Atiera Coleman is the Director of the McNair Scholars program which is housed in the Office of Academic Diversity and Inclusiveness. She is also is an authority on what is known as the Asset-Based Approach to learning. This interview explores the idea of asset-based learning and how it can be helpful for student paraprofessionals and the peers they work with.
What is asset-based learning?
In our office, we refer to asset-based or strength-based learning as approaches that can be utilized in multiple setting. Asset-based approaches recognize the importance, value, and strength of lived experiences of students they bring with them to college and uses those experiences, skills, and knowledge base to create equitable engagement in the classroom and across campus. It kind of comes in opposition to deficit-based approaches, which locate the problem within the student themselves, their families, or communities; and often gives insufficient weight to the social and structural forces that systematically creates barriers for these students.
What are some examples of skill or assets that students bring?
So when we mentor students, first of all, we focus on what works for a student instead of what is broken. As soon as a student presents a problem, sometimes our natural instinct is to highlight the past failure or what is currently failing in that situation. However, asset-based approaches highlight past success and therefore allowing us to construct a solution for that student.
For instance, if a student is struggling in a course, it would be easy just to focus on the negatives of why they think they are struggling. Instead, we ask about the occasion they did well in a course, and why they thought they were doing well in that course. We ask what was it about that course or themselves that made them successful. In doing this, it forces them to reflect on that situation and helps them recognizes how the structure of the course, their study habits, and or their schedule affects their success. It gives them the tools to make themselves more successful and lets them think about themselves as possessing these strengths and assets moving forward to help them get over obstacles. What I often do is have students to list assets and strengths that feel have made them successful to date.
Sometimes students struggle with this, but if you are here that’s already a huge success. It’s really easy to pick out these strengths that people naturally have, it’s just that most haven’t really thought about these have helped them become successful.
So if I understand this right, this idea is about how people’s lived experiences and the way that they structure their own lives impact the way they learn things. Is that right or am I missing something?
Well, not only how they learn, but how they problem solve, tackle issues and think of themselves as having the ability to move past any obstacles they may come across.
There is a big push to help students become professionals, so how does this help in the realm of a student’s professional development?
I feel that everyone should try to incorporate these types of approaches into their work, not only if they are working with students, but also for themselves. It helps improve rapport and communication of students and it helps offset the deficit-based approaches that so many of us come up against on a daily basis. So beyond helping others, it’s important to identify our own strengths and assets, because that’s what makes people resilient and it gives them the ability to take control over their own success whether that is academic or professional. I utilize that in my own job and department. When we work together and collaborate, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We know each other’s expertise and how to utilize them within the project. Again, it helps in a variety of settings, whether you’re working on a team or as a peer mentor.
How can paraprofessionals use this approach in working with others, particularly other students?
If they are working off of an asset based approach and trying to help someone else, I think it puts them in a position to empower rather than just problem solve for the individual. If I were helping someone, I could probably come up with some solution to their problem, but that does not give them the tools to solve that problem themselves the next time that problem arises. So it puts the paraprofessional, co-construct solutions, to innovate, and discover an individual’s own future strengths, and to share that with others. We are all trying to be professionals, and at some point, we have to list our skills and strengths on resumes; so we should be able to identify these things. If there is something that an individual is struggling with, this approach allows them to analyze themselves to realize ways in which they can overcome this struggle; whether it is a class, applying for a job, or applying for graduate school. Basically, it allows the paraprofessional, to help the student locate the keys to their intellectual toolbox.
You have already answered this question in some ways, but is it applicable outside of a school setting?
Most definitely. When my department had a team building retreat, we did some of the activities I do with students and identified our strengths; some of which we kind of knew others were new. On the flip side, we were able to talk about things we were insecure about; the dialogue helped everybody understand where each other was coming from and kind of change our own internal deficit thinking about ourselves into thinking about how we can overcome things we are struggling with by turning it into an asset. Again, transitioning that deficit to an asset and working towards bettering yourself. That can be something as little as I want to be more organized or as big as I want to seem more confident. Knowing that you have it within to work towards that goal even though you don’t feel you have mastered that skill yet; having an asset-based approach flips this to saying that no one is born with this skill . . . it’s something you develop. It’s a journey. Although it may not be your number one tool right now, it still is a tool you possess in your toolbox.”
How does this affect student self-confidence, the way students approach situations, and in general, how is this helpful for students?
It definitely helps with self-confidence, but in another sense, when I was talking about rapport, it helps us have better communication; because when you focus on the negative people get defensive. For example, if a person was struggling in a class, people ask things like, ‘Did you do the assignment? Did you REALLY do the assignment? You said you studied for an hour, but were you on Facebook?’ That just puts people in a position where they feel like they have to defend their actions. This is compared to asking them ‘You say your goal is to improve in this class. What classes did you take last semester that you did well in? How many hour did you study then versus now?’ It puts the ball in their court to compare the two. If last year they studied five hours for a class and this semester are only studying two, they take it upon themselves to recognize this discrepancy and adjust accordingly. This approach takes the negativity out of my role, so people in my position can help people help themselves. This is a little different for peer mentors, as they are closer in age to those they serve, this can clear up any confusion about what their role is supposed to be.