Strengths-Based Teaching is About Starting with the Known

 //  Oct 7, 2020

Strengths-Based Teaching is About Starting with the Known

“All children are ready to learn something, but each starts their learning from a different place.  Teachers must find out what children already know, and prepare to take them from where they are to somewhere else.” (Clay, 2016, p. 27)

Recently, my mother-in-law had a mild stroke. Because of this, she was required to take a driving exam in order to maintain her license. Having not been in that situation for more than 50 years, she approached that task feeling extremely nervous and apprehensive, concerned about what she would and wouldn’t remember, and carrying the weight of the most pressing possibility: What if she failed and could no longer drive? 

When I spoke to her after her driving exam, she recalled her uncertain start, but explained that the driving assessor had provided her with positive interaction right away. She said things such as, “You remembered to yield at the crosswalk—that shows you are paying attention to your surroundings while driving. Now continue to do that as you merge onto the highway and exit at the next stop.” My mother-in-law attributed those quick, positive interactions to allowing her to feel much more confident, relying on what she knew to support her as she continued with the exam. Ultimately, she passed with high marks. The assessor recognized what she was doing well and helped her to make links between known strengths and the possible unknown. 

And so it is with teaching. If we can help our teachers look at students from a strengths-based lens, they can elevate student learning by building on what they know, such as their personal foundations. Wherever students are on their learning path, their processing systems contain multiple strengths and abilities, including the ability and readiness to learn (Clay, 2001; 2016). When teachers identify individual student strengths and provide support with what is not yet controlled, new strengths can emerge (Clay, 2001). 

In turn, the student becomes more confident, experiencing success and feeling in control of his learning (Clay, 1998). Learning, according to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, begins (not ends) with the known and relies on the teacher to encourage and support the child to take on new tasks that are not yet known (1978). The unknown soon becomes the known, but only when the known was considered first as the support, or scaffold, to new learning. This approach helps teachers to avoid allowing the deficits, or the not yet known, to dominate plans and next steps for students.

Support teachers through focused messages about assessment and student progress

How can administrators support teachers to teach from a lens of strengths? There are a variety of different ways to shift this thinking, but much of this work starts with the actions and words of the administrator. When approaching assessments, focusing on what the assessments will reveal as strengths of students, rather than deficits, is a helpful model. When teachers question the assessment they are being asked to administer, discussions of the ways in which what their students know will be leveraged to inform instruction are valuable. When discussing assessment results with teachers, it is important to start with questions that keep the focus on the strengths of the student. Some examples include:

  • What does this assessment tell us about what this student knows?
  • What concepts/content/strategies of this assessment are understood by your student?
  • What are the foundational understandings of this assessment that your student can use to build on?

The same types of questions and focus are important when considering student progress in meetings and scenarios that are used to create clear learning paths for students, such as Response to Intervention and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support.

  • Consider how this student’s strengths can support further learning in this area.
  • What does this student know about [insert topic]?
  • What does this student currently know how to do that they did not know before? 
  • How can this new knowledge be used as a support to continue progress?

When administrators frame their mindsets around assessment data being pertinent to identify student strengths in order to support student progress, teachers may feel the same. This is only the beginning of the work to support strengths-based teaching, however. The message must be supported through action. Therefore, collaborative work with teachers should include practicing how to analyze assessment data from a strengths-based lens to inform instruction, and further, how to plan instruction based on these strengths. 

Work collaboratively with teachers and focus on strengths first

Using real examples of assessment data can be powerful to support understandings of focusing our lenses on student strengths. If our first interaction with this data is to carefully analyze all that the student has demonstrated success in, as meager as that may be, we can then tailor our next steps to build on and grow these successes. One activity to consider is to look carefully at an assessment with the expectation of spending a short, set amount of time recording only the strengths found within the assessment results. 

Identifying these strengths not only places a teacher’s mind in a place of “can do,” but also supports teachers to rely on those strengths to develop new strengths. This activity can stretch comfort zones—a positive happening in learning! It is familiar to view an assessment and see clearly all the areas of needed improvement. However, this doesn’t always offer us a clear place to start. Once certain strengths are identified, these can be used as building blocks to learning. 

Consider links, not gaps

Once teachers are comfortable identifying student strengths, support them to leverage strengths when planning instruction. It is both overwhelming and not helpful to become bogged down by all the areas where this student may be falling short. Instead, teachers can link student strengths to the not yet known through “If-Then” models. When a teacher has identified a student strength, this strength then becomes the “if” portion of the model. The “then” portion becomes the new learning that can be linked to and taught from the current strength. Teachers identify the strength and then pair it with all the new learning that can be taught from recognizing, praising, practicing, and scaffolding that particular strength. These If-Then models then become visual webs of the known to the not-yet-known. 

Focusing on strengths is now more important than ever

The COVID-19 pandemic has left teachers with countless uncertainties as they consider the new students they will meet in the new school year. As schools reopen in various formats (traditional, hybrid, online), teachers may be filled with anxiety wondering how they will ever help their students “catch-up” from the potential learning loss from spring to fall. In a recent article from The Washington Post, Rachael Gabriel suggests we stop dwelling on all the ways in which students have “fallen behind” and consider all the things they may have learned outside of the typical school building and structure. As administrators, we must recognize it will be overwhelming for teachers if we send them messages that suggest it is their work to compact curriculum lost in the spring or accelerate student learning to make up for their time away from school. Instead, Gabriel encourages us all to, “welcome them with wonder and assume they have learned immeasurable and previously unknowable things (2020).”

As students make their way back to their schools and teachers this fall, centering priorities, messages, and teaching on student strengths is now more critical than ever. A strengths-based approach shifts teachers’ thinking from, “There is so much they need to learn,” to “There is so much they already know.” It alters students’ perceptions from “I’m not where I should be,” to “I know things that will help me learn more.”  

Teachers are counting on their administrators to provide guidance as they navigate uncharted territory. Let’s make sure the message they receive loud and clear is one that speaks to the power of identifying student strengths, communicating these strengths with students, and leveraging student strengths to plan instruction based on their personal foundations.

Works Cited

Clay, M.M. (1998). By different paths to common outcomes. York, ME. Stenhouse

Clay, M.M. (2001). Change over time in children’s literacy development. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Clay, M.M. (2016). Literacy lessons designed for individuals (2nd ed.) Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

Gabriel, R. (2020, May 19). Can we stop telling the ‘corona kids’ how little they are learning? Washington Post. Retrieved from 

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.