Methodological Opportunities: A Strengths Approach

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This paper discusses the use of a Strengths Approach (McCashen, 2005) in guiding the methodology of an educational research project. The Strengths Approach has arisen from both Psychology and Social Services origins and selective social service organisations in Australia currently use it to assist with therapeutic and change orientated processes including child protection interventions. The approach arose primarily in response to dominating deficits based models of social service and psychology that largely focus on responding to ‘illness’ and ‘problems’ encountered in individuals and communities by promoting the role of the practitioner as that of ‘fixer’ or ‘rescuer’. In contrast, as the name suggests, the Strength Approach concentrates on utilising the strengths of all stakeholders in the form of individual skills, knowledge and resources to determine solutions to issues requiring change. Social justice principles of self-determination, empowerment and transparency underlay the approach and strengths practitioners aim to facilitate change by “power with” stakeholders rather than “power over” them.

There are relatively few formal research studies exploring the use of strengths approaches. From the studies available, however, there are positive (though tentative) indications of the potential of the approach for improving social circumstances. Strengths research to date has emerged mainly from social service contexts, although the social issues studied, affecting children and families, are pertinent to social service and education practitioners alike. Previous strengths approach studies have concentrated, largely, on the evaluating the approach as a research subject with limited studies to date, investigating the explicit use of the Strengths Approach in the research process. This paper arises from the author’s current research exploring the use of the Strengths Approach in an education context to assist teachers in preparing for child protection issues in education and charting the possible positive influence of the Strengths Approach for designing research methodology. As the author, I consider specifically, the methodological challenges and opportunities arising from using a Strengths Approach to the issue of conducting research in an education context.

Research participants were 19 Pre-service teachers completing a core, 13 week, Early Childhood teaching degree subject at a university in Queensland, Australia. As teacher/researcher, I designed and integrated a strengths based child protection module into the subject content based on child protection, teacher preparation and strengths approach research literature. As a strengths based researcher (Co-searcher), I gathered responses with participants during the module implementation, following subsequent Professional Experience in schools and 12 months following the module completion. The primary, data collection methods used were informal interviews, focus groups and electronic submissions to web based discussion board or email. These methods were adapted to ensure that they aligned with the strengths based theoretical framework developed for the research and reformed as an ‘Open View’, Open Focus and EView.

The theoretical strengths framework for the research uses an eclectic mix of concepts from social service and education theories. The framework draws heavily on a broad range of poststructuralist perspectives that influenced and coincided in emergence with the first articulations of the strengths approach. The joint influences consolidate into a single guiding framework by the aligning separate theoretical concepts with corresponding strengths principles and are a point of reference for all research decisions. Deciding on an appropriate methodology for the research based on this framework proved both challenging and opportunistic. Efforts to remain authentic to the framework involved rethinking some traditional approaches to research that concentrate on research problems, gaps in knowledge and view the researcher as an expert in charge of the subject to be studied.

At a very beginning of the research, tensions arose between studying an application of the Strengths Approach and using research methods that may risk disempowering participants. To use a deficit, problem-based process of research may potentially have promoted the very power imbalances that the Strengths Approach advocates aim to avoid. It became clear that each research decision, process and view of the project needed to reflect a strengths approach not only as a model but to avoid hypocritical invalidity. While the analysis of participants’ responses generated positive findings on the potential of the Strengths Approach to enhance prospective teachers’ ability to protect children, unexpectedly, findings also emerged regarding the potential of the Strengths Approach to enhance research methodology. The strengths perspective influenced each area of the research process from the literature review, data collection to the analysis, interpretations and implications. This paper discusses how the co searchers embraced research as an opportunity rather than as a problem and how this change of terms represented a deeper change of perspective to research.

McCashen, W. (2005). The Strengths Approach. Bendigo, Victoria, Australia: St. Luke's Innovative Resources.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2010
EventAustralian Association for Research in Education International Education Research Conference: AARE 2010 - Melbourne, VIC, Melbourne, Australia
Duration: 28 Nov 201002 Dec 2010


ConferenceAustralian Association for Research in Education International Education Research Conference


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