Leveraging Strengths

A significant part of teaching can be spent on trying to eliminate learners’ weaknesses. In fact, this can be such an intense focus that we lose sight of the value of the learners’ strengths and thus neglect to guide them in capitalizing on their strengths. Helping our homelearners leverage their strengths to increase confidence in and improve their area(s) of weakness allows us to strike a balance between teaching to weaknesses and teaching for strengths.

As a college English professor, I hear students define themselves as a student in my class according to their perceived writing weakness. “I’m a bad writer,” I hear way too often. Why not, “I’m a book lover” or “I’m an avid reader”? Or, more generally, “I’m a hard- worker” or “I’m a goal-setter”? I believe the negative student self-identification reflects the typical focus in education: striving to eliminate weaknesses, often at the sacrifice of opportunities to bolster and capitalize on strengths

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What’s interesting about the I’m-a-bad-writer attitude is the response I get when I ask students to tell me why they’re “a bad writer.” Here’s how this conversation usually goes. . .

Me: “So why do you think you’re a bad writer?”

Student: “Because it takes me a long time to write an essay.”

Me: “I see. Well. . .guess what? (dramatic pause) It’s supposed to.”

And then I go on to explain why:

Writing is a process and processes take time. Thus, writing an essay isn’t supposed to be a quick task, and getting better at writing doesn’t mean that it ever will be. Oh sure, you might get quicker at it, but it will always take more time than you would probably like it to. And it might take longer, especially if you’ve been rushing through your assignments but start to approach them with more care. Let’s put this into perspective:

You could improve your baking skills, but it doesn’t mean that it will take you less time to bake a cake. You’ll probably get quicker at mixing the ingredients, but the cake won’t bake in less time. Just because you improve your baking skills doesn’t mean you’ll get to enjoy a freshly baked cake in 20 instead of 45 minutes. And, to keep a balanced comparison, it might take longer because your improved baking skills could inspire you to bake cakes from scratch and to try more complicated recipes.

Sometimes this realization is enough to satisfy the self-proclaimed “bad writers”. They leave the conversation with a more positive attitude about themselves as writers. If not, I advise them to:

  1. Think of a subject/activity/skill at which you excel.
  2. List the reasons you’re so good at it.
  3. Think about how you approach this subject/activity/skill: attitude, process, habits, practice, etc.
  4. Now determine the things from #2 and #3 that you could use/do to approach writing.
  5. Start implementing these things in your approach to your writing assignments.

“Success is achieved by developing our strengths, not by eliminating our weaknesses.”  ~Marilyn vos Savant

Let’s say your student excels at math. Have him/her approach writing like a formula but just to get the basics down and to feel more comfortable with and confident in the work. This would mean looking at the components of an essay as parts of an equation. While this won’t automatically improve your homelearner’s actual writing skills, approaching the scary and unfamiliar through a familiar context and place of strength will improve his/her understanding of and mindset toward the writing process. Improved understanding and mindset, along with this, are key in improving actual writing skills.

Maybe he/she is good at a particular sport or other activity and thus spends a lot of time engaged in it. Your homelearner should do the same with writing. It’s vital to write as often as possible. Keeping a journal is an excellent way to incorporate writing into one’s daily life. You’ll find not only your child’s writing confidence and skills improving but possibly his/her emotional and physical health as well.

No matter where your homelearner’s strengths lie, he/she feels confident and happy when they’re engaged in this activity or work, right? Approaching difficult subjects and skills in the same state of mind is crucial to improving learning in these areas. Your child can do this by engaging in or reflecting on the activity/subject that brings him/her a sense of confidence and fulfillment before beginning the difficult work, so that he/she can approach it in a confident and positive state of mind.

In other words, guide your homelearner to leverage his/her strengths.

Neuroscience shows that a lack of confidence inhibits learning. Therefore, no matter how hard a student works at something, if he/she doesn’t feel confident in his/her ability to learn the subject or skill, the brain will not allow learning to take place.

EMOTIONS AFFECT LEARNING  “When learners feel unconfident or anxious, certain chemicals flow into the synapses to shut them down: ‘Danger! No time to think! Just run away!’ This is the flight reaction. Students mistakenly think they have a poor memory, but it is their emotions that are sabotaging them. When learners feel confident, different chemicals flow into the synapses that make them work quickly and well: “I can handle this.” This is the fight reaction.”  Rita Smilkstein, PhD

                                                          Copyright Rita Smilkstein 2007

This means a student can control brain function, thus the ability to learn!


How else can I help you? Please let me know!

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