Friday, March 20, 2009

The Power of Strength

I recently finished reading The Element by Ken Robinson (he's on Twitter) who is one of the world's leading thinkers on creativity and innovation. Ken defines The Element as the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion, or the place where what you love and what you are good at meet.

I was particularly intrigued by the book because of the direct challenge it presents to our current education system. Ken argues that many, if not most, people do not find their element in formal education and it is only when they leave school and begin their "recovery" that they figure out what they are good at and pursue their passions. As an educator, a parent, and a person who cares deeply about the quality of life of others, the idea that our schools are systemically designed not to nurture and develop the strengths of young people is a tragedy.

In a back to basics approach we have marginalized subjects outside of math, reading, and science and in so doing reduced the likelihood of powerful learning for all students. I wonder what my life would have been like if the central core subject of school was music. I am tone deaf. I cannot sing on key. My ability to read music is extremely limited. I do not feel joy or passion in the making of music although I can certainly appreciate the quality work of others and respect their talent. However, I suspect that in a place filled with talented musicians my confidence would have withered. I would have known implicitly that I was not as good nor as talented as others and would have struggled throughout my school career never measuring up to the talent and skills of those around me, all the while wondering what was wrong with me.

When I think about the students in our current schools whose learning style involves movement, music, rich visualization, social input, reflection, and tactile stimulation is it any wonder that we have so many students who struggle and so many people who do not discover their worth and capacity until after they leave school and are "recovering" from the experience. Despite loads of research on brain-based learning, effective instruction, and curriculum design low level coverage of disjointed facts in a predominantly auditory format remains the standard practice of most schools.

I say this as educator and a person who has committed his life to public schools. As I say it, there is no question in my mind that we can and must do better. I believe that part of our primary mission as educators is to nurture the natural aptitude and personal passion of the students who come to us. How quickly students are labeled unmotivated, lazy, and stupid when their capacity in particular areas is not up to par. Yet how quickly we forget that all of us have areas where those same words describe us precisely, regardless of how talented, motivated, and passionate we may be in our current arena.

I wonder what would happen if every educator, parent, coach, and daycare provider was actively observing the young people that they have contact with the intent of facilitating their natural aptitude and personal passion. For that matter I wonder what would happen to the productivity in the workplace if every manager, team leader, VP, and CEO was looking to unleash the potential of the element in every employee.

There is tremendous power in strengths-based organizations. If we are willing to reframe the remediation of weakness into the cultivation of strength we unleash the potential in ourselves and those around us. Right now in traditional schools strengths are not even a whisper. Listen to the words that surround our schools: remediation, tutoring, deficiency, re-teach, failing. We teach things in the same way to the same child who did not understand the first time a second and third time and then we wonder why they continue not to succeed despite our efforts to help. This is very different from the educator who asks, what assets and strengths to you bring to this learning endeavor? How can I build on those strengths to help you achieve a rich understanding of the most essential content? How can I create learning activities that will tap into your aptitude and passion? How can I build confidence in your identity as a learner so that you will have the skills to pursue your creative possibilities in the future?

I do not believe that we learn the same way. I do not believe that we learn things at the same time. I do not believe that the value of our children should ever be diminished because they don't learn in the same way or at the same time as others. I do believe that each of us has the responsibility to nurture the natural aptitude and personal passion of ourselves and those we have influence.

As a school leader I believe that part of my mission (reason for journeying) is to help others discover their element and create systemic conditions that will discover, support, and unleash the personal passion and natural aptitude of the students, staff, parents, and community members that are connected to the school.

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