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Against Positive Thinking, Positive Labels and Strengths-Based 'Fads'

You can overdo the positive | How can you raise Self-Esteem? | What's in your Success Store?

You can overdo the positive: the fad known as “strengths-based development.”

The Perils of Accentuating the Positive (2009)
Edited by Robert B. Kaiser

The Perils of Accentuating the Positive assembles a dream team of thought leaders to critically evaluate advice from “gurus” to stop fixing weaknesses and instead focus on strengths. The book offers “the rest of what you need to know” about the fad known as “strengths-based development.” (as described by Hogan Press the publisher).

Extract from Robert Hogan's 'Perils' chapter on Personality Theory and Positive Psychology

The Negative Side of Positive Psychology
by Professor Barbara S. Held
In The Negative Side of Positive Psychology (Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 2004 44 pp 9 - 46) Barbara Held explores three ways in which the positive psychology movement's construction and presentation of itself are negative.


Positive psychology, the strengths movement and the solution-focused approach (2008)
by Coert Visser, Solution-Focused Trainer

A well presented exploration of three key differences between the strengths movement and the solution-focused approach. It also links to a summary of Carol Dweck's research showing that 'process praise' (associated with a 'growth mindset') is more effective than 'trait praise' (associated with a 'fixed mindset')


Did Our Strengths Lead Us to this Point of Weakness? (2009)

Dr. Randall P. White, Lecturer at Duke Corporate Education in London & Principal of Executive Development Group

in Business Leadership Review. Vol 6 Issue 1, January 2009
It starts out as a broad survey of economic decline, but that is simply the background for a very specific and useful list of "ten specific steps to create a self-awareness-based leadership development model in an increasingly cost-cutting environment, which have been informed by my research and practice". This is a well presented and well referenced list of 10 'steps' - but in no clear sequence


Labels Limit Learning: James Nottingham at TEDxNorrkopingED (2012)

In this 20 minute video (filmed for TED talks) James Nottingham explains how labels get in the way of learning whether the labels are positive or negative. Drawing on Carol Dweck's research he argues that labelling children stifles learning, whereas labelling their actions allows children to learn from what they do. For example, labelling children as bright, clever, good, bad, stupid, racist, or naughty limits what they can learn, but labelling their actions in these ways creates opportunites for learning (such as why their action attracted that label/description)*.

James Nottingham also presents the case for a focus on progress rather than on attainment. He introduces the topic with this equation from Eccles (2000):
If expectation is zero, then application is zero (even if perceived value is high). A low level of attainment (eg relative to the test scores of others) creates low expectations, whereas an expectation of progress will increase application. For example, an individual's progress can be represented in an individualised progress chart. Each chart can have a different starting point for each child. James points out how one-off tests do not show progress, whereas a pre-test followed by time for learning and then a (post-)test readily produces a progress score. He also recommends the value of providing learning support in advance (eg previewing the next day's lessons) rather than always seeing learning support as 'catch-up'. Preview makes it easier for all pupils take part in the subsequent lesson - following which 'catch-up' may not be needed.

*Review by Roger Greenaway: James's opening anecdote about his wine-tasting performance neatly captures the essence of what follows. Labelling action or behaviour is an improvement on labelling people, but there are more sophisticated ways of responding to 'good' and 'bad' behaviour, such as considering the impact and consequences as well as considering the reasons behind the actions. There is also the question of who does the labelling (or describing) - the person, their peers or the teacher. James could have given some indication of these (and other) ways of responding to 'good' and 'bad' behaviour especially given the title of his talk: 'Labels Limit Learning'. The reasons why negative labelling limits learning are reasonably self-evident, so I would have really appreciated more insights into the problems associated with positive labelling. The video is well worth viewing, but I was left wanting more depth and detail - especially about how positive labelling limits learning. Maybe there will be a follow-up?

PS Yes - that follow-up is available now in the form of James' book: Encouraging Learning
In the chapter 'Don’t Call Them Gifted!' topics include: Fixed and Growth Mindsets, What’s Wrong With Gifts? My Child Really Is a Genius, Is My Child Top of the Class? A Cautionary Note About Effort, Growth Mindset and School Grades, Top Tips for Praise.


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