So what are ‘Character Strengths’?
Put simply, strengths fall into two categories: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic strengths are our talents and skills; intrinsic strengths direct our talents and skills. “Character strengths are the fuel and the rudder that energize and direct our talents,” says Dr Neal Mayerson, Chairman and Founder of the VIA Institute on Character.
For example, if you have a talent for playing basketball, it will be your intrinsic strength/s – perseverance, teamwork, self-control etc – that will focus and direct your talent to a higher level of achievement.
Intrinsic strengths are ‘character strengths’. This semantic distinction is taken from the science of positive psychology, a relatively new branch of psychology initially brought to fore by Professor Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association in the early 90s. Positive Psychology shifts the enquiry from ‘What is clinically wrong?, to ‘What constitutes a good and satisfying life?’.
What is Positive Psychology?
Martin Seligman, the ‘father of modern positive psychology’ and author of many books, including Learned Optimism, Authentic Happiness, and his latest, Flourish, in 2004 co-authored with Christopher Peterson to produce the ground-breaking handbook, Character Strengths and Virtues – ‘the DSM of positive psychology’ – which unpacks the notion of character, and based on explicit criteria, classifies the resulting 24 universally and morally valued strengths.
Evidence-based research supports the claim that when we use our strengths we more have more fulfilling and happier lives, are more resilient, have less stress, increased vitality and a stronger self-esteem.
Who wouldn’t want that? And who wouldn’t want that for our children – and our teachers?
Strengths-based education in the Classroom
Traditionally, character education in schools is seen as a set of traits or values upheld and promoted to instill these values in its students. However, what the VIA Classification does is celebrate our own constellation of top strengths that, once learned and engaged, enables teachers and students alike to flourish.
If we see each of the 24 strengths as 24 different ‘seeds of potential’, and give each child the opportunity to nourish and grow their own top strengths (whilst still having ready access to their lesser strengths), we give them the greatest gift: to thrive, and to be the best they can be in the world.
When children learn about and engage their top strengths, they develop a ‘strengths-language’ and culture. As an offshoot of this, they begin to:
- celebrate differences in themselves and others;
- align specific strengths for specific tasks;
- have a sense of ‘this is the real me’; and
- shift their own focus from ‘what’s wrong?’ to ‘what’s right?’.
Also, when a child develops their ‘strengths muscles’, their self-esteem and resilience increases, resulting in them being able to recover more quickly from adversity.
We don’t just want our children to be okay. We want them to flourish,
And isn’t flourishing at the heart of what education is about?
Character Strengths and Virtues, Peterson, C., &Seligman, M.E.P., Oxford University Press. New York, (2004)
The Strengths Book, by Linley, A., Willars, J., & Biswas-Diener, R, CAPP Press, UK (2010)
Pursuing the Good Life, by Christopher Peterson, Oxford University Press, USA, 2013
Celebrating Strengths, Jenny Fox Eades, CAPP UK, 2010