November 18, 2012

When we strengthen our weaknesses do we weaken our strengths?

by Roshni Patel, Pharm.D., PGY2 Ambulatory Care Pharmacy Resident, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

Let me use this musing to tell you about what’s right with people.  And why we should pay more attention to people’s strengths and less to perceived weaknesses.

As educators, we look to employ new and creative instructional strategies to help strengthen the weaknesses of our students to ensure competence.  The feedback and evaluations that we provide our students are typically aimed at addressing students’ deficits.  But perhaps we have it all backwards.  If we utilize all of our time developing weaknesses, what happens to the innate strengths that students possess?  Is there a possibility that if they don’t ‘use it’ they’ll ‘lose it’ as we claim applies to so many of our skills?  I think so.

Tom Rath is leading business consultant on Wall Street and one of the best selling authors over the last decade.  He has drawn attention to our fundamental weakness (no pun intended) for focusing so much of our time and energy on shortcomings rather than capitalizing on strengths.1  In his book Strengths Finder 2.0 he encourages readers to redirect attention toward what they do well, which he believes is the key to a greater well being. Specifically, he believes that not enough people have the opportunity to do what they do best at work each day.  But they can…

This notion that Rath discusses within the context of business is relevant to the world of academia too.  In fact, paying greater attention to our strengths easily integrates with core educational theories.  For example, one of the guiding principles of constructivism is the search to understand the world in which we live in.  Within this theory of learning, students are encouraged to interpret and judge their own progress as they take ownership of their learning experience.  If we devote time to helping students to first understand their talents, they can then invest in those skills.   Rath argues that raw talent needs to be cultivated, and the student aware of his or her talents will be fully engaged, challenged, and interested in their own application of their strengths to their experiences. 

What about behaviorism?  Is an emphasis on strengths compatible with this theory?  We tend to reward our students when we recognize improvements in their behaviors, and there is tons of empirical data to show that we can train people to produce a specific response.  But why not change the stimulus?  Lets reward our students for recognizing their talents and condition the learners to respond appropriately to their own strengths.  Rath’s book does just that.  In addition to identifying the readers’ strengths, the book supplies ideas for action that help readers apply their strengths to every day living and practice. 

Critics of Strengths Finder 2.0 argue that it’s just another personality questionnaire, but I strongly disagree.  The raw personality of Bill Clinton does not show his strengths.  And, his strengths are not equivalent to his personality.  I also believe that so many of us do not truly know our strengths.  Sure, we all ramble off a laundry list of so-called strengths during professional interviews – ones we have written down and memorized, ones we feel will win us the job.

Let me be clear. I am not promoting the absolute disregard of evaluating our weaknesses. There is clear benefit in recognizing the skills we lack (and need).  And we should try to improve weakness that make less effective.  But what I’m recommending is a redistribution of our time and attention.  If we agree with David Kolb that individuals learn in different ways, then we have to acknowledge the baseline characteristics of our learners.2  And that should include their strengths.  If we understood the intrinsic strength of our learners better, we could facilitate learning experiences around their talents.  Ultimately, I believe, this strategy will prevent creating people who are a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.  If the students are aware of their strengths, they can utilize their professional education to develop their application of those strengths. Have I said it enough, yet?

Teach with Your Strengths is a book written by educators who have devoted their lifetime to applying this simple philosophy into their own behaviors in the classroom.3  This book demonstrates the use of personal strengths to facilitate leadership in the classroom in order to avoid mediocrity.  Although many educators who follow this philosophy, not nearly enough do.  And if we are to encourage our students towards the application of their strengths, let us first lead by example.  Are you thinking social learning theory?  I am.

Let me leave you with this final thought:

“Most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong… and yet, a person can perform only from strength.” – Peter Drucker

Rath, T. Strengths Finder 2.0. New York: Gallup Press; 2007. 174 p.
Kolb AY, Kolb DA. Learning styles and learning spaces: enhancing experiential learning in higher education. Acad Manag Learn Edu. 2005 Jun;4(2):193-212.
Liesveld R, Miller J, Robison J. Teach with Your Strengths: How Great Teachers Inspire Their Students. New York: Gallup Press; 2005. 205 p.

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