What is Strength-based Education?

Should education be focused upon deficiencies are strengths? Some proponents of strength-based education argue for the latter, but point out that this requires reimagining what we do and how we do it in schools. Toward that end, consider the following eight principles of a strength approach to education.

1. We can learn as much from studying people who are thriving as studying people who are struggling.

Strength-based education comes from the positive psychology movement. With early leaders like Martin Seligman, positive psychology decided to deviate from more traditional approaches to psychology that focused research on psychoses and neuroses; opting to spend more time studying positive traits. For example, it provides suggestions for treating depressing by not only studying people with depression, but by studying people who have consistently positive emotions. Instead of only looking at post-traumatic stress disorder, it looks for examples of post-traumatic growth. Or, we might learn about overcoming boredom and disengagement by studying the conditions under which people are highly engaged, or even in what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi referred to as flow. By learning from people at their best, we can identify lessons and principles that might help us and others experience such things as well.

2. We can help students learn and thrive by investing in their strengths as much as or more than addressing their deficiencies.

A deficiency approach to education focuses upon discovering what students do not know or are bad at, and focusing the time and energy of students on remedying those deficiencies.  A strength-based approach does not ignore deficiencies. We must address those deficiencies that are holding us back, but learners spend more time and energy on leveraging, refining, and expanding on their strengths. By doing so, the learners gain the self-confidence to grow in areas of deficiency eventually as well. This means that a strength-based approach to education places the emphasis upon what is going well with learners.

3. The goal of strength-based education is the equipping of confident, courageous lifelong learners; not just well-behaved, contributing citizens.

As noted by Lopez and Louis in the 2009 Journal of College and Character, “Strengths-based models embody a student-centered form of education with the primary goal of transforming students into confident, efficacious, lifelong learners whose work is infused with a sense of purpose.”

4. Schools and educators measure what they value.

So, a strength-based approach not only measures student learning in traditional academic areas. It also seems to measure things like hope, well-being, positive character traits, leadership strengths, emotional intelligence, goal setting, creativity, engagement, and mindsets (as in Carolyn Dwek’s growth versus fixed mindset). Plenty of research indicates that these factors contribute to well-being and flourishing in life beyond school more than measurements of factual knowledge about content areas (not that those are to be ignored).

5. Strength-based education replaces one-size fits all learning with personalized learning.

f we change the goal of school to focusing upon helping students develop their strengths, that means different paths and destinations for different learners. It is for this reason that strength-based education usually provides students with opportunity to set some of their own goals, with teachers and others guiding them in their pursuit and achievement of those goals.

6. Strength-based education seeks to help students discover their unique combination of gifts, talents, and abilities to make a unique contribution to a world of “neighbors.”

For those of you who watched Mr. Rogers as a kid, he often reminded viewers that they are unique, and give something that no one else in the world is capable of providing. I come from a Lutheran Christian background, so I frame this as vocation or calling. What are my unique gifts, talents, and abilities; and how can I use them to love my neighbor? What would it look like if this were a driving question for all learners throughout their schooling?

7. Strength-based education nurtures an appreciation for the gifts, talents and abilities of others.

If school is reframed as being about each learner developing his/her strengths, then it also provides wonderful opportunities to recognize, appreciate, and encourage the strengths in other learners, fostering a positive and mutually encouraging environment. As it says in Proverbs, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

8. Strength-based education helps students set, pursue and achieve goals.

It helps students learn how to set goals, how to devise plans to achieve them, how to experiment with strategies and heuristics for pursuing goals, and how to learn. This is the spirit of the “teach a man to fish” approach to life.

What would it look like if our schools embraced these eight concepts? What would need to change? What would need to stay the same? How might it impact the present and future well-being of students?