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Focus on strengths

An Excerpt from Two Billion Dollars in Nickels: Reflections on the Entrepreneurial Life, by Paul Orfalea with Dean Zatkowsky (BookSurge: 2008):

Although society’s understanding of dyslexia and ADHD is improving, too many people still equate “difference” with “disability.” Every disability may be a difference, but not every difference is a disability. Children are sometimes branded “learning disabled,” even when it is their schools that actually lack ability. Schools that still treat education as a “one-size-fits-all” endeavor resent individualized instruction, which they consider inefficient. But our growing awareness of learning differences puts more enlightened schools in a difficult position: within the constraints of budgets and teaching skills, how can we best serve students with differences?

What if we reframe the question? What if every student learns in a different way and at a different pace? That’s right: what if everyone has a learning difference? Some may fit more neatly into traditional teaching templates, but does that make others “disabled?”

We hire specialists to identify and label disabilities, but we should be learning to recognize and support hidden abilities. To be successful in school, you must be good at everything, but to be successful in life, you only have to be good at one or two things. I recognize the importance of a well-rounded education, but some people take a roundabout path to get there. For them, school should be a part of the journey paved with small victories, not an impassable mountain of accumulated failures and dismissive labels.

Many of my Kinko’s coworkers attended the Management Action Program. Among other things, the workshop requires attendees to face a stark – and often harsh – appraisal of their professional strengths and weaknesses. But rather than dwell on weaknesses, as most people do, the program teaches attendees how to focus more attention on their strengths. Unless they are dangerous, weaknesses are to be ignored or marginalized.

Instead of obsessing over what a student cannot do, we should help each student make the most of his or her individual strengths, because you don’t make a difference in this world by trying to be the same as everyone else. That’s true in business and in the pursuit of happiness.

Opal School teachers are currently in the process of writing winter reports for each student, preschool – 5th grade. As they always do, these reports will focus on strengths, which is natural, because each Opal School child has an abundance of them.

It is true, of course, that each child also has challenges. But, when achievement and learning are the goal, there is simply no advantage to dwelling on them. Because our brains are complex systems, human beings are most successful in environments that build on strengths. Such environments provide inherent support for challenges, and tend to do the work of focused remediation without interrupting the motivation of the learner.

Take a look at Daniel Pink's TED talk about the science of motivation:


But I know, I know, parents want to know what their kids are struggling with! They want to know what they can do at home to help them struggle less in school… and in life. And then there's that maybe a little less generous but no less genuine, nagging concern: If everyone's strengths are being celebrated, then how will I know if my kid is the best at anything?

At Opal School we are pushing all kids to be their best selves by focusing squarely upon the things they are good at and allowing the engagement and motivation gained within that stance to lighten the parts of themselves that can otherwise get awfully heavy to carry. Because, in the end, if everyone is really the best they can be, what a difference it will make in this world– and to the lives of each person living in it.