Why strengths-based learning?

Deficit thinking lies at the heart of a typical school design.

Unless a student always gets perfect scores, she is technically “deficient.” Ranking and ordering students reinforces that deficit paradigm. (Only one student can be #1 in her class; everyone else is less than that.) The college admissions process amplifies this.

In Dark Horse, Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas write about “The Standardization Covenant,” which also supports deficit thinking in schools:

“The covenant pledges that by hewing to the straight path, anyone has a fair chance to become a radiologist, patent lawyer, management consultant, Fortune 500 executive, or Ivy League professor. All you need to do to claim your prize are the same things everyone else is required to do—you just need to be do them better than your peers.”

Kids don’t start out with a deficit worldview. Unfortunately, in a grade-based design, deficit thinking is a feature, not a bug, because it always leads students back to an unspoken question: “What’s wrong with you, and how can school fix it?” Ironically, the people assigning grades almost always want the best for children.

What if we designed for a different question: “What’s right with you, and how can we leverage that to help you fulfill your potential?”

That kind of question requires a strengths-based mindset.

What might it look like if students no longer strove for 100% (or A+, or whatever other symbol your school uses to signal “no deficiencies”)?

Students would be liberated to strive for “personal bests”—just as cross-country runners, cross-fitters, and other athletes do.

And how might we begin to operationalize a strengths-based approach?

As Rose and Ogas put it,

“Dark horses […] harness their individuality in the pursuit of fulfillment, which creates the optimal conditions for attaining excellence. To do this effectively requires a commitment to knowing yourself as thoroughly as possible.”

To help learners (both students and adults) to know themselves better, the Basecamp team uses CliftonStrengths; you may find another strengths-based assessment that better suits your culture and goals.

Whatever you use, common language for strengths is essential if you want to shift your system from deficit thinking (where the common language is “grades”).

The reward, if you succeed, will be an explosion of human potential. Potential that is already right there in front of you.

Will you save it from a death-by-1000-deficit-thoughts?


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Christian Talbot