Jenifer Fox is a remarkable educator. She is equipped with a Masters of Education from Harvard, has experienced almost thirty years of practical experience as a teacher and head of school, and is fueled by an inexhaustible passion to see that every child on the planet knows their own strengths. For her, “Developing strengths is as important as understanding technology.”
In addition to authoring the award-winning treatise, Your Child’s Strengths, on how to assist children to identify their own strengths, she designed The Affinities Program – a four-year curricula that provided guidance for girls in transitional circumstances at a private high school in New Jersey. She is currently the creator of a new program, Strong Planet, designed to provide “teachers, employers, coaches, and counselors a step-by-step process for implementing a strengths focus both within their organizations, and with the youth they serve.”
Most of all, Fox is the recognized leader of education within the Strengths Movement and visionary of the future of educational and societal trends.
SuperConsciousness Magazine spoke with Fox about the implementation of strengths training to prepare young adults for the future.
SC: How can strengths training be used with the current system to assist children to better translate their education into a career trajectory?
JF: Developing strengths in school isn’t a matter of just finding what box you fit into and what careers are available, it’s a matter of changing your thinking about what you’re able to contribute and what you’d enjoy doing.
Usually that process involves the synthesis of a lot of different little things that you would not necessarily think about. Our [current] education system puts everything into a big box: English, math, science – all of those are “big boxes.” We’ve fit careers into those big boxes – lawyer, doctor, teacher. But really, strengths are about finding tiny little boxes and putting them all together into other kinds of career boxes to make a job. Education really should be about helping children figure out what little things excite them and motivate them, not in the big boxes but in the little boxes.
Education really should be about helping children figure out what little things excite them and motivate them.
For instance, English: As an adult, I love to write but I do not love to copy edit. In English class, I really only learned grammar and how to copy edit, and because I was taught that was writing, I thought then I might not ever want to write at all.
I happen to know many people who love to edit, organizing sentences and moving words around. My friend who loves editing says, “I feel the same rush I get when I arrange my closet.” She has identified a little box. Recognizing our feelings while involved in an activity is important. When a child realizes “I love to do this little thing” that is when a teacher is able to see how that “small box” can translate into many avocations. Schools and parents need to help a child recognize that experience.
SC: In educating the future, you suggest that in addition to identifying strengths, we should focus more on the application of all the different educational skills, not just the learning of them.
JF: Absolutely. I’m excited about the strengths development because of what happens next. Currently, we only download content, but children’s lives and their careers are going to be about doing things and putting that knowledge to work, not just knowing things. The success of schools really depends on kids doing authentic, real world work. For instance, there is a school in D.C. that is a project based learning school. The kids come from all manner of backgrounds, often poor and broken homes. They are not homeless but they are one step from being homeless. They took on a study of the homeless and got so into it that they created a series of books for other kids to understand what homelessness is. They were so excited about it because it was real: A real book they could give to a real kid, and they all had real learning.
SC: What is the process of identifying strengths during project-based learning?
JF: Good teachers are really good designers and they can design experiences with multiple entry points in mind and then have kids try to hook up into those different entry points. For example, if you’re going to do a book project then somebody has to do the artwork, somebody must get the outline together, and somebody’s got to edit; all of those are entry points. Strength development begins with an understanding of how you feel during a certain activity, whether or not you’re energized or excited by it. The teacher would look into the class, observe each child’s strength, and provide the best opportunity for each participant to recognize their strengths within all the different activities.
Strength development begins with an understanding of how you feel during a certain activity, whether or not you’re energized or excited by it.
It’s really important to ask questions and then have time for reflection and processing. How does it feel when doing specific activities? Does it excite? And if it does, then why?
SC: Now in terms of state mandated courses: You’re not necessarily suggesting that the required subject matter be replaced. Your focus is how that subject matter is approached and reworked – to center first on the children’s strengths in learning that material.
JF: Yes, and it isn’t to say that children never have to do anything they don’t like to do. Strengths training is a focus on building a life along something they are excited and energized by, because if they don’t, it’s not going to be a good life. Currently, schools don’t do that. Schools are about “You succeeded at this, you failed at that.” Not by whether you loved it, were energized by it, or want to do it again.
SC: When we recognize that a child is energized by, for example, working with computers, and we then provide that child the opportunity to delve into related computer activities instead of keeping them bound to a more rigid traditional curriculum path, then doing so does not take away from their ability to successfully negotiate SATs and all of the other testing structures that are in place. Is that correct?
JF: That is correct and I’ll give you an example. There is a school in New York that started out as a film school and now it’s partnering with a public school in New York. The projects that are involved in creating these films covers just about everything that they have to cover for these tests as well. When the kids are involved with activities that energize and excite, it actually stimulates their minds and they learn the more traditional academic elements that otherwise would be boring and unconnected to real-world situations.
SC: And, you have a new educational program that is about to be released. How did it come about?
JF: Often, when I go and work in the schools, it’s so frustrating because the teachers don’t know what to do. The kids these days are way more advanced, and they get more stimulation and joy of learning outside the school than inside of school. After writing my book, I went back to the drawing board and contemplated what kids respond to and asked what it was going to take to help them change their habits.
The kids these days are way more advanced, and they get more stimulation and joy of learning outside the school than inside of school.
I’ve created a media driven, kid-centered curriculum to help them learn their strengths, starting in high school and working back towards preschool. It’s an MTV style show called Strong Planet that helps kids learn about their different strengths through activities and it contains a project-based online learning center.
We are creating it as a six part series. In the classroom, the teacher can hand activities out, or if they are really into it, they can become a character in the activities, bring kids through the questions and into discussions. It’s not passive. It goes through the whole strengths curriculum to help figure out what excites you.
I also designed Strong Planet for all the kids who have dropped out of school, who have talent, but who aren’t going to have this high school diploma piece of paper. How can they show that they can actually do something? That was my goal, to create a platform, a place where young people learn how to demonstrate that they can do something beyond just having a degree.
SC: Taking time to self-reflect is an important part of becoming aware of our strengths. In our media driven world, quiet time has been almost entirely replaced by a continuous barrage of entertainment. How does your new program balance contemplation time with the “entertain me” paradigm?
JF: We have been so afraid of kids doing computer games because that’s all they do, but now the research is showing us that these kids are developing critical thinking skills way beyond what they can learn in school. So the question really is, “How do you put the important strengths content into young people’s hands so that they absorb it and don’t even know they are absorbing it?” Let’s give them what they like to eat and inject some nutrition into it.
SC: So your perception is that it is possible for a child to touch their own strengths while using the same media that is continuously barraging them?
JF: Their whole life, all they’ve heard is media telling and showing them that they are not strong. Kids are so tuned in that I wanted to go back into that media and help reprogram it for them. Enjoining them is the next step for me. Even with very young preschool children there are several things that a parent can do. One is to use narratives, whether it’s fairy tales or TV or movies. Use the characters to help the kids identify the strengths in them. They are projecting; they can look at a character and see what those strengths are. That is quite easy to do.
SC: This challenging work that you have taken on. What is it that drives you everyday?
JF: My mission is about kids. It is about young people and getting inside their head because I can live there. My vision is that we create a learning community in the world for kids where they are inspired by learning and the real work they will have to do. I’m on a fast track of helping revolutionize what happens in school.
My vision is that we create a learning community in the world for kids where they are inspired by learning and the real work they will have to do.
I received a grant from the Best Buy Company’s foundation to develop the Strong Planet and put it into 100 public schools in the fall and I’m looking for school administrators that are already enthusiastic about strengths, because those schools will be the ones who won’t just put it on the shelf.
For more information about Strengths, the Strong Planet DVD program for children and schools, and to contact Jenifer Fox, go to www.strengthsmovement.com
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