Monday, June 22, 2009

The Strengths Movement - an Interview with Jenifer Fox

Jenifer Fox is the author of “Your Child’s Strengths: Discover Them, Develop Them, Use Them”, a book that radically proposes a change from our current focus on improving weaknesses as a means for academic achievement to a strengths-based paradigm. She passionately makes the case that not only will children feel more empowered, confident, and self-aware with this paradigm, it helps them to optimize their education and their career choices. The book contains workbook tools to help to identify strengths at any age, making it a great book for parents, teens, graduates, and those searching for a new career. It ought to be required reading before leaving school! Also included in the book is an outline of the Affinities Program that she developed at her school. I admired the book’s premise and was delighted at the opportunity to interview Jenifer.

In the book you mentioned a painful time in college trying earnestly to understand math without any compassion or cooperation from your professor. It seems that adversity for you became empowering. Why not let kids struggle with their weaknesses like you did, much in the way a butterfly struggles out of the cocoon?

I think a much better approach is letting kids struggle with their strengths. A butterfly is struggling against its strengths. Developing talent is always hard work. If adversity led to my success just think of how far I could have gone with a focus on my strengths. Adversity was painful. It was like poking a needle through the cocoon and saying, "take that, it'll help you grow". I don't know why some people are resilient but most are not. Life in its best state has struggle built in. Struggle is good. There is a difference between struggle and challenge. Our schools often make kids feel punctured through the core.

The strengths you write about fit within multiple intelligences, not just academic. Can you give some examples? How do these multiple intelligences work in a school setting?

I think kids live in two realms: what they do and what their relationships are. The ways they learn will determine how their strengths are activated in the two realms. One of the things we expect but don't teach is how to get along with others. On the end, it is arguably more important than what you know.

What is the difference between strengths and talents or strengths and interests?

Great question. This is the core of my philosophy and I think my definition separates me from other strengths thinkers. An interest is like a topic. It is general. For example, I am interested in writing. A strength is about how you feel doing something. It is a verb. It is the feeling of being energized, excited, and tuned in. A talent is what you are good at. You may not be energized by everything you are good at. I am good at wallpapering. But it doesn't energize me. I am energized by singing, though I have no talent for it. People have the best chance at developing true talent in their areas of strength because they will devote more time to those activities. As I said before, developing talent takes time and focus. It's easier to focus if you are energized by it.

Education in a public setting is standards-based, including standardized testing, requiring students to focus on subjects that may not be of interest to them, or that may outside of their strengths. What is essential to learn or know in school and what is or could be in the category of an elective?

I think we need to ask what can schools teach that can't be learned somewhere else? It used to be the teacher was the expert, the access to information that only could be gotten by their extensive education. Teachers were revered for their knowledge. They were the computer of the past. We don't need to teach subjects anymore. We need to teach literacy, social skills, creativity, problem solving, how to get along, persevere and do the right thing. We need a national conversation on a new national curriculum that includes emotional and physical health.

A conventional public education often sets a pace for the child whether that pace matches the child or not. How do you determine what is a pacing issue (like being forced to learn to read too early) or a strengths issue?

Great question. Strengths are what energize you. You like doing it. Your question is about development. We all develop and grow at different rates and times. I don't think there is a definitive answer to this. I will say that I think our pedagogy is limited. We think it's impossible to differentiate in a large classroom. I don't think so. Any teacher can list all the weaknesses of over 30 students in their classrooms. So why is it suddenly so difficult to see what they are energized by?
There are many different alternative schools that attempt to notice a child’s strengths and nurture them.

What education models seem to do a better job of this than others?

Montesorri, Waldorf, and a lot of Independent schools.

How can all schools implement this strengths curriculum?

I am in the process of making a six-week, multimedia, activity-based version of the Affinities Program called Planet Strengths. All a school needs is a VCR and the desire for student success. This program is active, media driven and kid-centered. It's going to blow schools away when it comes out.

What can parents do to help a child to know himself and his strengths and capitalize them?

Parents can ask kids questions. They should resist giving advice and applying their own autobiography. Strengths are about how a person feels. To encourage understanding about feelings, you need to ask a lot of questions.

What kind of inroads have you made in the public school arena and in the political arena with your ideas?

I have schools in Texas, Philadelphia, and California test marketing the program for success with a grant from the Best Buy Foundation.

For more information on the Strengths Movement, go to

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