The Strength-Based Approach to Learning Builds Hope

By - June 13, 2020

It should be of no surprise that the philosophies behind the purpose of education are all over the place. According to the National School Boards Association, public education exists to “prepare students for college and the workforce, including preparing them for jobs that may not even exist yet due to rapidly changing technology.” The Department of Education’s mission is to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” Polls and surveys geared towards the American public are mixed. Some indicate they think the purpose of education should be less about standardized tests and more about work readiness. Some want students to “find their purpose.” Some think education is about “the search for truth” and “improving the human condition.” Students by and large want to be “prepared for the real world.” These philosophies may be diverse, but if we look closely, they all have one thing in common: inspiring hope. 

Hope is the ability to envision a better future for oneself, to set goals, and to be able to work towards achieving those. No matter the philosophy behind what you feel the goal of education should be, education is always working to inspire students to believe in meaningful futures.  

In an article for NEA Today, Dr. Valeria Maholmes, chief of the Pediatric Trauma and Critical Illness Branch at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said, “To date, research has largely focused on deficits and negative outcomes of children.” That’s largely true. When we talk about education, we talk about the deficits. We talk about the negatives. We focus on how many students aren’t graduating, how their reading levels aren’t up to par, and how many of us have read educational content about how American students fall behind when compared to the academic achievements of students from Japan or Finland?  

When viewed through this lens, it’s easy to connect the fact that it's not just research largely focused on our deficits, but that our whole education system is built around the principle. Our education system trains students from a young age to aspire to high marks or grades—that's what makes someone successful at school. The star. The A. Grades are a comparable status in which we either do well or don't. It puts students in boxes. It labels them. The esteemed social psychologist David Myers points out in an Education Week article from January 11, 1991 that, “there are hidden costs to labeling children as winners and losers, gifted and ungifted. Such labels can create their own reality. In experiments, labeling people as hostile, outgoing, or brilliant induces others to treat them in ways that elicit hostility, outgoingness, or apparent brilliance. Labels may be fables, but even fables can be self-fulfilling.” 

There’s a popular, very meme-able quote floating around the internet, typically attributed to Albert Einstein, although that’s inaccurate, which reads, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” If viewed through the lens we just discussed, focusing on detriments is our education system in a nutshell; its structure leaves many feeling hopeless.  In the article “Is strength based learning a magic bullet?” that appeared in the Hechinger Report in 2018,  psychology professor Lea Waters says focusing on the traits and skill kids don’t have can lead them to become disengaged and have trouble picturing a future for themselves—a direct contrast to why education exists to begin with.

There’s a philosophy that originated in the social-work world known as the strength-based practice. It's known as the strength-based approach when applied to other disciplines, and when applied to education moves away from the negatives and deficits, and instead takes what individuals are already talented at and uses those as a springboard to build confidence and thus begin planning futures in a more hopeful manner.  

In many ways, the strength-based approach is what we’d do in an ideal educational utopia.  Bloom’s Taxomony creator Benjamin Bloom argued, “mastery learning (focusing on what students have already or begun to already master versus deficits) is closer to what we would do if we had the resources to teach children one at a time.” Critics point out that only focusing on what you’re good at isn’t productive, but a strength-based approach doesn’t only focus on strengths. It still assesses risks and needs; it just doesn’t just dwell on those. It’s really a common-sense approach. If a student is bad at math, but excels at woodworking, focusing only on how they struggle in math can be discouraging. Focusing on the strength of their woodworking skills and connecting how getting better in math can strengthen those skills is a natural way to encourage and inspire hope in this hypothetical student.  

Career exploration is in its very roots, a strength-based approach to learning. The strength-based approach holds the core beliefs that all individuals have things they excel at, focuses on developing their strengths, and builds on those. School is a struggle for many students. Giving them the hope that something better, more meaningful, and more tailored to their unique experiences is possible provides purpose to their education.  It connects the what to the why. This whole way of thinking is the reason we're always advocating for career exploration to not exist in a bubble, but rather permeate all education disciplines the way literacy does.  

In the aforementioned NEA article, Dr. Maholmes also said, “We can’t pick who will achieve and who will not. If these kids in front of us are the kids we need to educate, we have to figure out how to unwrap their gifts." That's what the strength-based approach is all about. It’s about giving every student in the education system the chance to hope for something better, and that’s more prescient now than ever. We can’t think of any educational philosophy that’d disagree. 

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