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Strengths-Based Learning Emphasized at KVCC

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By Leeanne Seaver

From a seat at the back of every classroom, Madelyn* sat through school wishing she was somewhere else. She struggled in math, science and reading. She could count on being grounded for two weeks every time the report card came home showing no improvement. That took the joy out of the one thing she did excel at in school—her social life.

“I was not smart… at least that’s how I saw myself. I see things differently now,” she says. This fall, Maddy begins her second year at Kalamazoo Valley Community College where she’s studying health and human services. No longer the kid her parents feared was “least likely to succeed,” Maddy is bucking her own trend. “I finally figured out that I’m good at something, and then I realized that I actually like the thing I’m good at. Turns out I’ve got a lot of ‘WOO’. Now I can see a career, and I’m going for it.”

Maddy’s transformation is not unusual, according to Ken Barr, Jr., Director of Student Strengths Development at KVCC. Barr challenges the status quo in education, “What if we focused on what is right with people?”

That’s the thinking behind KVCC’s innovative Strengths-based philosophy that infuses students with a positive view of their learning style and skills. Based on the work of Strengths Psychology guru Don Clifton, Barr and his staff of Student Strengths Ambassadors “help students begin to see themselves in light of their talents.

Educators have worked hard to remediate students’ deficiencies, and that has proven effective in preventing failure in a given subject area or activity. However, that approach has not necessarily led to students thriving in an academic subject or activity. High performance or achievement comes from an individual leveraging their unique talents to accomplish their goals.”

Kalamazoo Valley Community College applies this Strengths-based approach to its faculty and staff as well. Candy Horton, the president’s administrative secretary, has her Top Five Strengths framed right on her desk. At KVCC, everyone is encouraged to see themselves and each other in this light. An on-line StrengthsQuest assessment shows them their top Strengths among 34 ”themes of talent.”

Knowing if your talents include, for example, WOO (Winning Over Others), or Strategic, Maximizer, Futuristic , Relator, Positivity, etc., helps you (and your teachers or co-workers) capitalize on your assets.

This StrengthsQuest tool, developed by the Education Practice arm of Gallup, the national polling company, is designed to help individuals discover their greatest natural talents and build on them to achieve academic, career, and personal success.

It takes about 45 minutes to complete the assessment on-line and results are processed and returned electronically. The Student Strengths Development Department provides one-on-one advising sessions called Strengths Discussions to talk about the assessment results. It’s an opportunity to explore and affirm a student’s natural talents, and to create an action plan to develop and apply those talents in college and beyond. “I took the Strength Quest survey and it showed ‘WOO’ as my top Strength which means ‘Winning Over Others.’

In the Strengths Discussion, I learned that my ability to make friends and get along with people was actually a very important skill in the business world—influencing, relating, and inspiring people is WOO…I’m good at that! It made me feel different about myself—better—and that gave me the confidence to think I could make a career out of that,” Maddy explained, “and that’s what I’m doing. I’ve got a goal now.” An education that emphasizes what a student is good at produces higher levels of self-awareness and self-confidence.

This translates into more productive focus in learning, and better informed personal and career decisions. Plus, students who have participated in Strengths development have an advantage when talking to employers. They know what they’re good at, and have practiced a vocabulary that describes their Strengths and what they can contribute to a team or organization.

Focusing on what is right with students could be a real game-changer for the entire field of education. High school graduates who are considering their next steps can contact KVCC’s Student Strengths Development Department at (269) 488-4433 or by emailing strengths@kvcc.edu. Gallup-trained and Strengths-Maximizer Ken Barr, Jr., gets more than a little revved up about the possibilities, “Imagine what our world would look like if everyone knew their Strengths and had the opportunity to use them.”

*not her real name

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