistent attention, the strength is released into “kinetic energy” and manifests into an expertise that can lead in many directions.

PracticeExample
Leveraging strength for skill development
Recognize the strong verbal skills of 2e students and use this strength through teaching the art of storytelling to develop skills in writing, often more difficult, by focusing on the thought processes of structure, vocabulary, and expression.
Using strengths as entry points to new content
The strong connection conceptually between music and math has been used to help students with a propensity for music to understand certain math principles such as fractions and graphing.
Giving choices of how students express new learning
Using movement/dance to show the affective aspects of an experience in history such as immigration, The Westward movement, or slavery, are often much more successful in communicating abstract concepts than through writing.
Creating purposeful grouping of like-minded studentsTeachers use purposeful grouping of students with similar strengths for creating a project in life science on population control in animal habitats. By giving groups roles such as filmmakers, environmental activists, artists, reporters, students engage together more fully and produce more elaborate products.
Developing strength for its inherent value (talent development)
When passion exists, students with particular talents in music, athletics, writing, etc. are mentored in and/or out of school to develop their inherent abilities to an expert level.

Strength-based learning does not mean that the student will never work in an area of relative weakness, such as writing, but by experiencing ideas and growing concepts through the strength area, the act of writing often becomes less daunting, as structure, details, and elaboration have been conceptualized and expressed through the strength first.

Schools also can embrace the concept of “talent-focus” embedding methods to identify the latent and emergent talents. Once these talents emerge, we begin the ongoing process of “talent development” through explicit programs such as enrichment clusters, electives, and individual mentoring to develop certain extraordinary abilities for their own merit. As the student grows from novice to expert, these talents manifest into real-world products, giving students the opportunity to continue to grow through their strengths, find more confidence to address more difficult tasks, and to build a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives that will serve them always.

 

References:

Buckingham & Lanier (2016, March 28) Retrieved from:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdCfTLbS7ic

Lopez & Louis (2009). “The Principles of Strength Based Education”, Journal of College and Character, 10:4.

Seligman (2004), Retrieved from:
https://www.ted.com/talks/martin_seligman_the_new_era_of_positive_psychology

What Do We Mean by 'Strength-Based Learning'?:
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About Kristin Berman

Kristin Berman is Associate Director of Divisions at Bridges Academy. She previously served as Head of School at The Quad Preparatory School for twice-exceptional children in New York City. She has trained teachers, administrators, and parents in international schools throughout Asia, Europe, Middle East, Latin America, and Africa.

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