Empowering Students through their Strengths

We’ve written many posts about how SETS (Student Evaluation & Teaching System) helps you organize your program and get more funding, but it’s time for a little honesty: while SETS does all of that beautifully, that’s not really why educator Bill Rossi and the Merge team created SETS.

Truth be told, SETS was developed to disseminate Strengths-Based Education – to give teachers the tools they need to empower students to be the unique individuals they are.

We believe that learning about yourself and who you are should be the goal of education. Strengths-based education, properly implemented, can do that. It can empower students to understand themselves and self-educate, so they can find their place in the world.

The thing is… strengths-based education is easy to talk about but not that simple to implement.

We hope this post will shed some light on why SETS could be invaluable for teachers wanting to hone their ability to empower students through their own unique strengths.

So, what is Strengths-based Education?

Strengths-based education (SBE) is effective with all students, and essential for reaching and empowering those who are challenged. Simply put, SBE stimulates students’ strengths and develops their challenges. It’s a process that empowers students to:

  • discover and understand their unique strengths,
  • develop them through real (visceral/experiential) use,
  • develop their limitations to support their strengths, and
  • gain confidence in their ability to learn and succeed.

Strengths-based education is a far cry from standards-based education, and while standards-based has effective elements, we advocate for a paradigm shift in which the primary focus is on the student’s strengths, inclinations, and learning styles.

To further explain, here are a few snippets from Bill Rossi’s book Venturing Together: Empowering Students to Learn – or jump below for how SETS encourages SBE.

  • SBE encourages uniqueness. It stimulates and promotes each student’s different ways of thinking and teaches how to think instead of what to think.
  • SBE focuses on developing individual students’ innate abilities and talents.
  • SBE focuses students’ attention on their inner impulses in order to achieve intended goals.
  • SBE recognizes, celebrates, and caters to many different learning styles.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I think it’s safe to say that rather than rewarding conformity, SBE empowers individuals to discover and be who they are. That process gives them the best chance to succeed in life … whatever that means to them. And in the process of realizing their uniqueness, they are able to appreciate and enjoy the individuality of others.

How SETS Encourages Strengths-based Teaching

The scale teachers use to record their observations is SETS’ secret sauce. The Observation Scale trains teachers to focus on The Principles of Empowerment – established principles of learning and developmental psychology. These are the skills and abilities everyone needs to develop in order to learn and succeed.

As teachers observe their students, they’re able to identify which of the principles are the student’s strengths and which are challenges. Using this scale objectifies and itemizes teachers’ observations, giving them concrete milestones of progress to date that also points the way forward. They know where the student is and what is needed.

From the perspective of program oversight, this is the assessment teachers use to transform their more subjective student observations into data.

Identifying Student’s Strengths and Abilities

As you may have noticed, there are different ways of defining strengths. Many lists include the ability to lead others, take exams, rearticulate a particular philosophy, or fit into a pre-existing system or construct. We see these as important, but not fundamental.

We have found it more effective to focus on how individual students are learning. This is because the students’ interests and learning processes (which are unique to each) must be accommodated so the students are fundamentally well-grounded and successful. Only then will they be able to achieve the intended goals.

Challenged students typically have no idea how they learn – nor have they had a teacher who was paying that kind of attention to them. So, a strengths-based orientation can engage students deeply—just the teacher’s intention to understand how students are learning begins to create trust.

The Principles of Empowerment (POE), which are the heart of SETS’ Observation Scale, offer teachers and mentors an individualized way of identifying strengths and understanding how students are learning. The relationship which can develop is just one of the innumerable benefits.

The Principles of Empowerment (POE)

Identified by Merge Education director Bill Rossi, the POE are the qualities and abilities necessary for learning. Although inherent in and natural to us all, they must all be developed for a person to be able to learn well.

The Principles of Empowerment are grouped as Relationship to Self, Relationship to Teacher, and Skills Development.

Relationship to Self: These are the student’s personal qualities and skills. These are delineated as:

  • Ability to concentrate
  • Level of motivation
  • Self-confidence to succeed
  • Frustration tolerance
  • Consistency of effort.

Relationship to Teacher: The students’ relationships with others are important indicators of empowerment, and your teachers are well-positioned to evaluate this. The metrics are delineated as:

  • Listens to the teacher
  • Understands directions
  • Communicates needs
  • Communicates ideas.

Skills Development: How is the student learning the specific skills you teach in your program? Learning any skill includes these principles:

  • Respects equipment and materials
  • Willing to try new steps
  • Freedom of expression
  • Identifies correlations (relationships)
  • Able to build on prior learning
  • Incorporates elements of the skill.

Seeing Students as the Individuals they Are

The beauty of effective strengths-based education is that it considers students as individuals. It can be more demanding of teachers – yet most would say it can be far more rewarding. It requires teachers to deeply consider how students are intaking and relating to their world – which teachers can then use to create an architecture consisting of both the student’s strengths and challenges.

As for the student? Imagine a program in which all students feel validated and important – just for who they are.

SETS: The Trojan Horse

Perhaps SETS’ original developer was correct when she observed that SETS could be a trojan horse for a more empathetic teaching approach for challenged students. We hope you’ll contact us for a virtual tour to see what you think!

Mary Helen Rossi
Mary Helen Rossi
A creative writer, Mary Helen is passionate about empowering marginalized youth, believing that everyone deserves a solid chance in life.

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