Strengths Based Learning

Strengths based learning: A boy standards with a super hero cape on and flexed muscles

Written by Lisa Bean

Lisa is the founder and head of school for IGNITE: An Acton Academy. She is a Mom of two boys, an entrepreneur, and a coach for high-performance businesses, leaders, and parents. She is passionate about re-defining education for the 21st century, and is adamant that learning be a fun and engaging experience that honours a child's unique strengths and passions.

August 11, 2022

When I first started using the term strengths-based learning to describe what I was searching for in a school for my children, I was surprised to find that it seemed like a foreign concept in the land of education.

People would look at me quizzically, and I wondered if I had just made something up. To me, it was a term that perfectly described what a learning experience should be.

In my usual domain, the corporate world, the strengths-based movement had taken over. My team and I had all completed our Gallup Clifton Strengths assessment and engaged in regular discussion and coaching about how to use our strengths to help the organization and the team. We also talked about how to use our strengths in such a way that made our day-to-day life more joyful and purposeful.

After all, when you’re doing something you’re really, truly great at, you typically experience a lot of positive side-benefits. You’re proud of yourself. You get positive feedback. You’re making a positive difference. You’re in flow. It seems easy. And on and on.

In our adult lives, it makes complete sense that you want to find your strengths and lean into them. You’re looking to find the right seat on the proverbial bus. In order to create strong teams and organizations, we all need to embrace our unique individuality. When we know our strengths and proudly bring them to table, the whole world benefits.

However, in public education, children are all too often asked to do the complete opposite.

This is partly because with large class sizes and a teacher-led model, all students are put into the same box. There isn’t room for everyone to find the right seat on the bus. Instead, everyone must sit in the same seat on the bus.

If as adults, we were all expected to be factory workers doing the exact same mindless activity as everyone else in the organization this would make sense. Following instructions and turning off our brains would be the measure of success.

Is that the case in today’s world? Or, is it what we think our future world will look like? Of course not!

The factory model is something we have evolved away from, however, our public education system, which was born out of the need to train factory workers in the early 19th century, has not evolved significantly.

What is Strengths-Based Learning?

According to an article titled The Principles of Strengths Based Education by Shane L. Lopez of Clifton Strengths Institute and Michelle C. Louis of Bethel University, a strengths-based approach to education is founded on five principles of modern education:

  • The measurement of strengths, achievement, and determinants of positive outcome;
  • Individualization, which requires a tailoring of teacher’s methods to student need and interest;
  • Networking with family, friends, and professionals who affirm strengths;
  • Deliberate application of strengths in and out of school;
  • Intentional development of strengths through novel experiences or focussed practice across a time horizon.

In simpler terms, I think of strengths-based learning is an approach that allows freedom for every individual to get to know themselves, their strengths, passions, and superpowers. At IGNITE, for example, we’re working to answer questions such as:

  • What do you do better than most?
  • What do you love to do?
  • What do others need you for?
  • How do you apply these strengths in a way that makes a difference in the world?
  • How can you use your strengths to support your peers in the studio?

In an ongoing quest to answer or refine the answers to these questions, much experimentation takes place. In that experimentation, an individual is learning about themselves, the world around them, and their impact on the world at large.

It’s project-based learning at its best!

Seeing Someone for Their Strengths

When we’re talking about strengths-based learning in an institutional setting, like school, one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle is in how we talk to each other. If we want an individual to become aware and lean into their strengths and superpowers, we need to be able to provide feedback to support that.

Often our own individual strengths are very hard to see. Our strengths come easily to us, and we automatically assume that if its easy for us, its easy for everyone. Some outside reflection can help us gain perspective.

As a result, we try on different strengths, see what resonates the most, and build confidence in our individual uniqueness.

Giving Strengths-Based (or, Positive) Feedback

When giving feedback to someone, you have a choice – focus on the positive and reinforce it, or, focus on the negative and give tips on how to improve. Humans have a natural negativity bias so it’s often very easy in the moment to convince ourselves that the critical approach is best.

The problem is, it doesn’t feel very good to the receiver and often creates more problematic avoidance, confidence, or relationship issues. I’ve noticed this in my own family. When my son was younger, he would read out loud to us. Since we were helping him learn to read, we’d point out corrections and tips as he went. We weren’t trying to be mean; we were trying to be helpful. We didn’t want him to develop bad habits in his reading and we thought this would help.

The result? He stopped reading altogether, and for years refused to read out loud to us. We had shaken his confidence so much that he didn’t even want to try. We are once again back to a point where he’ll casually read out loud in front of us, and now we’re careful to praise what he does know and forget the rest. If he specifically asks us for feedback or help, we’re there for him. But no more uninvited critiques!

In the book Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning the author, Peter H. Johnston, has this tip to share:

I see you know how to spell the beginning of that word. When a child has spelled farm as fo, what is to be said? The most important piece is to confirm what has been successful (so it will be repeated) and simultaneously assert the learner’s competence so she will have the confidence to consider new learning.”

I highly recommend this book for educators, and there are a lot of great tips that can be used in parenting, too!

Strengths-Based Learning at IGNITE

At IGNITE, we’re committed to helping our learners explore their talents and strengths. We engage with tools and assessments such as those offered by CliftonStrengths for students and educators.

We regularly discuss our individual uniqueness, reflect on our own strengths, and our fellow learner’s strengths. We work just like any real-world team would – we need to know each other, who we can rely on for help, and how we can best support each individual on the team. We encourage this internal and external awareness to grow throughout our time together.

If you’re interested in learning more about our strengths-based approach or believe this might be the right fit for your family, book a meeting with us. We look forward to meeting you!

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