One of the knocks against using standardized testing to drive education reform has been the idea that such testing fosters a "one-size-fits-all" approach to teaching. In recent decades, many psychologists and educators have argued that some students learn differently than others do, and specific teaching strategies should be tailored to students' individual strengths.
Before that can happen, teachers, parents, and students themselves must understand what students' strengths are. The most recent Gallup Youth Survey* asked 13- to 17-year-olds to describe their own strengths, and to say whether they feel their parents and teachers recognize those strengths in them.
Who Understands You?
Most teenagers (89%) say their parents recognize their strengths at least "somewhat well," with almost half (46%) saying "very well."
Carol Ann Tomlinson, a veteran teacher and author of The Differentiated Classroom, likes those numbers, but thinks parents can do even better by making it a point to talk openly and regularly with their teens about how their abilities are developing. "Some of the issue for parents may be not thinking to look for specific strengths -- or perhaps not having a ready set of categories for which to look," Tomlinson says. "If parents are looking only/largely for good grades, for example, they might overlook a teen's ear for other people, ability to find good in difficult situations, level-headedness, and so on."
Teens don't have quite as much faith that their teachers are aware of their strong points: Just 25% say their teachers recognize their strengths "very well," though almost half (49%) say "somewhat well."
"For teachers, I really believe the first step is deciding whether they want to know about the interests and strengths of their students," Tomlinson says. "The pressures on teachers are great, and many, I think, implicitly draw the conclusion that: (a) they can't know so many students; and (b) they have no options for using what they might find out if they did get to know kids better. Those are, in my opinion, incorrect and sad conclusions -- for both teachers and kids."
Teens' Strengths, in Their Own Words
Here are some of the word-for-word responses teens give when asked to describe their strengths:
- "Well, I'm strong in creativity -- actually very strong. I
always have something going up in my mind and I can speak 1,000
radical lies a minute -- like extreme lies, such as a radioactive
sheep is threatening homes across the world in an attempt for mind
control." -- 15-year-old boy
- "I feel like I have charisma toward others. People always enjoy
themselves when they're around me. I'm very easy to get along with
and I'm not confrontational." -- 16-year-old girl
- "My ability to understand others' points of view, my ability to
reason with people, my strong will, my high intelligence. I am very
full of myself so I could go on for a long time but I'll stop
there." -- 17-year-old boy
- "I think I can relate to others and be optimistic. My ability
to make others smile. My artistic talents and musical talents -- I
think that they bring good feelings and auras to where I am."
-- 13-year-old girl
- "I feel I have many lesser strengths rather than a few stronger strengths. I'm artistic, creative, optimistic, friendly, sociable, calm, athletic, decisive, outgoing, bold, crazy, funny, smart, an out-of-the-box thinker, a daydreamer, and pleasant." -- 17-year-old girl
Tomlinson describes a variety of ways teachers and parents can seek to understand teens' strengths and interests better, but notes that the most important thing is simply to get that communication going. Perhaps the saddest comments were the ones like this from a 13-year-old girl who, when faced with the question about her strengths, says simply, "I don't know. No one has ever asked me that question."
*The Gallup Youth Survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The current questionnaire was completed by 439 respondents, aged 13 to 17, Aug. 8-19, 2004. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.