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Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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Strength-Based Learning: What I Learned from "Confratute"

I’d like you to try the following exercise. Write these four words on a piece of paper:  Write   Draw   Perform   Build

Now, rank them in order of most favorite. For instance, if you love to write, then rank “write” as number one, or if you’re like me and can just about change a light bulb, rank “build” as four. Make sure to rank all four, then circle your number-one choice. What you have done is essentially identified your preferred style of working and learning—your area of strength.

Educators recently attending a Twice-Exceptional workshop at Confratute, a week-long gifted education training at the University of Connecticut, participated in the above exercise but took it a step further. Dr. Susan Baum, a co-director of the International Center for Talent Development, who led the workshop, had the participants first complete an activity in their lowest-ranked area and present their products. Then, she had students create products in their area of strength.

The difference was amazing. For example, a group of educators who hated writing but had to use writing as a method to explain the feudal system complained about the assignment and reduced their work to a series of bulleted items. However, when people who loved writing worked on the assignment, they effortlessly and joyously produced elaborate poems about knights, kings, merchants and peasants. They worked harder on their products, researching terms and revising and replacing vocabulary.

Other groups working in strength-based areas also produced similarly high-quality products while simultaneously enjoying the process. During the workshop, Baum explained that students are hard-wired to work better in their strength-based areas and should be given the opportunity to exercise their strengths whenever possible. She said students shouldn’t always have the option of completing an assignment the way the wish, but when possible, it's helpful to allow them to work in their areas of strength.

Baum, an expert in working with twice exceptional gifted students, or those that possess learning disabilities, noted that allowing students to focus on their strengths helps accommodate their challenge areas. She also pointed out that providing strength-based choices helps add to the 10,000 hours needed to become an expert in a particular area (a concept explored by Anders Ericsson and made famous by author Malcolm Gladwell).

There are other benefits as well. Students working together in the same areas of strength speak the same language, which helps them develop their collaborative and social skills. When they are skilled in the same area, students push each other to new levels of mastery. Finally, some of the more “bossy” gifted children (we know this never happens) learn to regulate behavior and communication skills as they find themselves surrounded by other equally talented students.

While a proponent of Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory and the idea of various learning styles, Baum said most strength-based tasks can be boiled down to these four domains: writing, acting/performing, drawing/visual design and building/engineering. Baum cited studies where students, who struggled with writing when learning new concepts, made incredible gains when allowed to build with their hands in small teams of “engineers.” Her advice was simply: Decide what content must be taught, then ask your students “how do you want to learn this?” Based on her research and what contributed to student engagement, Baum also shared this insight to teachers: “Don’t talk too much.”