Thursday, April 14, 2022

Look for the light

When I was teaching in India I did the Strengths Finder survey from Gallup.  This is what emerged and I feel it is absolutely true:

Your mind is open and absorbent. You naturally soak up information in the same way that a sponge soaks up water. But just as the primary purpose of the sponge is not to permanently contain what it absorbs, neither should your mind simply store information. Input without output can lead to stagnation. As you gather and absorb information, be aware of the individuals and groups that can most benefit from your knowledge, and be intentional about sharing with them.

Reflecting on this strength put a lot in focus for me - it helped me understand why I blog, for example, as a way of sharing my knowledge and continual learning.  I also came to realise that I was happy in schools that recognised this strength, and unhappy in schools that didn't.  

Chapter 7 of Onward by Elena Aguilar also calls on us to focus on our strengths, assets and skills.  This helps us to boost our levels of self-efficacy and to feel more empowered to influence our surroundings.  It also helps us to respond to challenges more effectively.  In the workplace, people who focus on their strengths are more engaged, more productive and happier, and those who are given the opportunities to focus on their strengths every day are 6 times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and to be more productive both individually and in teams.  Research has identified 34 strengths that exist within everyone, but Gallup defines the "signature strengths" which dominate a person's actions and behaviours. Once you discover and develop your strengths, this helps you to achieve your full potential. In addition, knowing and developing the strengths of the people you are working with helps you become a better leader and allows you to maximise the full potential of the team.

When I worked in Amsterdam we had a Director who would leave us "happygrams".  These were bright pink slips of paper where she would write on things she'd notice us doing around the school and then would post them in our pigeonholes in the staff room.  It was always exciting and affirming to get one of these and to see that someone had noticed our successes.

The idea of making change is that you can focus on what isn't working and decide to do less of it, or focus on what is going well and do a bit more of that.  Focusing on what is working can give us energy to make changes to things that are not going so well.  It allows us to gain confidence and to direct our positive feelings to the areas where we are struggling.  However it's hard to focus on the positive because our brains have a built in negativity bias - we perceive negative stimuli faster and more intensely than positive ones.  Research shows we must focus on a positive experience for 12 seconds before we can retain it in our memories - however danger lodges itself in our brains in just 1/10th of a second.  It's one way our ancient ancestors survived, by overestimating threats, but not so useful perhaps these days.  

Another difficulty is that focusing on the positive goes against some cultural norms, and that for many of us praise or appreciation can even feel uncomfortable.  For example if you are working in an organisation that values analytical and critical thinking then being positive is seen as rather naive.  Complaining is also cultural acceptable in many work places (staff rooms) and this can be very corrosive.  Remember that what we focus on grows - so it's much better to focus on something good!

Over the past year I've trained in the new IB evaluation protocol of appreciative inquiry.  I have to say this has had an amazing impact on the visits I've done to schools.  Our visits now take an inquiry stance and we observe with an appreciation for the strengths of the school.  It's not our job to assess or solve problems - though we do recognise challenges that schools may have been faced with in recent times - but the idea is that we ask questions that focus the attention of the school in a particular direction so that they can evolve.  Elena writes, "the moment we ask a question we begin to create change.  If we choose positive questions, we lead ourselves to positive change. " Here are the 5 steps of appreciative inquiry:

  • Define the topic of the inquiry
  • Discover what is already working (strengths and successes)
  • Dream about what could be and what are the hopes and wishes for the future
  • Design - what might happen if we combine what is already working with what could be?
  • Deliver - what do we need to do?
PYP teachers use a planner to develop their units of inquiry.  The great thing about the planner is that reflection is built in.  Before, during and after the unit we meet together to think about our experiences and consider future choices of action.  The prompts help with decision making and reflecting with colleagues through talking and writing on the planner forces us to put our experiences into words, which helps us recognise patterns and trends over time.

It's also worth noting that in order to build resilience we must feel that we have the ability to respond to challenges - focusing on our strengths helps us to feel empowered, to believe that we can influence our surroundings and events, and leads us to feel competent and confident.

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