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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Finding Students' Hidden Strengths and Passions

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and he has spent a lot of time thinking about how to inspire both. He has some ideas about how we can inspire our students by helping them find their hidden strengths and passions.

To use the word "hidden" may not be quite accurate because often, strengths are hidden by lack of opportunity to display them. Too often, when students are in school, they are not looked at in terms of their strengths; rather, there is a focus on remediating their deficits. This is rarely a source of inspiration for anyone. What ends up happening is that kids' strengths and passions are either hidden from their educators or worse, they become hidden from themselves because they do not get encouraged.

So what can educators do? First, have all your students tell you about their hobbies or other things they really like to do or are very good at. You can do that in a homeroom or advisory, or you can work it into a language arts or other assignment. There is benefit to having everyone go around and share with classmates. Typically, their classmates also are unaware of their assets.

Second, ask students to talk about times when they found out something surprising and good about someone else. Ideally, this would make a wonderful topic for an essay or short story or even an art-related assignment. From these examples, help students reflect on things about themselves that classmates or teachers might find surprising and impressive.

Third, have students talk to their parents or guardians about "hidden talents"-- you may want to use this exact term. Help them develop a short interview schedule to find out about hobbies or aspirations that they may have pursued at one time and then had to give up, or decided not to follow up. Consider making a scrapbook for presentation to parents (this can be a digital scrapbook for easy sharing), something that they might even find a bit inspiring.

You may have your own ideas. Colleagues in Israel use a program developed by Josef Levi when he was Superintendent of the Tel Aviv Central School District, Israel's largest. Dr. Levi would reserve Friday afternoons for all students in multi-grade groupings to do projects based on their multiple intelligence strengths. These projects ranged from students who wanted to make a rocket, to students making robots, creating artwork, doing a chess-related project, creating a fashion show, and songwriting and performing. Each had an academic component linked to the curriculum and each one had a powerful motivating effect on many of the students.

Brad Hirschfield reminds us that miraculous discoveries must be discovered. That is, action must be taken to find what is hidden. Let's be sure we are taking those actions so that our students do not lose some of their most deeply treasured possessions: their strengths and passions.

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educational Consultant/Author, Southern California

Thank you for your clear and specific suggestions. My favorite essay topic to this end was 'Three Things I Want You To Know About Me.'

Amy Weinberger's picture
Amy Weinberger
Strategic Educational Consultant

As a Highlands affiliate (www.highlandsco.com) I have the privilege daily to help teens and young adults understand their natural abilities. Sometimes they remain hidden because of the demands of school, family pressures or values. When a student can better translate their personal styles, driving and specialized abilities, their satisfaction and happiness factors increase because they can choose programs and relationships that are more productive and rewarding.

Barbara Cervone's picture

An important topic, to be sure. For three years, WKCD has worked with students and teachers nationwide to investigate how students find these hidden passions and then get really good at them. Check out: Fires in the Mind by Kathleen Cushman and the students of What Kids Can Do (Jossey-Bass, 2010) and our Just Listen! series of 200+ short video clips in which students talk about learning--and often discovering their passion (go to www.wkcd.org and look for Just Listen! link in left column).

Maurice J. Elias's picture

Thanks to all of the commentators on this blog. I especially want to note below Barbara's recommendation and urge readers to both follow up and follow her example by sharing the practices and resources you have found to be helpful. It's not only kids who have hidden talents-- so do educators!!

[quote]An important topic, to be sure. For three years, WKCD has worked with students and teachers nationwide to investigate how students find these hidden passions and then get really good at them. Check out: Fires in the Mind by Kathleen Cushman and the students of What Kids Can Do (Jossey-Bass, 2010) and our Just Listen! series of 200+ short video clips in which students talk about learning--and often discovering their passion (go to www.wkcd.organd look for Just Listen! link in left column).[/quote]

Mitch Hare's picture

Nice piece! The real value in taking these steps is to connect the motivators for a successful educational experience. Students are increasingly looking for reasons why they should take interest in school when they can simply get information anywhere. If educators can align students' personal stories to classroom experiences, we may have a good start on increased engagement in the process.

sarahkcarrier's picture

I am a 5th grade teacher who believes all of those things are so relevant to my classroom. I sometimes find it difficult to relate to my students or even just figuring them out. These are fabulous strategies that can lead to more student centered learning experiences. After all that is what we all strive for right? To create a learning environment that are students can strive in.

Hend's picture

This is a very important topic. For real teaching to happen, teachers must believe that every student can learn but differently.

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educational Consultant/Author, Southern California

I have used this writing prompt to help student's reveal themselves: "Three Thing I Want You To Know About Me." The kids can be serious, silly or passionate about any topic they choose.

Diana Kennedy's picture
Diana Kennedy
Educational Therapist from San Anselmo, CA

Yasher Koach. Great article. And so important for the kids to know that you see them for who they are and what they have to give.

Maurice J. Elias's picture

[quote]Yasher Koach. Great article. And so important for the kids to know that you see them for who they are and what they have to give.[/quote]
Diana, it's always gratifying to see a post commented on a while after it is posted. But just as you evoked a "yasher koach," which, so readers know, is a Hebrew term evoking praise and congratulations and wishes for continued strength to pursue good deeds, we do need to understand that finding kids' contributions is an ongoing task. Actually, it's not so much a task as a gift. As we bring our children's abilities into our classrooms, schools, and wider society, we will see great benefit and engagement and acceptance of diverse others.

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