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Positive Emotions in the Classroom: The Strengths-based perspective* February 3, 2010

Posted by Noel E K Tan in Uncategorized.

The wealth of research from Emotional Intelligence (EQ), neuroscience and Social-and-Emotional Learning (SEL) supports what Brain-Mind Principle #5** succinctly summarises: Emotions are critical to patterning; and thus emotions influence learning.

As Natural Learning practitioners, it is our aim to see learners embrace learning and be self-efficacious. An integral part of that process must lie in our helping them to see that they have the capacity to succeed. The focus of this article will highlight how a strengths-based approach to learning can create a positive emotional climate for learning.

What is a strengths-based approach? Why?
A strengths-based approach works from the premise that individuals possess strengths and have the capacity to not only change for the better, but are able to sustain that improvement with their strengths as a foundation. Several such methods exist, eg. Appreciative Inquiry, Asset-based Change, Positive Deviance, Narrative Practices and Motivational Interviewing, and they can certainly be useful enhancements to practitioners’ work with the 12 Brain/Mind Principles.

All of these approaches share a similar simple message: I have strengths. Knowing my strengths, I can then systematically build further learning and improve with that knowledge of my strengths in my foreground. We don’t have to look far for examples of learning successes based on this; recall when our students or even ourselves were spurred to do more when our strengths were acknowledged and how motivated we felt when we were encouraged to go further.

By contrast, traditional teaching has been premised on helping the individual learner by focussing on overcoming his or her weaknesses. Certainly, the learner will recognise the logical need to change, but confronting one’s weaknesses head-on has an unnecessary, but all-too-common effect: it launches the improvement venture on a deficit cycle. Emotionally, the learner feels debilitated, because despite whatever hard-fought triumphs, more weaknesses will continue to be found. Inevitably, the individual’s move to improve grinds to a halt.

It begins with the questions we ask
The essential difference between the strengths-based approach and traditional teaching is in the key questions that form the basis of improvement. Strengths-based approaches often ask the question, “What got you here so far? What have you been doing that is successful? How can you apply that to the work that is called for here?”.

Traditional teaching asks the learner, “Can you tell me where the problem is? Why is this problem still persisting? What can we do to solve this problem?”. The answer in the traditional classrooms would tend to centre around having more remedial or drills. There’s nothing wrong with rote-learning and practice, but where the learner is unable to see the value behind it, it is a cycle of futility that he or she will be locked in.

The point here is for the educator to facilitate the learner’s specific question (actor-centred, if I might add) to unlock that understanding of his or her own strengths as the beginning question. The strengths-based question when answered, allows the individual to have hope and belief in his capacity to change the learning situation and be engaged. Imagine the kinds of higher-level learning conversations your class would have, with such efficacious and confident students!

Developing a Strengths-based Perspective in Educators
Having a strengths-based technique is not enough. One of the biggest challenges educators face is in the development of a strengths-based perspective, which they can bring to their professional interactions with colleagues and students. For people whose vocation is dedicated to building the next generation’s bright and hopeful future, educators often complain of teacher stress, burn-out and being emotionally drained from work. How effective would an emotionally exhausted educator be?

Educators need to recognise that they have a key role in creating a positive emotional climate and culture in the school, and that this must begin with them putting on a pair of strengths-based “lens” in their interaction with both colleagues and students.

Pre-service and in-service teacher training will benefit from strengths-based preparatory and renewal programmes. Such programmes enable educators to rediscover their own capacity for change and hope, reigniting their passion for teaching. Without such an encounter with positive emotions and belief, educators might find it difficult to come to terms with the negative aspects that unavoidably emerge from teaching, resulting in an adverse patterning.

Principle #5 – Emotions are critical to patterning – highlights the need for individual learners to have an understanding of their individual strengths. This Principle aligns well with strengths-based approaches in creating positive emotional climate. The first step in helping learners encounter their own strengths is by asking the key questions of what works, what they have done well, rather than where their deficiencies are. Another vital piece in the development of strengths-based perspectives in educators lies in strengths-based preparatory and renewal programmes.

* This blog-post appeared as an article in the Caine Learning Centre’s Winter 2010 Newsletter under the title “The Strengths-based perspective to Positive Emotions”.  The newsletter is circulated to Associates and Partners of the Centre.
** The 12 Brain-Mind Learning Principles are the work of Dr Renate and Geoffrey Caine, founders of the Caine Learning Centre, a leading brain-based learning education institution based in California. I am an Associate of the Centre.



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