The Smell Test

Anyone who's read this blog for long knows I usually take a dim view of educational panaceas, those fresh, bold ideas that appear from time to time and promise to revolutionize teaching and learning. This isn't to say I dismiss every innovation. Some are useful and I have adopted them, but they first have to pass the smell test. Here's the story of one that didn't.

Several years ago our institution was looking for ways to distinguish itself and someone suggested we look at the work being done by the Gallup Organization, which is best known for its opinion polling. It seems that Gallup had developed an instrument to help businesses identify an employee's strengths at a given job.

Let's say you wanted to hire a salesperson. Well, Gallup would round up and interview hundreds of the nation's top sales people, the best of the best. From this they developed a personality template and then, in turn, an instrument that could detect and measure a subject's "strengths" as a potential salesperson. In fact, they created psychometric instruments for all kinds of professions: accountants, research scientists, secretaries, even the maids in the hotels at Disneyworld.

Eventually Gallup determined that there were some 36 strengths that people possessed in various dimensions. These they measured and ranked (much like the popular Meyers-Briggs test). This was all well and good and the instrument was eerily accurate. But then they decided to sell their soup to the education market. What if, Gallup wondered, they could identify a student's unique strengths and then create an entire curriculum that allowed him or her to capitalize on them? Instead of always knocking students for what they can't do, let's affirm what they do best and help them maximize their potential and life satisfaction.

Gallup's approach grew out of the positive psychology movement, which for years has been arguing that psychology ought to study healthy, happy high-achieving people as much as it does people with mental disorders. Indeed, positive psychology gurus like David Cooperrider argue that human beings may be on the cusp of a happiness revolution. We just need a healthy dose of what he calls "transformational positivity." This is the message he provides to clients such as Wal-Mart, Boeing, Hewlett-Packard and the U.S. Navy. Just envision a harmonious corporation with all its happy workers achieving "flow," the peak performance of their innate strengths that brings them deep life satisfaction and enhances productivity.

Well, you can imagine how attractive this all is to large corporations, not to mention the government of North Korea. No more dissension, just blissful people, happy students, and everyone loving their job and doing super-duper, thank you very much. Better yet, you would never have to tell workers or students they stunk or couldn't cut it. You would simply say they needed a better match for their unique strengths. "Who knows? You might be really good at scrubbing toilets in Disneyworld hotels. Everyody's good at something!"

So some colleagues and I were packed off to the Gallup corporate campus to hear the sales pitch. For two days we were shown how a strengths-based curriculum could transform the lives of our students, who would use the results of their strengths findings (about $65 a pop) to succeed in college and find fulfilling careers. Say you had a student who tested high in "woo." This dimension indicates a strength in empathy and socializing. Great! Now simply find a way for that student to use her strength as a learning asset.

It sounded wonderful and the Student Life people were beside themselves. But we poor, sad sack academics just didn't get it. The psych professor kept wanting to examine the instrument and testing methodology (it was top secret). The journalism professor was skeptical and didn't like being sold. I kept asking the guy, "Okay, but what's being chatty got to do with passing calculus? She's still got to work the problems, right?" In the end, we weren't transformationally positivized. It just didn't pass the smell test.

I start every semester in the senior capstone asking the students the same question: "What is the ultimate end of a college education?" Most say getting a job and earning a higher paycheck. When I point out that these are really means and not ends, they say, "Well, I guess I just want to have a happy life and that requires getting a job I like. So I need a degree." Sometimes, but not very often, a student will mumble something about becoming "more well-rounded," but I never hear the answer I long to hear:

"I came to college so I could become a highly-critical, independent-minded, dangerous little pain in the ass. You got a problem with that?"

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