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September 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 1

Perspectives / Discovering Strengths

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      I have discovered my strengths are my differences,” Donald Murray writes in Crafting a Life, a book in which he gives advice to would-be authors. He notes that his habit of daydreaming, his penchant for constructing stories, his enjoyment of contradictions, his compulsion to share his feelings—all characteristics that in his childhood he believed were weaknesses—have paid his bills in adult life. “More importantly,” he writes, “the opportunity to develop my ‘weaknesses’ through writing has given me a blessed life.”
      Murray most probably has what Dr. Mel Levine (p. 8) would call a “specialized mind” and what Howard Gardner and colleagues might identify as “a laser profile of intelligences” (p. 22). Rather than aiming to become the well-rounded individuals that schools so often try to cultivate, people like Murray often find success by using their specialized talents. Or as Levine puts it, “Some of the things that can cause you a lot of trouble in 4th grade can turn out to be the reasons you're a CEO later on.”
      The problem is, as Murray also writes, “Difference is a terrible thing to a child.” It is humiliating to be unable to do what the other kids do well—whether it's throwing a baseball, or reading aloud in class, or remembering how to open one's locker. As adults, we like to forget that childhood is a time when we learn what we are not good at.
      School doesn't have to contribute to this deficit paradigm, however, according to authors in this issue. They argue that students are more apt to become competent adults if they learn to develop their strengths as well as compensate for their weaknesses.
      Learn how the mind works. Pediatrician Dr. Mel Levine, cofounder of All Kinds of Minds, stresses that by learning about the particular brain functions that undergird our strengths and weaknesses, students become better equipped to understand themselves. His goal for educators is that they become expert observers of students' functioning—able to analyze who passively processes information, has problems with detecting significance or remembering steps, or has difficulty organizing ideas, for example. In some students, he says, “there are some functions that operate almost automatically, but for other kids, certain functions aren't going to operate well unless we teach them how to activate them.” Without making major changes in the curriculum, teachers can target particular functions and develop techniques for strengthening them, he believes.
      Appreciate variations. Teaching to student strengths helps students see themselves and others positively and may even help them see that a topic that was previously boring to them can be interesting, authors Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jane Jarvis write (p. 16). They show how to use students' interests, curiosity, and areas of confidence as starting points. In addition to building student expertise in the disciplines, such differentiated instruction makes students aware of the variety of rich abilities fellow students have, affecting their views of social status and achieving a more equitable classroom.
      Make relationships matter. According to a Public Agenda poll, 64 percent of high school students say that they would learn more if their teachers “personally cared about their students as people.” One of the best predictors of students' effort and engagement in school is the relationships they have with teachers, Deborah Stipek reminds us (p. 46). By going out of their way to compliment positive behaviors, showing an interest in students' lives outside school, and listening to students' perspectives, teachers are the key actors in helping their students meet high academic expectations.
      Defeat deficit thinking. Too often the impersonal, bureaucratic nature of school culture undercuts the teaching attitudes and behaviors that draw on student strengths, Lois Weiner writes (p. 42). The assumption that students' misbehavior and poor achievement are caused by learning disabilities or are the effects of growing up in poverty or of having dysfunctional families often precludes teachers from recognizing their students' strengths and appreciating their own power to change the classroom dynamic. Weiner teaches how to reframe negative situations—whether it's a child's hyperactivity or a class's incivility—in ways that help students improve without being humiliated.
      Orchestrate multiple intelligences. Whether students have a laser profile of intelligences (single focus); searchlight profile (less pronounced differences among many intelligences); or jagged profile of intelligences (like most of us), Gardner and colleagues write (p. 22), the challenge is not to create a different lesson plan for each intelligence but to design rich learning experiences so that students can perceive themselves as potentially smart in a number of ways.
      Lead positively. Special Topic writer Daniel Goleman has a message for supervisors in “The Socially Intelligent Leader” (p. 76):If a principal wants to create an emotional climate that ‘lifts all boats,’ he or she must lead the group toward positive, empathetic social interactions. . . . Emotions ripple outward from the most powerful person in the room. . . . In the classroom, that person is generally the teacher; in a staff meeting, it's the principal.
      Adults, too, respond best when their leader recognizes their strengths and good intentions.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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