Friday, October 22, 2010

Focus on Shortcomings and Watch Strengths Atrophy

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending my second grade son's parent-teacher conference. When considering the standards of measure our school has chosen, I left the hour long session feeling very good about the school, the teacher and my son's performance. I use the preceding caveat because I recognize that it is the measures we choose that drive our behavior and give us reason to claim success or acknowledge failure. As you might guess, I don't think much of these particular metrics, the ones chosen to measure academic success, nor do I truly believe that all children of the same age should be measured against the same standard. It is this single standard, assembly line mentality that stifles creativity, conditions our children to become extrinsically motivated (if we parents haven't already started them on this path), and attempts to produce cookie cutter young adults. Though I am passionate on that subject, I wanted to focus on the aspect of the conversation that most resonated with me: the typically held philosophy that it is more important to focus on the weaknesses than build upon our strengths.

I am a firm believer that we should focus on leveraging our strengths while knowing ourselves well enough to acknowledge our areas for improvement. The specifics regarding my son are not important, but if you know me and my wife you might guess that his penmanship is lacking and he is not overly communicative in public settings (evidently inherited traits). At the same time, his other attributes are well above average (again, when measured against the accepted standard). Rather than tell us that we should build upon his interest and ability in math with more challenging work or introduce books that would continue to build upon what is apparently a relatively strong vocabulary, we hear from the teacher that we need to focus our attention on helping him to write more legibly and develop his written communication skills. The two things that not surprisingly, he dislikes most.

Coincidentally, my mid-term counseling at work was this week and I was pleased to have my supervisor take a different approach. She documented my strengths, acknowledged my areas for improvement and encouraged me to do two things:

- Focus on leveraging my strengths
- Find ways to leverage the strengths of others to complement my weaknesses

Why is it that our academic culture (at least in K-12) is so different than our real world culture? Is it the theory that childhood, including schooling and home-life, is a time to prepare one for life? If that is the case, why is it that we promote such an incongruent mindset? (I argue that childhood IS life and not a preparation period, but I digress.) Why do we frown upon failure, focus on developing skillsets we don't necessarily enjoy (which correlate strongly to doing well), and attempt to build carbon copy kids? Have we not learned from our country's success in the computer industry led by people who are not afraid to fail, focus on doing what they love, and celebrate individuality? Is it any surprise that a good portion of our leaders in the industry in which we lead the world were not particularly good students (at least when using our traditional measure)?

My son is in school by his choice. He was unschooled last year but decided that his time riding the bus, playing with friends at recess, and sharing stories at lunchtime at school are worth sitting in a classroom for the majority of the day. Using traditional second grade metrics, I have seen him perform admirably. At the same time, I have witnessed the thirst for knowledge he once had dissipate. He is quickly becoming the very student I was: a student focused on the grades and not the learning, a child focused on the social aspects of school and not the education. I have come to the conclusion that traditional school is often times a wasted youth. The metrics we choose are the very reason the products of traditional US schooling are not faring as well as our foreign counterparts. Life is about choice (even for a seven year old) and I hope that he soon chooses to return to a life that celebrated individuality, yearned to quench a continual thirst for knowledge and focused on fully exploring strengths, passions and potential. Until then, we will be focusing on penmanship and written communication, the two things he despises the most.


  1. I am liking your focus. Perhaps if I send him a decent pen and paper, that will serve as motivation !!

  2. Sean, I suggest you do some reading on what is sometimes called the "negativity bias" in the human animal.

    I knew that sociology degree would be useful some day!

  3. Sean,
    Nice and thoughtful article. As an Adult Education Major with additional graduate study in Adult Education, I find it refreshing to see the things that we talked about in college brought into the real world. My cohort class at Southern Illinois came to some of these very conclusions when we did indepth research in vocational education.
    Back in the day (I'm old), we were given vocational/aptitude tests to see where our strengths lied. We were then put on a track to capitalize on our strengths. Unfortunately, this was labeled as "occupational steerage" and was thought to be biased.
    I personally believe that college is not for everyone. I know some very well off electricians and plumbers.
    Warm Regards and once again, I hope that you continue to thrive while in command.
    Brian Ashpole

  4. How many of us are the product of an educational feedback system based the perception that as long as there wasn't a negative or corrective response required from our parents they remained satisfied that we were being educated, even worse they assumed that we were succeeding?

    I could argue that my parents weren’t involved, that they were young (half the age I am today and I am now the parent of two-year old little girl), that divorce puts strain on children beyond the family dynamic, and that I somehow filtered through the system, but these issues are all about choices.

    I ask myself, will my dedicated involvement in my daughter’s education prepare her any better? I don’t know. I was always the kid asking, “why?” From math and science to spelling - I hope to encourage my daughter to see the world as a place of wonder that she might ponder the space between 2 and 4 seeing it as infinite, while at the same time making sure that she understands that the answer the teacher is looking for is 3.

    I think there is a balance Sean, sometimes there is only one answer to put on the paper and measuring young Billy against his peers provides perspective that his parents can comprehend, even if it is misguided to tell them that Billy is in the 78th percentile. The measure we use is based on what we hold to be important. Over the centuries the yardstick often changed between generations. I recall that they used to measure the circumference of a child’s head to determine their placement in the education system.

    By the way, my cover size to seven and five-eighths and my daughter is currently in the 85th percentile.