We all have strengths and weaknesses. Which is better to focus on for learning and success? Should we strive to improve our weaknesses no matter what? Or should we accept our shortcomings and simply focus on our strengths to achieve success and happiness?
In our society, we are trained in a deficit model—to fix what is wrong. And, in a very real sense, our attention is geared at fixing others. This is true both in school and in the workplace. So many performance reviews at work gloss over the employee’s strengths and instead focus on “areas for improvement.”
We see this in education as well. For example, after a meeting with teachers, the student said to his mother, “Why didn’t they talk more about my social studies—what I am good at instead of what I am not good at? All they want to do is fix what is wrong with me.”
The mother responded by saying, “They are trying to help you.”
The student retorted, “No, they are trying to fix me.”
Such are the perceptions of the parent and child. Who is right? The answer lies in the question, “What optimizes learning?”
Strengths and Motivation
Great teachers (and bosses) know that learning is based on motivation and that someone is motivated to do positive things when feeling good, not when feeling bad.
By building on interests and strengths, we tap into positive motivation. For example, the teacher can acknowledge the student’s skill for analyzing social situations. The teacher can then challenge the student to bring that same analytical talent to math or English and concludes with an empowering statement such as, “I know you can apply that skill in other subject areas.”
In all areas of life, we should be building on people’s strengths as a path for their improvement in other areas.
I am not saying we should ignore the negative or not call attention to what needs improvement. But people get to success through assets, rather than through liabilities. This is especially the case with so many students at risk who have perceptions of more academic liabilities than assets.
Tip: If you truly want to help others improve (or if you are committed to your own self-improvement), acknowledge any weaknesses or areas for improvement, but focus on the strengths as a way to greater success and happiness.
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