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The Most Important Question

By Olivia Halsall 2019-04-29 16:30:41

Not everyone is fortunate enough to discover they’ve got a unique talent for the violin, maths or botanical art straight out of the womb. The most fortunate among us are able to discover our strengths through passion, yet still it requires time, effort and patience to find those passions. 

A strength is not to be confused with a passion; they are fiercely intertwined. You might have a natural apt for something but hate it. Alternatively, you might be poorly skilled at something, but love it regardless. Nevertheless, a strength can be fueled by a passion, and a passion molded into a strength – so long as you are willing to persevere. 

The reality is that many of us are “late-bloomers” and it’s as much the journey of finding your strength as it is nurturing it. The late Alan Rickman, who played Severus Snape in Harry Potter, was 42-years-old when he landed his first feature film role. Toni Morrison, one of the most brilliant novelists in the US today, didn’t publish her first novel “The Bluest Eye”, until she was 39-years-old and working full-time.

On the other hand, Serena Williams started playing tennis at age four and was both coached and homeschooled by her parents. Lucky for Serena, she’s pretty good at tennis. This blend of both passion, talent, (and a nudge from mum and dad) has given her widespread recognition as “the best tennis player ever” – according to Roger Federer. 

Steven Hawking grew up in a family of eccentric, yet brilliantly intelligent parents who shuffled the family around in a converted London taxicab. Known as “Einstein” at school, Hawking commenced his studies at Oxford University at age 17, and is renowned worldwide for his groundbreaking contribution to theoretical physics and cosmology. 

Each one of us is unique, and sometimes it just takes us a little longer to figure out what we’re good at, what we love, and how to put these things to good use. 

We had the privilege of speaking to Chris Carter, a teacher at Concordia International School in Shanghai, who offered his experience and thoughts on how we can do better to help children discover their strengths. 

 

 

Are strengths built upon over time, or is it possible to quickly recognize whether a child is skilled in a certain activity? Based on your own experience as a teacher, why is encouraging children to discover their strengths early on so important? But equally, why is it not so catastrophic if these skills are not recognized until later in their lifetime?

While kids develop skills at various rates, time and patience is always needed for these skills to reach maturation. So much of our deeper learning stems from the times we reflect upon our experiences rather than from the experiences themselves. Hence, reflection time is essential in order for skills to develop. I believe we make a mistake as a profession when we tell students to “find your passion.” Most of us do not discover our passion until we are grown, and some of us never find it. Rather than pushing students to artificially accelerate the process, producing angst only hinders development. We need to encourage students to try many things in order to see which ones attract them. 

 

Children often adapt their interests on a daily basis– one day they want to be an astronaut and the next a pastry chef. For children who seem to be enthused by everything, or nothing, what can parents do to guide them to discover their strengths?

I love the child who is enthused by everything! Keep giving them experiences that enthuse! They will find their path. Parents, you’ve got an easy child here. For the child who lacks interest in anything, take away their electronic devices and watch what they do when they are bored. Give them books. Let them know that various activities are happening around town. Then wait. All learning requires us to shift our perspectives. This shift is inherently uncomfortable. All growth is uncomfortable. It is the nature of learning to experience this dissonance between how we thought things are and how we now understand things to be. The way to help unmotivated kids is to make not exploring more uncomfortable than the inherent discomfort of learning.

 

'Your Child’s Strengths: Discover Them, Develop Them, Use Them' by Jennifer Fox, advocates three main areas to provide parents and educators with the tools to help children discover their strengths. These are refining and focusing on activities that energize you (Activity Strengths), activities we can do with others to make us feel valued (Relationship Strengths) and our unique approaches to process and understand new information (Learning Strengths). How can parents begin to navigate their way through the many extra-curricular activity choices available today, and find which one suits their child the best? 

In exploring we learn almost as much from what does not interest us as from what does interest us. Perhaps more important than the specific activity is the social-emotional environment in which the activity is experienced. I mean simply that kids learn more things, are willing to try new activities, and mature more quickly when they are emotionally safe. Families that spend time together eating, playing, and sharing experiences create these safe environments. Kids thrive regardless of specific activities when they know that they are deeply loved. 

 

 

Additional music, art or sports classes can come at a costly price, especially for those families with a handful of children. For those without the financial means to splurge on a variety of extra-curricular activities, what would you recommend they do to ensure their child is still able to find a skill they are good at?

Never underestimate the power of the written word. Exploring the world through literature provides a wealth of opportunities to reflect on one’s own condition. Use that local library. Listen to your child when she relates what intrigues her about a story. Are there places within driving distance that relate to this interest? A trip to an observatory, a courthouse, a hospital… you name it… will demonstrate your interest in your child’s curiosity. Exploring together is a wonderful family activity. 

 

A child’s school environment is as important as their family environment. How do you think schools can work to stimulate students’ interests in fields beyond the curriculum, whether in STEM, literature, arts or sports? 

The primary focus of K-12 institutions should be to teach students how to learn, unlearn, and relearn rather than focus of curricular content. This is not to say that content is unimportant. Of course, content is essential. However, content does not teach us how to learn. Content does not make us independent, analytical thinkers. Philosophically, content should be seen as the bricks that make up a building. Bricks are essential. However, they remain in a useless pile unless we learn how to provide structure to them so that they become edifices of insight and understanding. An effective school does this. Whether through project-based learning, independent research, cross-curricular teaming, internships, guest lecturers… you name it… the most effective schools are purposeful in creating environments where students can feed their hunger to learn.

 

The Montessori approach to preschool education, for example, fosters multi-aged, student-centered and differential learning opportunities for students to develop a deep love of learning. In terms of helping guide children to discover their strengths, how important is it to let children socialize with others not only their own age, but also younger and older? 

As John Dunne said, ‘No man is an island unto himself…’ In youth there is energy and in age there is wisdom. Multi-generational environments are, by far, the best for children to develop into healthy adults. The nuclear family, common today, is more an aberration in history rather than the norm. More typically in history we find three generations living under one roof as part of a larger inter-generational community. While these arrangements sometimes cause friction, it is this very friction that gives us opportunities to learn from one another. Young people learn to care for elders and learn from elders as well. When students in high school care for young children they develop patience and understanding and begin to take on parenting skills. Life is about relationships. I am convinced that we exist to establish and nurture healthy relationships. Our deepest satisfactions derive from them. 

 

Final thoughts

Children today are facing intense competition, of which their parents are all too aware. It seems there is a rush to push children to find their strengths quickly so that they can get ahead of the others. Sure, you could try all of the ball games, instruments and languages under the sun until your child starts to look a little like Serena or Steven. But what if they are a Toni or an Alan? Explore the world with your child and show them the journey of finding their strength. 

“I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” - Steve Jobs’ commencement address to Stanford University, 2005.

 

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