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Students at Lake Canyon Elementary School are learning to assess their talents and identify their strengths, and officials contend it’s driving academic success in the Galt, California, school district.

The “strengths-based” approach begins in preschool, when teachers help identify students’ strengths among “talent themes,” and the next year the strengths are recorded in “personalized learning plans”—a different kind of report card.

Galt Joint Union Elementary School District Superintendent Karen Schauer, a 40-year veteran educator, told The Hechinger Report the intentional focus on students’ positive natural talents is “just one of the most powerful things I’ve ever been a part of.”

The first step is to help students identify their strengths, through an online “strengths assessment.” Teachers then provide students with opportunities to apply their talents, or use the information to tailor the curriculum.

“It’s different from ‘character education,’ a method focused on instilling various traits like grit and perseverance, because a strength-based approach focuses on what children already have going for them,” according to the education site.

It’s unclear how many schools use the “strengths-based” approach, but numerous companies and groups offer assessments and frameworks for schools, including CliftonStrengths Youth Explorer, a company associated with the polling firm Gallup; Values in Action; the British Centre of Apply Positive Psychology; and Thrively, a California company.

At Lake Canyon Elementary, teacher Meghan McFayden uses stories of historical figures to help students identify strengths, and frames disciplinary discussions around students’ positive traits.

“Instead of chastising a student doing group work for being ‘too bossy,’ for instance, she will suggest dialing back on ‘Achieving,’ the drive to accomplish,” according to The Hechinger Report. “Undesirable behavior still gets corrected, but by pointing out a surplus of something good, not a deficiency.”

Recent research into character education at a wide range of American schools, conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, shows the focus on language is important.

James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson summarized the findings in The Content of Their Character:

Perhaps the most obvious way in which moral ecosystems vary is in the moral languages used within those ecosystems. The power of language is the power to name things . . . Language, then, provides the joists and beams by which the framework of moral understanding is built.

Moral failures like lying may be considered undesirable behavior at Lake Canyon Elementary School, but not necessarily a deficiency or transgression. The language of strengths that become the joists and beams of students' moral understanding may indeed help them to understand and build strengths, but leave them confused about how to name what they recognize as wrong in themselves and others.

The Jubilee Center for Character and Virtues helps educators navigate the challenge of providing students with language that can "bear the weight" of moral understanding. They offer lesson plans for teachers on both virtue and vice.

While it’s certainly important to celebrate the good, because every child has much to celebrate, it’s also important to go further and provide language for students to understand and articulate the bad.

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