Dr Helen Street
Honorary Fellow, The Graduate School of Education, The University of Australia
‘Behaviours and attitudes only become worthy of positive or negative judgements once they are enacted within a particular time, situation and culture. Once these contextual factors are accounted for, behaviours and attitudes can be understood as helpful or unhelpful, as strengths or as weaknesses. Thus, a strength-based approach needs to be about identifying attitudes and behaviours that are healthy within the limits of the context, rather than within the limits of the person.’
PART ONE – From Character to Context
First published in the International Schools Magazine, Winter 2022, pp 22 - 23
Understanding the power of focusing on ‘what is working’ as opposed to what is not, has resulted in an increase in ‘strength-based’ support and feedback in schools[i]. Strength based feedback means giving feedback that is grounded in the identification of what is working and what can be built upon, in any given situation. Strength-based approaches support self-acceptance, self-worth, increased competency and hope. For example, in a school context, a strength-based approach could mean helping a student who scored poorly on a science test reflect on how they achieved their 20%; rather than why they didn’t achieve the missing 80%. In so doing, strength-based feedback supports the student’s current ability along with their potential for future competency and growth. This approach does not negate that which is not working, but rather ensures we do not make a lack of self-belief, perceived weakness or contemplative failure key drivers for learning and development.
Certainly, it makes intuitive sense to focus on developing that which is working, rather than purely trying to challenge or correct that which is not[ii]. As the well-worn adage states, ‘what we focus on the most, grows the fastest’. This ‘building’ approach to self-discovery and growth, has resulted in a shift in our focus from ‘the solving of problems’ to ‘the identification of solutions’ and comes with a sense of progression and purpose. In contrast, too much focus on what went wrong can lead to despondency, a feeling of time lost, and a lack of motivation. As Professor David Cooperrider proposes in his Appreciative Inquiry model of change,[iii] all change involves people. It is thus vital that we keep students onboard and engaged with the process of change, whether that be in the classroom or in the broader school community.
Supporting Self-Acceptance and Positive Growth
A goal to build on what is working also supports a more positive view of ourselves right now, along with higher expectations for future success. It is arguably the irony of the human condition that successful change is best built on a foundation of feeling Ok about where you are before you begin the process of changing. If we really want to lose those extra kilos, we will be more successful if we can like ourselves just as we are before we begin our diet. When we view ourselves as capable and competent, we are more likely to nurture ourselves. In the example of dieting this means we are more likely to embrace healthy eating and long-term self-care. Similarly, if we want to develop better relationships, it helps to begin with a belief that we are worth knowing now. This belief means we will be more likely to take the risk of getting to know others, more likely to create authentic relationships, rather than rely on impression management skills, and be more likely to believe and embrace the kindness of others.
What we focus on grows. In addition, we experience greater self-acceptance, competency and hope when we focus on what went well.
The Problem of Focusing on Individual Characteristics
In saying all of this, I think it vitally important that we do not confuse the benefits of strength-based feedback with the identification of specific ‘character strengths’ in students or staff in schools. Rather, I propose that the popular consideration of the ‘character strengths’ we may or may not have, is in danger of limiting staff and student potential for self-acceptance and for growth.
The notion of character strengths was one coined by professors Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson in the early 2000s[iv]. These two leaders in the emerging field of positive psychology developed a classification system of widely valued positive personality characteristics, as considered within the developed world. They identified 24 characteristics from wide ranging sources including wellbeing-research, and even greeting card verses. They then categorized the 24 characteristics they identified into six domains: Wisdom and Knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance and Transcendence.
Seligman and Peterson proposed that their 24 ‘character strengths’ represent a comprehensive list of personality traits that support wellbeing. Furthermore, they have suggested we could better support our wellbeing with a focus on the character strengths that most closely define each of us. Indeed, interested people are encouraged to assess their ‘top five’ character strengths with completion of a questionnaire called the VIA. Seligman and Peterson have further suggested that our wellbeing is enhanced when we embrace our top character strengths as a foundation of our best self.
The consideration of character strengths has arguably afforded us a greater wellbeing literacy and an opportunity to better understand which aspects of human functioning correlate with positive mental health. I believe however, that the assessment of an individual’s character strengths using the VIA, or an equivalent tool, has resulted in a minimization of the dynamic and complex nature of personality, along with a failure to consider the vital role of context, and the value in understanding the power of continual growth.
Moreover, personality assessments such as the VIA are indicative of all that we need to move away from in academic learning, if we are to better support wellbeing. This includes the judgement of others, the grading of our performance and the belief that we are separate to the contexts in which we are created. I propose that a strength-based approach to understanding human psychology should never become a way of judging or labelling a person. Certainly, it should not be an opportunity to label our unique character as inherently positive or negative, irrespective of time, culture and context.
Believers in growth mindset and the power of process over outcome have long supported the idea that fewer grades and extrinsic reinforcers should be handed out in schools. Instead there is a call to consider more reflective and informative strength-based feedback that epitomizes learning as an ongoing process, best conducted with autonomy and flexibility. When a grade is on offer it inevitably overshadows even the most supportive of comments about process. Such is the power of a definitive outcome measure.
When we inform someone that they have a top five ‘character strengths’, we have inadvertently informed them they have a bottom five as well. We have, possibly with the best of intentions, graded and assessed the way someone thinks about and interacts with their world; and told them these findings are robust across time and context.
I propose that we need to separate the tools of wellbeing from the person who uses them, and from the context in which they are used. Rather, we need to better understand the tools of wellbeing that are the most helpful at a particular time, in a particular situation.
Behaviours and attitudes only become worthy of positive or negative judgements once they are enacted according to time, context and culture. Once these factors are accounted for, an attitude or behaviour can be seen to be helpful or unhelpful, healthy or unhealthy – useful or useless. Thus, a strength-based approach needs to be about identifying attitudes and behaviours that are healthy within the limits of the context, not within the limits of the person.
[i] E.g. Aguinis, Herman., Gottfredson & Ryan K. Joo, Harry (2012) Delivering effective performance feedback:The strengths-based approach. Business Horizons 55(2)
[ii] Burns. G & Street, H. (2003) Standing without Shoes. Penguin. Australia
[iii] Cooperrider, David.; Whitney, Diana D. (2005) Appreciative Inquiry A Positive Revolution in Change
1st ed.; Williston : Berrett-Koehler Publishers
[iv] Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.