The more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them.

                                                                  ― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Who Is Paulo Freire?

Strength-Based Teacher Driven Change (SBTDC) is grounded in many different theories and practices; many are described in the Journal found on this website.  Other theories supporting SBTDC are described in IFT documents and writings.  Numerous world-class writers are discussed and cited for their insight and support of strength-based thinking.  

One educator and social activist who has not been discussed or mentioned in relationship to strength-based thinking is Paulo Freire. For those who know of him, you might question his connection to the strength-based model.  

Below is a brief biographical sketch describing Paulo Freire’s thinking:

Freire’s revolutionary pedagogy starts from a deep love and humility for poor and oppressed people and a respect for their “common sense,” which constitutes a knowledge no less important than the scientific knowledge of the professional. This humility makes possible a condition of reciprocal trust and communication between the educator, who also learns, and the student, who also teaches. Thus, education becomes a “communion” between participants in a dialogue characterized by a reflexive, reciprocal, and socially relevant exchange, rather than the unilateral action of one individual agent for the benefit of the other.  Source: The Encyclopedia of Education   

Anyone familiar with the strength-based model will certainly recognize it in the values and beliefs articulated by Freire.  The importance of “common sense” is the recognition that our children and young adults bring a diverse set of knowledge and skills into the classroom which provides a rich and dynamic teaching and learning experience.  

Accompanying this line of thinking is Freire’s view on deficit education. Freire describes deficit-based education as a system of banking;  a metaphor describing children and young adults as containers into which teachers put knowledge.  What transpires in this banking system is a school environment where the teacher is the subject (that is, the active participant) and a student is a passive object with no standing.  For Freire, this represents a repressive teacher-student relationship which is both determined by and results in an unjust society.   

To alleviate this condition, Freire introduced a pedagogy where students and teachers actively participate in an informal dialogue, enriched by the knowledge and experience each brings to the conversation.  According to Freire, “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (Freire, Paulo. “The “Banking” Concept of Education.”).

In strength-based terms, Freire is suggesting a school-family-community conversation driven by talents, interests, knowledge and skills.  Through such a conversation, Freire’s ideas provide motivation and authenticity to strength-based learning by emphasizing the natural talents, experiences, and knowledge of the learner and how the learning process can act as a catalyst for constructing a strength-based society; a society where social justice is achieved by emphasizing strengths over deficits and opportunities over obstacles.  

A New Strategy for Social Justice

Paulo Freire viewed education as an ‘awakening of consciousness,’ where students develop an accurate awareness of their natural talents and the capacity to act. Paulo Freire believed learning occurs best when learners engage the world through their natural talents.  When this occurs, individuals make their own connections and construct their own meaning. What makes Freire pedagogy most significant is it empowers and motivates people to take action with the objective of changing their social realities. In this sense, the strength-based model is a transformative force for social justice where all people have an equal opportunity to create their own success.

While the social justice approach seeks to overcome political, economic and social deficits, the strength-based model offers a framework for enhancing human dignity by emphasizing strengths. Strength-based pedagogy offers teachers, parents and community members the opportunity to coalesce and construct a social order that builds and emphasizes what societal factors are working to create equal opportunities for all.  In other words, when strengths underpin society, our basic institutions are structured to seek individual talents and strengths and to create maximum opportunities for all citizens to be successful.  By envisioning a social order driven by strengths, we are more likely to create a culture of success which values the dignity and self-worth of every person.   

Creating a Culture of Success

SBTDC is based on the seven factors driving a culture of success. Click here to view the seven factors.Several of the factors describe the importance of family and community in creating a successful teaching and learning environment.  For  Paulo Freire, community-based learning plays an essential role, where knowledge and life experiences are the raw materials for education. Expanding on this pedagogical thought, strength-based thinking asks students to reflect and act on their talents as a pathway to success, not on what Paulo Freire describes as social myths obstacles which tend to dominate our thinking and distract us from creating equal opportunities for all. In other words, instead of becoming experts on societal obstacles and problems, students participate in conversations with teachers, parents and community members on how combing talents, knowledge, and skills construct a culture of success.  

A culture of success begins with the self-discovery of natural talents. See the Gallup’s StrengthsQuest.  Through this self-discovery, students become aware of their potential and capacity to act.  Because we focus on talents, all students are treated equally which creates opportunities for all to realize their potential.  This strength-based learning and teaching environment contradicts most policy makers and education bureaucrats who promote a state of literacy based on an externally driven curriculum and set of standards.  For Paulo Freire, schooling in this sense serves the interest of politicians and bureaucrats and is contrary to social justice values.  In other words, Freire argued to be literate was more than just being competent in knowledge and skills but also to be competent in the realization every individual has the power to influence society by utilizing their strengths.  For Paulo Freire, herein lies the major objective of social justice thinking, ending the cycle of poverty.    

Ending The Cycle of Poverty  

Hope, possibilities, and opportunities are the tools for ending the cycle of poverty.  You can’t fix a culture of despair, you can only transform it. Money and programs alone won’t end poverty. Trillions of dollars and hundreds of programs since President’s Johnson’s War on Poverty have resulted in minimal success, showing how powerful the deficit model is in preventing change. Click here for more information.  

The CTA Institute for Teaching has found, however, when you focus on strengths – what works – you can create and invent your way out of poverty.   Click here to see the IFT-Gates Foundation Project.   

Through strength-based conversations, teachers can construct a learning environment that first and foremost values students for the contributions they make to the learning process.  The key is everything must start with student talents, where natural talents are emphasized over student deficits. 

According to Freire and strength-based thinking, this is where those in charge (policy makers, politicians, bureaucrats) often make the mistake of imposing a curriculum on children of poverty.  For example, below is a statement from National Conference of State Legislatures on dropout prevention:

Research shows that the rigor of high school curriculum is one of the top indicators for whether a student will graduate from high school and earn a college degree.  In fact, a study by the U.S. Department of Education found that the rigor of high school coursework is more important than parent education level, family income, or race/ethnicity in predicting whether a student will earn a postsecondary credential.

While the above statement seems logical it is a clear and precise representation of deficit-thinking.  A better, more strength-based position from the State of Victoria Department of Education looks like:

Research highlights that when families, schools, and communities work together in positive and collaborative ways, a child’s capacity to achieve their learning potential is significantly enhanced—and so are their general health, wellbeing, positive outlook and sense of purpose in life   .   .   .   a child’s strengths, interests and self-reflections (child’s voice) which educators can use to plan appropriate learning programs that build on children’s learning and development, promote children’s sense of agency and enhance their overall learning potential.

While there’s no disagreement with a rigorous and challenging curriculum, the question is how to make it student-centered.  

Student-Centered Teaching and Learning

A cursory review of educator thinking suggests student-centered teaching and learning is defined in many ways.  Some teachers suggest it is the way a classroom is arranged or organized. For example, desks are arranged so it’s easier for students to work together on assignments or subjects areas instead of being set up in rows or columns. Other teachers believe a student-centered classroom is one where students have ample voice, are encouraged to engage with each other and are given choices over the education they receive. Finally, some educators sum up student-centered practices as increasing autonomy, collaboration, project-based learning, increasing the use of technology, and expanding student interaction and communication. 

While most teachers would agree students need to play a more dramatic and meaningful role in the education they receive, a strength-based learning environment goes beyond what has typically been described as student-centered. In a strength-based student-centered environment, student talents drive the learning process. Simply speaking, student talents determine what takes place in the classroom. This approach contradicts a deficit-based environment where students are required to learn a body of knowledge that is externally imposed. The responsibility of the classroom teacher is to develop the necessary knowledge and skills to help transform student talents to strengths. In this sense, the teacher is empowered to combine art and science to create a broad-based curriculum; a curriculum which matches the talents of each student. 

By creating a public school system where talents are central, we begin crafting an educational system where all students have an equal opportunity to transfer their talents into strengths and a society where all individuals are valued for the strengths they possess.  

From a strength-based perspective, it’s just that simple.  It’s also consistent with Paulo Freire when he said “The future isn’t something hidden in a corner. The future is something we build in the present.”

Let’s Start Building

When we focus on strengths, problems begin to dissipate, offering opportunities for growth and development.  Through strength-based conversations and reflection, we increase the value, independence, and capacity of all parties.  Strength-based change is both exhilarating and self-fulfilling, offering a new sense of hope and self-reliance.

For teachers and teaching, strength-based learning has no boundaries and the teaching profession assumes a new purpose and direction.  Teachers do not instruct as much as they orchestrate by integrating the talents and interests of their students with the knowledge and skills of other students, parents and school community members. 

But to do this, schools need to become more flexible and less rigid while providing teachers greater autonomy and capacity to work directly with school-community members. In turn, school-community members need to play a more precise role in providing the knowledge and skills necessary to inspire all students to greatness.

Knowledge and skills become the “work” of the strength-based learning school. As more teachers experiment with strength-based thinking and engage school-community members, school subcultures develop promoting affirmative values, beliefs, and assumptions supporting a culture of success for all students. 

Final Thoughts

To end poverty, the message is clear. Do not surrender to hopelessness and despair. Do not focus on or emphasize deficits. Fight as hard as you can to discover your talents; your humanity, and then, apply them with a fury to achieve greatness. 

Deficit thinking will not be eliminated by those in power but by those who have not discovered the power they possess. For Paulo Freire this obligates teachers to challenge the status quo and advocate for a student-centered strength-based education.  Freire believed only teachers can construct such an environment because those in power maintain their pedagogical authority by adhering to the deficit-based model.  In other words, regardless how the curriculum is packaged, it remains grounded in a deficit-based banking system.   

In a strength-based teaching and learning environment, there are no guarantees, but there are opportunities; opportunities that manifest themselves in a variety of ways through a school-community dialogue which appreciates and values talents, knowledge, and skills. This is the potential and possibility of Strength-Based Teacher Driven Change; a potential which can create a culture of success throughout society beginning with the talents of each child. 

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