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OSP: Strength-building in the classroom

 In March of 2014, I met students at a Starbucks coffee shop for a period of three days. During my interviews with the students, I asked each student a series of questions, one question which was directly related to their five strengths (according to Buckingham & Clifton, 2001). During the question process, once I wrote down the five strengths, I made a mental note of each and altered the questionnaire process to conduct an experiment with each student.

In total, I asked the same five questions of around 120 students in my attempt to assess each students’ level of fluency in speaking English. In previous interviews I had conducted, I also asked the same five questions of my students with the difference being the wording of of each question being the same. For the experiment I conducted in March of 2014 however, I altered each question to match the strengths of each of my students, and I discovered that students were not only willing to share their ideas with me, but were excited to do so. I also discovered that during this process, I was energized. After four hours of interviews, I felt more excited than I had been all day, and given my introvert nature I was quite surprised.

During the course of the semester I had my students complete several assessments. Among those assessments were Buckingham & Clifton’s StrengthsFinder (2001), Edgar Schein’s Career Anchors (2006), as well as the Myers-Briggs Personality Test. I wanted to test whether there was a connection between the three assessments. During the course of the semester, I also took these assessments to judge if there was a way for me to improve myself in selected areas of my vocation. This paper is an explanation of the results, as well as a collection of recommendations for educators seeking to learn how to implement assessments in their classes effectively, use Strengths-based theories as positive reinforcements and teaching aids, and how to address personal goals of improving varying areas addressed by assessments.

Methodology

I examined approximately 120 students from a top-tier Chinese university. 42% of the students examined were females, while 69% of the students were males. About 35% of the students were originally from the Tianjin-Hebei area, another 35% were from the provinces of Shandong, Henan, Anhui, and Shanxi, while the other roughly 30% were from other provinces. Students were from 15 different Master’s programs, with approximately 30% from the School of Chemical Technology, 25% from the school of Mechanical Engineering, 10% from the School of Automation, 10% from the School of Civil Engineering, with the remaining 40% from a collection of about 12 different schools. In total, students came from approximately 43 different majors. Around 78% of the students came from engineering-related majors; the other 21% came from applied engineering in cross-disciplinary fields.

Students were Master’s-level scholars in their first or second year of study (out of a total three years) and were studying on government scholarship (tuition-free). In addition, students were members of laboratories from which they received monthly stipends (data is not available) varying from around $49-$98 per month, depending on the student cohort project group. At the university, students were selected by advising professors to take part in research projects and receive a certain stipend, depending on size of the research fund given to the professor, the number of students chosen to help in the research, and the academic scholarship the student earned.

Students had an average age of 23.68 years. While the classes and assessments were conducted in English (except for the StrengthsFinder), only 25% of the students had an acceptable level of spoken English when the project began (above beginner level), with the other 75% of students queried beginner level or below. While student levels of English may have improved over the course of the semester, most assessments were given at the beginning of term. More details are in the Appendix.

Findings

StrengthsFinder. In my survey of 120 students, the most exceptional strength was Responsibility, with almost 7% of the students being in their top five strengths. The top three strengths for my engineering students were Responsibility (6.8%), Harmony (6.5%), and Learner (6.3%), while the bottom three strengths were Competition (0.51%), Maximizer (0.51%), and Consistency (0.34%). A sharp drop occurred between the top three strengths and the fourth highest strength (Focus, at 5.1%), lending some credibility to the validity of the top three strengths. The StrengthsFinder test was a test translated into Chinese. While I was not able to personally vouch for every question on the test (I did not translate the test), not one student contacted me with any problems in taking the test; the questions were straight-forwardly translated, with little to doubt. However, the test was free (and as such, it cannot be endorsed by Gallup), and while it served in function for the identification of the five key strengths, the test results listed the top five strengths in alphabetical order rather than by ranked score, and were a supplement to the main focus of the test. I have listed the full results of the scores for all 120 students in the Appendix.

Career Anchors. In contrast to the variety of the StrengthsFinder assessment, Schein’s Career Anchors assessment is far more limited. In my survey of 120 engineering students, I found that the top three anchors were Technical (21%), Lifestyle (19%), and Stability (18%). Similar to the StrengthsFinder assessment, there was a sharp delineation between the top three anchors and the bottom five anchors, with the fourth anchor as Independence (12%), while the following anchors scoring far below my expectations Managerial (9.8%), Service (8.6%), Creativity (6%), and most surprising, Challenge at the bottom of the list (5%). Some of the test may have been invalid, as the test given to the students was not endorsed by Schein, but inspired by his concept of Career Anchors. While I can safely vouch for the validity of the test from myself (my scores were accurate), given that the test was entirely in English it is possible students mistranslated portions of the test when trying to interpret.

Myers-Briggs. The most unconventional of the assessments I gave my students was the Myers-Briggs Personality Typology. I designed the test myself, designed primarily from a collection of various theoretical approaches to the assessment based on the following principles: introvert/extrovert as a function of energy gain/depletion, intuition/sensory as a function of gathering information, thinking/feeling as a function of making decisions/reaching conclusions, and judging/perceiving as a function of lifestyle. The test was a simplified form, wherein each category had an odd number of dyadic statements from 9-11, where the participant selected the statement that fit him or her best (greater than 51%), and then tabulated the column’s statements to designate the appropriate letter. In the past I have used this test with strikingly accurate results, although my participant level of English was much higher than my engineering students; hence, the results are somewhat flawed; the amount of time given in class to arrive at the four-letter conclusion was barely forty-five minutes, and while there were some questions, my experience with my students this term was that compared with previous student cohorts, their level of listening/reading comprehension was far below the average.

However, the results were rather fascinating as a majority of students calculated themselves as the type ISFJ (25%) and ISTJ (21%), following with ISFP (7.6%, a huge drop) and ESFP (6.7%, a surprising statistic given the engineering background of most of my students). The bottom four types were INTP (2.5%), ENTP (1.7%), ENTJ (less than 1%), and ESTP (with a striking 0% of students). The full results are listed in the Appendix.

The “white elephant in the room” regarding all assessments is the paradox between impression and honesty. Many times participants of assessments will select choices that are either composed of a rational thought-process associating false attributives of self-perception or societal expectations. Regardless of these outliers, the results are still helpful as they inform the researcher of either importance or virtual importance these assessment categories have in particular cultures, whether they are national cultures, generational cultures, or organizational cultures.

Conclusions

Previous impressions can often discolor and even distort the greatest intentions. In reviewing the results of the assessments, the most surprising results were in direct contravention to my previous assumptions about the Chinese educational culture. Growing up in California, Asian culture (to me) was terrifying competitive, to the point where many of my Asian-American friends would not be allowed to leave their homes during schooldays, and would only be given one or two hours on Saturdy to leave the house and visit family. While my impressions are obviously infected with generalizations and stereotypes, there is significant experiential clout to support the thesis of Asian competitiveness as a carried over tradition from China and other Asian countries which maintain strict governmental testing cultures (Yang, 2011). Given that competitive is a necessary element in traditional Chinese society, I thought that competition would be a strength built into students from a young age, but according to my results, not only is competition a very rare strength among many Chinese students, is it a non-existent strength, barely registering at even a half percentile in the surveyed student population.

However, there is also significant proof that (at least in the schools of engineering at my top-tier school) most students view tests as barriers rather than knowledge assessments; when querying my students from last year on their test-taking methodologies, a majority of students responded that upon taking the test, they merely guessed and did not even take the time to consider the question (even though they had ample time, many of them left the test site early). The scores are reflective of this strategy, as nearly 55% of the students who took the final English written exam failed (below a 60%), and nearly 75% of the students who took the final English reading comprehension test failed, with the highest score at 82%. Furthermore, the reading comprehension test was divided into two tests, where the test with the highest score would be entered into the student’s grade. While the test-taking cultures at my university may be unique, when I taught at a previous top-tier university my students’ main incentive for scoring high on tests was an improvement of their GPA for entrance into foreign university MA/PhD programs; when the incentive for GPA was not present, most students did not participate in activities for their own benefit, and if the student took a difficult class with the danger of lowering their GPA, the traditional tactic was to drop the class.

I could write a book on exploring the unique attributes of the StrengthsFinder results. Other curiosities for me include the lack of students possessing the strength of consistency and woo (especially given China’s unique face culture and the necessity of guanxi for social relationships), while the greatest strength by far was that of Responsibility, showing up as a top five strength in nearly 40 students’ inventories. The concept of Individualization was at 4% (24 students), coming in at #11 (out of 35 possible strengths) for student strengths, a surprising statistic that deserves more time to explore. One item of interest is that within the 24 students who reported Individualization as being in their top five strengths, only four of those students also reported Harmony as being within their top five strengths; while Harmony was reported in 38 out of 120 students as a strength, quite often Harmony was not associated with Individualization. Given China’s focus on self-cultivation and self-actualization, perhaps there is merit to the concept that the “harmonious society” purported by both Confucius and modern political theory is little more than a surface behavior meant as a force of stability rather than a personal value. However, as Harmony is the second highest strength reported, societal and cultural mechanisms must exist to support the development of Harmony as a strength.

According to the results of the Career Anchors assessment, not only was Lifestyle at nearly 18% of student anchors (the second highest), independence was at 12%. Had I not had an experience in 2009 which prompted me to question my understanding of Chinese culture (in which I was let go from a job with the statement, “In China, work is work, family is family” after missing a canceled class for my own wedding, in which the school forgot about the date), I might question the high Lifestyle anchor given the perception that most Chinese families utilize the grandparents to raise the children while the parents both work, in some cases in other cities. Nevertheless, Career Anchors do not operate on a practical level but an ideal level – according to Schein (2006), Career Anchors are the deeply emotional limits we allow ourselves to move within our careers; the incentive and drive we have to achieve, and the support beams to protect us from our fears.

Scoring as the fourth highest anchor (above Managerial and Challenge) was Independence at 12%. Further research needs to be done to explore this strange statistic; perhaps the fault lies in the test group – engineers, often working alone in laboratories under the instruction of a professor who only communicates by e-mail and is rarely seen once or maybe twice a term, my students must learn to cope on their own and perhaps as they also see their cohort project work as training for their future jobs, Independence becomes a requisite of success. However, given the fundamental nature of Career Anchors as deep-seated emotional cores of vocation, I have my doubts; in my time in China, I have increasingly become aware of a subtext of virulent individuality within the culture that asserts itself on a subliminal level through cynicism to the system, and on a visible level with the refusal to identify on a heart-level with ideologies (although surface agreements are quite common) and instead freely develop ideas aware from the political norm.

Finally, the Myers-Briggs assessment showed that most of my engineering students were intensely introverted, with a significant proportion of extroverts misplaced (noted from my questions of whether or not they enjoyed their major, the majority of extroverts responded that they did not and were seeking other means for a career outside of their degree). Engineering as a field of study seems to encourage (at least within my Chinese university) a disposition of introversion, sensory information, and action-oriented judging lifestyles. In previous studies I have noted an almost 50/50 with regards to the various typologies, although previous participants were members of a much broader pool of disciplines (including the liberal arts). However, I am curious about the statistic regarding the type ISTJ, as nearly 70% of those students received a very poor score in their English fluency level, indicating that during the assessment process they may not have understood the statements.

Philosophical foundations

According to Buckingham and Clifton (2001), vocation must be positioned according to strength, not weakness. The reason I gave my students assessments (and the reason I took those same assessments) was to evaluate cross-cultural viability, validity, and practical application of those three assessments. Students engaged in graduate or post-graduate work are training for their future careers – at my university more than others, given the increased presence of key laboratory recruiting programs engaging students and professors. For this reason, having a clear understanding of how strengths, anchors, and personality types affect one’s potential job choice is important.

However, in my research I did not find any conclusive connections between the three assessments. Anchors had little to no connection with Gallup’s 35 strengths, and while Schein’s Career Anchor of technical/function could be associated with the Myers-Briggs introvert type, my conclusions are far from conclusive, given how anchors function not as personality indicators but as spatial checkpoints in the mind that determines the limitations/exponential growth of career mobility. The usage of assessments therefore, is more helpful than not, given the variety of assistance they can give in determining factors of relevance for vocation. In my own assessments, my top five strengths (in order) were Strategic, Connectedness, Learner, Ideation, and Individualization. My top three Career Anchors were Service, Technical/functional, and Lifestyle. My personality type was INFP. No one student in the entire 120 matched me strength for strength, anchor for anchor, and only four students shared my personality typology (sadly, students who have done very poorly in my class this term!). I also discovered that no one student shared the same strengths as another student, rarely were the anchors related to a confluence of strengths, and quite often the personality typology from students who shared the same four letters held entirely different strengths and anchors.

Given that people are a resource that should be developed (Hardy, 1990), I believe that the use of a combination of assessments will help students grow in self-awareness, more fully able to recognize false patterns and set the student on a path to a new foundation for future aspirations. While Benner most aptly speaks of the “false self” as originating from the sinful nature and separation from God (2004), in China such discussions cannot be contained within the classroom given the sensitive political climate. However, I believe it is pertinent to help students scale the false patterns in their life given by society, family, even personal weakness resulting in the development of emotional security protocols meant to protect from growth. Bridges claims that transitions are a natural state, a function that continually occurs in one’s life regardless of desire for change or the lack of (2004); just as I am currently in a transition (Seeberger, 2014), so many of my students are also likely in some stage of transition. As a teacher, I am increasingly seeing my job not as a lecturer but as a guide for developing through transition from one stage to the next stage, whether that transition occurs in the formation of skills for critical consideration, practical skills for the workplace or international market, or even the honest helping hand of an older, hopefully wiser, scholar interested in the same basic necessaries of life as any other honest student.

Hardy believes that human work should be a form of justice (1990), in which vocation is not only for the purpose of spreading sacred love to all people but that the love itself is justice in a world that shows little concern for the neighbor. Career anchors function as the core of self-image in vocational assessment (Schein, 2006), and as vocation when embraced becomes a kind of self-actualization (Hardy), vocation becomes an expression of identity, community, and perhaps even one’s spiritual gifts (Benner, 2004). Methodology for learning how to perceive oneself away from the false self requires intense meditation, humility, divine contemplation, and solitude, and has resulted in the development of the RBS (Real Best Self), a practical methodology of coming to terms with tacit and misunderstood truths over a period of several months (Roberts et al., 2005). While the RBS does have limitations (it does not, for example, evaluate inconsistencies as it is strengths-based), the RBS is a good practice for those desiring to know themselves more fully.

Recommendations

Another important denominator for my work in vocational self-development in understanding how cultures operate in different areas of the world (in my situation, China). Specifically, the data acquired in this project has been important to my own understanding of China (or misunderstanding, perhaps). Several factors have arisen because of this study that will change not only how I view my own vocation but how I help my students prepare for theirs.

Context is important, even within micro-cultures. Many of my errors in curriculum planning and change agency strategies for encouraging personal development resulted from a generalization about Chinese culture that I have now discovered is false. As Lewis states, generalizations can often lead to egregious errors as well as the posturing of oneself within a cultural black hole (1996). Thankfully, my research has alerted me to such errors. For example, in order to encourage students to pursue high grades, I posted grades on the door after each class and handed out scores to groups instead of individuals. While this activity did create consensus within the student groups (clarity of expectation was supported as students discussed the scores) it no doubt created unfair forms of anxiety; based on my research, the far better method would be to focus on the independent initiative within each student, while allowing for group consensus in discussion but not creating a nervous atmosphere due to a majority of students unable to cope properly with the competitive nature of the class. While students at my previous university embraced competition as a natural reaction to the environment of being the top university in China, students at my current school do not share the same aspirations or fears.

Self-cultivation. Moral development is exceptionally important to Chinese students, as recognized in previous research I have done (Seeberger, 2012), however I was unaware of the extent of important until this term when I was researching Chinese culture and found that nearly every major philosophical system in China is focused on moral development (Gerstner, 2011; McDonald, 2011). Growing up in the United States, by the time I was in college I had a good idea of what I actually wanted to do, but many of my students even by the graduate level had no answer for this question when I asked them in their initial interviews. Part of this is no doubt an effect of the prescribed roles within relationships that people feel they must abide by (Yi & Ye, 2003), but much also comes from a belief that non-action will lead to greater perceptive and mental powers (Gerstner); students in my classes are maestros of knowing when to hold their tongues, respecting the gentle and fragile relationship that often exists within authority figures (teachers) and followers (Bai & Roberts, 2011). Therefore, as a figure of authority, I must make it my primary task to help students learn how to self-cultivate, particularly in the practical areas of moral development (rather than the postulations of theoretical concepts); in other words, practical ethics.

Strength-building at the core. Most academics are focused on information sharing; very few academics have strategized their curriculum to take advantage of student strengths, and then use the classroom as a vessel to help bring those students closer to their gifts. Academics primarily views itself as a gift for mankind, rather than seeing itself as a method for mankind’s gifts to be explored. In my courses this term, I made some small headway into strengths-building, but my goals were primarily investigative. In the future, I hope to bring strengths-building into stronger array, by implementing individual and group meditative strategies for understanding the self and where the self fits into the strengths given to each. Furthermore, I hope to escalate strengths-building into incorporating strategies of students developing each other not only peer-to-peer, but within small work groups. In my work as an English teacher, I am given leeway to designing personal curriculum (rather than relying on state-sanctioned textbooks) and I mean to take advantage of that. This term I have been focused on helping students develop a code of ethics, but of what use is a code of ethics when the student does not know himself or herself? Having students work through an RBS-styled project, as well as using that knowledge to develop opinions about subjects relating to ethics will be an increasingly important venture for me to pursue.

I will also be intentionally using my strengths (Str/Cnnctdnss/Learnr/Ideation/Indvdualzation) in more intentional ways, and encouraging students to do the same within the context of our class. For example, to build my strength of strategy I must give myself time to carefully consider various options, collect data, and review the data so I can better formulate a conceptual framework for future iterations.

To build my strength of connectedness, I must endeavor to get to know certain students on a personal basis and make more of an effort to decentralize the class from a lecture environment and settle into a more personal, close environment where I am given more opportunities to interface with individual ideas (even at the expense of certain students who do not wish to take advantage).

To build my strength of a learner, I must seek to constantly be open to new ideas, even ideas that go against everything I know – by fastidiously asking questions and rewiring my intellectual capacity for renewal instead of dwelling in the knowledge I already have.

To build my strength of ideation, I must continually attempt new ideas in my classes, even at the expense of failure; while making myself even more aware of other ideas already in the field of teaching and adopting a willingness of openness regarding those ideas.

To build my strength of individualization, I must focus on the more intimate relationship between teacher and student, and attempt to personally connect with certain students who desire that connection, and not worry about students who don’t. In the past, I have thrown myself against the tide by attempting to be everything to everyone, while trying to maintain that intimacy – inevitably, though, this results in a thin veneer barely visible, where I am lost in the crowd of faces as I try to give a piece of myself to everything. In the end, I disappear, but I do not actually reappear on the other side, dissolving like mist.

Summary

I agree wholly with Benner when he states that transition cannot occur without divine help (2004). However, in my positive as an educator in a public university in China (even as an educator in an educational institution), I can only pray that my ability to operate as a positive influence comes through my life, in my actions, in my smile, in the interactions I have on a day-to-day basis with students, faculty, and even friends. When Hardy states that vocation is not only an act of the second greatest commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself, but also that the second great commandment is a form of justice in itself (1990), I can’t help but wonder how that translates across cultures. What does “love” look like to the average Chinese student?

Elmer states that Christ is the only culture that can reach across national boundaries, as believing in Christ is the only way to truly transform and begin the process of transition (2006). If Christ is the only capable change agent of moving seamlessly across culture, how can I emulate him in my daily walk and my daily work? Traditional change agency theory postulates only for the temporal; organizational closeness and synergy between the change agent and the target are as close as classical theory approaches to the concept of true transformation (Lunenberg, 2010). Even Hardy claims that the Christian worker must promote “what is true, noble, and worthy in human life,” but so often even those basic cultural perceptions are grounded in the culture into which we are born (Adler, 1997). How can we (or I) hope to cross that divide?

I believe in the end it comes down to Connectedness, straight from Buckingham and Clifton’s mouth (2001). At least for me. My ability to draw away the wall between myself and those I interact is the answer I have been given for bridging that divide, for addressing those childhood passions, natural emanations, and positive emotions people carry inside them which eventually if watered translate into strengths. Each person has been given capabilities to address the divide between the justice of Christ and our daily walk. If I ignore this strength, I will continually butt my head against a wall, but if I embrace this particular strength and build it through practice, assessment, and and self-debrief, I believe I can begin to unlock the potential inside me that will operate no matter where I find myself.

In the end, vocation is not a job; vocation is not even a career; vocation is a mindset and a promise. The true self emerges, the false selves fall away, transition comes as natural as breathing, and each day is a form of justice unto itself whereupon you embrace the challenges of the world in the best well you know how – through your strengths and the gifts given to you (or me) by God. My vocation becomes my anchor, and while I may not be strong enough to carry my anchor with me as I walk through life, I will grow stronger in the process and learn how to work within the path laid before me. You cannot be everything to all men; only Christ can. However, you can be something to many men, and that is worth striving for.

References

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Yi, J., & Ye, S. (2003). The Haier way: the making of a Chinese business leader and a global brand. Paramus, NJ: Homa and Sekey Books.

1 comments
Sharon S
Sharon S

Very interesting how your research bears out this perhaps inverse relationship between harmony and competition.  I've always found it interesting that in this society where harmony is the driving societal value that competitiveness takes on its own character in individual but not team sports.  Whereas in the west where independent thinking is valued above all else, competitiveness and the entire sports market finds its way in team sports far more than individual sports.  You show the same thing in the graduate classroom in the relationship between consensus and competition.