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Mrs Dawson: Playing to Our Strengths

28 April 2022

At Sutton High School, we want our pupils to be able to have choice, so that they can play to their own unique strengths.

As this quote from global researcher Marcus Buckingham says, ‘Learning is like new buds on an existing branch. If you want to excel, if you want to stand out, you’re going to have to take the unique things about you that are beautiful and powerful, and take them seriously, and turn them into contributions.’

A recent article in The Times (Teens in Crisis, 12th April 2022) explained that referrals to mental health practices have doubled for teenage girls in the past two years, with much of the article focusing on a fear of failure amongst teenage girls, or a fixation with what they are doing wrong. We believe that our students will excel and that their mental wellbeing will be enhanced, where they spend more time building on their strengths than trying to improve on their weaknesses. Of course, the latter is important in making progress, but the virtuous cycle created by developing the things we are already good at, and experiencing success, has exceptional benefits for our pupils’ wellbeing and mental health.

When pupils feel stuck or are anxious, it can be incredibly helpful for them to focus on what they have already achieved and what they know they are able to succeed in. As Curt Liesveld, Learning and Development Psychologist and author of ‘Living Your Strengths’, says ‘you may not be able to be anything you want to be, but you can be a whole lot more of who you already are.’ We want our pupils to be proud of who they are and the ‘Truth’ in our values is as much about being true to oneself as it is about being loyal to our school community.

In Carol Dweck’s well known work on a ‘growth mindset’, she explains that it is common to feel that our weaknesses can be improved but that our strengths are fixed, which means we are naturally more inclined to try to improve where we're weak, rather than develop on the things we are already good at. However, educational studies have found that when we focus on developing our strengths, we make more progress and learn faster than when trying to improve our weaknesses. Plus, people who use their strengths are happier, less stressed, and more confident and we are 6-times as likely to be engaged by our tasks and our learning if we’re strengths-aligned. Being strength- aligned means that the task, the learning or the job aligns with the strengths we have. Furthermore, if we’re using our strengths each day, we are three-times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life.

This isn’t an argument for our pupils to forget about their weaknesses – we do a lot to support them in improving on these, but rather a plea for them to spend more of their time valuing, truly recognising and building on what they are good at and, when given a choice at school, to make that choice based on what they love to do and feel energised by.

Our senior pupils have a choice in the clubs that they join, from a massive range and a wide variety. From this year, when Year 8 move into Year 9, they can choose to drop a subject so that they can focus on those they enjoy most. From year 9 into 10, there is a free choice of GCSE subjects, where other schools have options blocks or ask that pupils choose, for example, a language or a humanities. If a pupil relishes science, they can choose to take triple award GCSE, but if you prefer to take double award, that’s fine too. This is the same when they move into the Sixth Form, where they can choose four A Levels to try out, before deciding which one to drop, so that they can play to your strengths in the other three. In sport, the Senior Games programme allows Year 10-13 pupils lots of choice in how to develop their fitness, in Year 8 Kaleidoscope, pupils can choose their top two activities, in Year 7, after a taster of all three, pupils can choose which language they take. Students can choose to volunteer for positions of responsibility like House Captains or School Council, or can choose to enter competitions like House Drama or the creative writing contest and in lessons, they can choose to take on challenge tasks, or extension work. It is a lot of choice and it is there to allow the students here to build on what they do well.

Experts say that the best way to identify our strengths is to think about the idea that a ‘strength makes us feel stronger’. A strength should engage and excite us, so that we feel successful, purposeful, invigorated and fulfilled.

However, we can reject our own unique strengths if we are taught to value one strength above others or if external influences tell us that one strength or ability is more valid or has more potential than another. For example, yesterday’s press coverage of the Government Commissioner’s comments about girls ‘not liking’ maths or physics, totally contradicts what we see here at Sutton High School, but hearing this coverage could certainly influence a pupil to hide her passion for numbers or engineering. Studies also show that parental influence can impact greatly upon how a student views their own strengths, or their chosen career path.

At this school, we do not value one strength above another, or one subject above others. I am often asked at Open Events, “What subjects does your school focus most on?” or, “Which subjects get the biggest take up at GCSE?” To me, these questions cannot be answered as they do not reflect the broad and balanced approach we have to helping every pupil to respond to learning as an individual. I think we have a duty to promote all subjects equally and to reassure our students that enjoyment will, more often than not, lead to academic success.

We want our girls to find new things to be energised by, to be proud of what they love, and to enjoy playing to their strengths, because we know that they will be more successful and, most importantly, have a greater sense of self and improved wellbeing when they do. As the very large sign in my office says, ‘Do what you love.’ I believe that encouraging pupils to follow this advice can only benefit them, both at school and in the life beyond.