Everyone is capable of mastering any competency when given the appropriate amount of time and support. This is a fact supported through a variety of research, including that which is included in Ericsson and Pool’s book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.
“If we can show students that they have the power to develop a skill of their choice and that, while it is not easy, it has many rewards that will make it worthwhile, we make it much more likely that they will use deliberate practice to develop various skills over their lifetimes.” Ericsson & Pool (2016)
Understanding this and believing it is vital for not just educators, but for learners as well so that they have the grit to push through any temporary setbacks.
Developing the Culture
When we say “appropriate support,” what we mean is that each learner is not only receiving the right amount of support but also the right type of support. While an educator can do a lot to meet this need, the best chance is to develop a classroom culture where learners seek out and utilize each others strengths to support their weaknesses. Clifton and Nelson (as cited in Lopez & Louis, 2009) note that “strengths develop best in response to other human beings,” so classrooms need to see the variety of difference as an opportunity to increase success across the board.
The first step in developing this culture is to build community in the classroom. This means ensuring that each person feels like they are an asset to the group in some way and feel like they belong. This makes cultivating a safe and inviting classroom one of the natural first steps in preventing deficit-focused mindsets.
Many learners often feel as though they don’t have any strengths to share because they don’t think what they are good at is applicable to the classroom. When building culture, educators should encourage learners to share and discuss any and every strength they have - even if it might not make sense in the current context. Martin (2018) recommends that educators dedicate a portion of their class time for a show-and-tell with the class. Over time, this show-and-tell time moves into small group discussions about each other’s strengths.
Furthermore, classrooms should be active in acknowledging and celebrating each individual in the group’s success. When one of us wins, we all win together. To further solidify this culture of positivity and asset-based dispositions, educators should enlist learners as negativity police to call each other out on deficit-based assumptions and call them out - even if it is the educator wrongly making those assumptions (Klein, 2017).
Often strengths can be found within problematic behaviors. When we reframe someone’s behavior, we look past their actions as being “problematic” or “undesirable,” but instead seeing them as an exhibition of their capability. Educators that make this shift to their mindset will begin to see new opportunities for their learners to shine that others might overlook, while also curing perceived behavioral problems that are really the side effect of other social-emotional needs.
That learner who is constantly talking? Consider that they might not have gotten enough socialization earlier in the day. Let them talk by leading the class discussion.
That learner who is always up and walking about the room? Consider that they might not have gotten enough physical activity during the day. Let them pass-out and collect papers, or even run an errand for you.
This way of thinking often neglected when working with older learners, but shouldn’t be dismissed as irrelevant.
According to Molnar and Lindquist (as cited in Weiner, 2006), reframing consists of four steps:
- Describe the behavior in factual and observable terms.
- Identify how the behavior is a strength.
- Create a new, positive perspective on the behavior and individual.
- State this new perspective to the individual and act on it.
When we exercise deliberate practice, our ultimate goal is to close the gap between where we are and where we want to be. When we teach young learners how to learn, we ask them to focus on their deficits so that they know what they need to practice in order to improve. This is especially true when developing skills, such as the arts or athletics.
While this makes learners extremely effective at pinpointing their mistakes so that they can improve them, it has the unfortunate side effect of making it impossible for them to describe what they did well. This leads many learners to having no concept what they are actually good at (Lopez & Louis, 2009). The learners have trouble seeing the forest through the trees.
Educators need to take the time to talk with learners and encourage them to also focus on what they did well so that they can see their strengths beyond their deficits. Learners can then work together to solve the problems in their understanding of the world to learn from what they don’t understand (Klein, 2017).
Responsive Pedagogy Practices
In addition to building a culture around strengths, its important that coursework also provide the opportunity to highlight each learner’s strengths. My class is unique in that I can easily leverage my learner’s interests and culture though a universal medium - music. Everyone has their own taste in music and that taste can be refined down to one of numerous subgenres to fit every niche. It is probably the aspect of our lives that is most influence by our culture and family. While these examples might not be applicable to every classroom, they are practices that I utilize in my classroom so that the learners can share personal interests with their peers and embrace their peer’s interests.
New Music Fridays
The goal of New Music Friday is to share what everyone is listening to. There are no limitations to what the learner can suggest other than that we must be able to find a school appropriate version. The learner shares what musical aspects of the song they enjoy before the class listens to it through the first chorus.
When sharing, there is a mutual understanding that we do not have to like the music someone picks, but we will listen to it with open and respectful ears to see why their peer enjoys the song. You never know when you might enjoy something small withing something you don’t enjoy as a whole.
This activity works well in my class because it covers content standards while helping build community. The effectiveness of it is fully realized when a learner suggests a song from a more atypical genre (such as Japanese City Pop), receives some subtle groans at the start of the song, and ends with those same learners vocalizing that they actually enjoyed it.
In music, there are so many different genres that there just isn’t enough time to teach how to compose in each one. This is true for many courses - every learner has something different that they are interested in and there just isn’t enough time to hit it all. As a solution, I approach everything in class as if genres do not exist.
This means that we cover the content and techniques in a way that it can be applied to any genre. Learners then have the opportunity to pick a genre of their choice to further explore how it is applied there. Projects have generic rubrics that focus on the overall skills being assessed, and provide enough flexibility so that each learner can write or analyze in the genre that they are the most connected to. Not only does this give them flexibility, but it also provides a common ground for the learners to discuss and understand each other’s projects as well.
Alberta Mentoring Partnership. (n.d.). Creating Strength-Based Classrooms and Schools: A Practice Guide For Classrooms and Schools. Alberta Mentoring Partnership. https://albertamentors.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/SB_for_Schools_and_Classrooms.pdf
Ericsson, A & Pool, R. (2017). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. https://www.amazon.com/Peak-Secrets-New-Science-Expertise-ebook/dp/B011H56MKS
Klein, J. D. (2017, June 5). Five Ways to Build an Asset-Based Mindset in Education Partnerships. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/opinion-five-ways-to-build-an-asset-based-mindset-in-education-partnerships/2017/06
Lopez, S. J. & Louis, M. C. (2009). The Principles of Strengths-Based Education. Journal of College and Character, 10(4). https://doi.org/10.2202/1940-1639.1041
Martin, K. (2018, October 28). 10 Ideas for Creating a Strengths-Based Culture. Kate Martin. https://katielmartin.com/2018/10/28/10-ideas-for-creating-a-strenghts-based-culture/
Weiner, L. (2006). Challenging Deficit Thinking. Educational Leadership, 64(1), 42-45. https://files.ascd.org/staticfiles/ascd/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el200609_weiner.pdf