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Habits of Mind
Dec 09, 2009
return to Big Ideas Home

"Habits of Mind are the characteristics of what intelligent people do when they are confronted with problems, the resolutions of which are not immediately apparent." (Costa)

What is a habit of mind and how should teachers work with them?

You cannot learn for understanding without developing such dispositions as the ability to persist in ambiguity or the courage to ask questions. (Have a look at the 4 nice booklets by Bena Kallick and Arthur Costa on Habits of Mind.  They summarized the last thirty or forty years of work on the subject and came up with a list of sixteen habits of mind.)

Think of a habit of mind as the self-discipline to overcome natural inhibitions to deep thought: A disposition to be open-minded, to suspend disbelief, to persevere in the face of ambiguity and complexity. So let's take one: persistence.  There's a lot of research to show that math and science students rarely persist beyond 10 seconds if the problem is too initially puzzling. So, the question becomes: what do you do when you don't know what to do?  You at least persist, and you try out strategies (hence, the reading strategy approach in literacy development). To persist, you need a strategy when you are stuck – that’s what will get you unstuck and help you learn to persist. 

I find that very frustrating as a teacher.  The students' first response is so often, "I can't do it."

"I can't do it!"  "I give up."  "Tell me." This indicates the problem!

 This is not a new concern: philosophers have written about this for two-thousand years.  You can go back to Plato and Aristotle and Dewey, and this is what they pondered and discussed.  But it doesn't take philosophy coursees to realize that developing mature habits is what an education is all about in the long run.

Take open-mindedness as an example: how quickly people are not dismissive of a new idea that sounds weird.  Rather than saying, "Wait a minute, I wonder what the truth in this is?" or "I know it makes me feel uncomfortable, but maybe there's some wisdom in it" we often make a knee-jerk negative comment.

In a very famous book called How to Solve It G. Polya wrote 60 years ago about developing problem solving ability. A key part of his whole attempt was to say, never mind merely giving people problems and teaching skills: how do you help them learn to be better problem-solvers - to transfer their learning to NEW problens - in high school and college math?  Polya talks about what he calls the scientific attitude, which means having the intellectual honesty to admit that perhaps a belief doesn't fit with the data, and not dismissing it or being self-deceiving.  Another key idea he offers is not to jump to conclusions but to suspend judgment and say, "Wait a minute, is it really supported, is it really justified, and can I prove it?"  All of these qualify as habits of mind.

What do educators need to be doing to develop habits of mind in students?

Well, the beauty of the phrase is that it underscores what we need to do versus what we typically fail to do.  You don't develop a habit by direct instruction or informing students of the value of the habit, and you don't develop a habit by having it merely demanded of you.  (If that were all we needed, no one would be overweight; no one would smoke.)  To talk of better habits is to talk about something becoming “second” nature.  It depends upon incentives, reinforcement, modeling.  It means that you have to recognize when the old habit is acting, when to try a new habit, and practice in using the new habit and seeing its value.  That takes time, repetition, situations which reward the new habit; and it takes wise, savvy, tactful teaching.  Alas, we have too many teachers who think that their job is to get people to know stuff and to do stuff.  It's all too exclusively short-term.

What do you mean by short-term?

Teachers tend to focus on short-term goals.  Know this, do that. But understanding is baout transfer: being able, on your own, to handle new challenges. That requires not just knowledge and skill but good judgment and  good habits. After all, the point of school is effective use of knowledge and skill in real situations. Content knowledge is a means, not the end. Ask yourself: what’s the point of knowing a lot of content if you lack the habits and attitudes needed to use the content in new, challenging or problematic settings? An irony, of course, is that often teachers as well as parents fail to have the requisite habits of mind to develop those very habits in their kids – patience, persistence, openness to novelty, etc.

So, where do Habits of Mind go in UbD?

In the revised version of the Template, they go in the box called Long-term or Established Goals. Like Mission-related goals, they are long-term and beyond subject-area boundaries, so they go in the Goals box.

This is a key issue of instructional design. You have to design opportunities to see the value of the habit and  the bad consequences of its absence. That's why I like to call teaching for understanding Intellectual Outward Bound.  The idea of that analogy is, you're out in the wilderness, and nobody's telling you what to do and nobody's really watching: have you internalized the right things?  Do you know what to do, on your own?

So teachers need to create those conditions.

Teachers need to create the conditions to develop it, to test it, and to challenge it.  A simple example of a test of the habit of mind persistence, is to deliberately give a kid a book that's slightly too hard for his reading level.  You have to do that.

Now the kid knows both where he stands and what the next challenge ahead is. When your habits help you see both, you are on your way.

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