Monroe School District administrators say a culture shift is essential for students and staff to realize their potential.
A group of educators and community members called the Strengths Based Education Team are targeting philosophy behind the Clifton Strengths Finder test, developed by Donald Clifton, as the method by which more advancement could be made in the classroom.
In strengths-based learning, the focus is on positive personality traits instead of continued “weakness fixing,” an approach that engages populations, so they can more easily meet achievement expectations, said Randy Brown, director of personnel and program development.
The test breaks people’s positive traits, called talent themes, into 34 distinct patterns. The first step is knowing what someone is working with, Brown said: “If you can claim it, you can aim it.”
“Your talents, your most natural ways of thinking, feeling and behaving,” Brown said. “You are born with talent, you do not learn talent. You can learn information, you can accrue skills, but talent is something you are born with, and everyone, everyone has talent.”
The school district plans to start from the top down, encouraging and assisting administrators and teachers to take the test and review how their own results might fit an approach to academics, Brown said. Businesses have been utilizing the theory for decades, and higher education institutions for more than 10 years, he said.
Gallup Inc., has used different versions of the test to interview and poll more than 1 million employees in roughly 50,000 different businesses worldwide.
According to Gallup, 51 percent of managers in the workforce are not engaged, and 14 percent are actively disengaged. Employees that are supervised by engaged managers are 59 percent more likely to be engaged “than those supervised by actively disengaged managers,” according to Gallup.
When people are engaged, they tend to do better, Brown said. Giving a student the chance to, at some point during the day, accomplish something they naturally enjoy and are good at, will trickle out into all areas of performance. It isn’t about being good at math or reading; it is about approaching those subjects from one’s strongest personal attributes, so success comes more freely, he said.
“We don’t test kids to see what they are doing right. We test them to see what they are doing wrong,” said superintendent Dr. Fredrika Smith.
Of the nearly 850,000 students polled in 2016 Gallup Student Poll, almost half reported feeling engaged in school, 29 percent were not engaged and 22 percent were actively disengaged, according to Gallup. Half said they were hopeful about the future, 34 percent said they felt stuck and 19 percent said they were discouraged.
Smith said ultimately, teaching methods may change as a result of a mindset shift. Delivery models may become more individualized for each educator, she said.
“I hope so,” said assistant superintendent Dr. Justin Blasko, later adding, “there is a lot of pressure on public education to look like a stock report.”
Blasko said he has already had teachers express strong reactions to the test, including one who had always assumed a strength of theirs was actually a weakness, having had it held up to them in the past.
The philosophy is focused on the individual, Brown said. Only one in every 286,000 people will have the same top-five strengths, and only one person in 33 million will have those traits in the same order, he said.
“What may be exhilarating for one person may be asphyxiating for another,” he said.
Smith said she believes testing and tracking methods currently used to gauge student achievement will remain useful tools once strengths-based learning has taken hold.
Right now, Brown said Monroe is one of only a handful of public school districts in the nation embracing the philosophy, but believes it is only a matter of time before more come on board.
There will likely be no quick results during the process, Smith said. It may take years to make a significant dent in the existing mindset, but community support is already there. In 2016, more than 700 community members participated in the school district’s new visioning process. Participants identified honing in on students’ strengths instead of their shortcomings as one of the five most important areas to prioritize, she said.
“The education team, includes 13 community members, district-level administrators and principals,” according to school district marketing liaison Erin Zacharda. “The group has met three times, and has grown in size as more staff hear about the concept.”