Sunday, January 21, 2007

Habits of Mind

In the last three posts I've been mapping some of the core ideas that are guiding my current thinking about thinking. When I work with my students, or when I'm trying to be more disciplined or purposeful in my own thinking, I often return to some of the strategies I've listed, and I try to test the work being done against at least the standards I've listed. Neither of the lists is complete. Both of the lists have evolved over time, and my sense of which strategies or standards are most useful or relevant often shifts from year to year, class to class, task to task. I believe that is as it should be. But what I am trying to do, in my teaching life, in this blog, and, to the extent that it is possible—although this is always the hard part—in the conduct of my life, is to be thoughtful, and flexible, and competent, and attentive, and compassionate.

A colleague once remarked to me, toward the end of her teaching career, that more and more she thought that the goal of teaching is to encourage students "to become a certain kind of person." If her suspicion, her hunch, is true (and I'm aware that in the eyes of many it might be problematical), then two questions follow: "What kind of person are we talking about?" and "How can we help our students to become that kind of person?"

What are the habits of mind that would define this "certain kind of person"? A lot of our leading theoreticians have gone after this question. Ted Sizer, in Horace's School, lays the habits of mind out this way:

The habit of perspective: organizing an argument, read or heard or seen, into its various parts, and sorting out the major from the minor matter within it. Separating opinion from fact and appreciating the value of each.

The habit of analysis: Pondering each of these arguments in a reflective way, using such logical, mathematical, and artistic tools as may be required to render evidence. Knowing the limits as well as the importance of such analysis.

The habit of imagination: Being disposed to evolve one's own view of a matter, searching for both new and old patterns that serve well one's own and other's current and future purposes.

The habit of empathy: Sensing other reasonable views of a common predicament, respecting all, and honoring the most persuasive among them.

The habit of communication: Accepting the duty to explain the necessary in ways that are clear and respectful both to those hearing or seeing and to the ideas being communicated. Being a good listener.

The habit of commitment: Recognizing the need to act when action is called for; stepping forward in response. Persisting, patiently, as the situation may require.

The habit of humility: Knowing one's right, ones debts, and one's limitations, and those of others. Knowing what one knows and what one does not know. Being disposed and able to gain the needed knowledge, and having the confidence to do so.

The habit of joy: Sensing the wonder and proportion in worthy things and responding to these delights.

Most of these habits may be cast as skills. Ask the student: Can you analyze this matter for me and then tell me what you find? However, the purpose of education involves more than that. Education is so to convince an adolescent of the virtue of these skills and so to give opportunities to practice the skills that they become almost second nature, and graduates live with them fully after they leave school. Of course I listen. Of course I insist on knowing the facts. Of course I am not fully sure about this new matter, but I know what I know and what I do not yet know. Of course you may have a better idea than mine, and I'll listen to it carefully and with and open mind. Of course I'll do something about this if the situation warrants it. Having the skills today is but a small part of the whole. Being committed to using them consistently tomorrow is the crux of it.

Debbie Meier, one of the founders of the Coalition of Essential Schools, lists the habits of mind of the Mission Hills Schools and explains them by linking them to the questions from which they arise:

Evidence: How do we know what's true and false? What evidence counts? How sure can we be? What makes it credible to us? This includes using the scientific method and more.

Viewpoint: How else might this look if we stepped into other shoes? If we were looking at it from a different direction? If we had a different history or expectations? This requires the exercise if informed "empathy" and imagination. It required flexibility of mind.

Connections/Cause and Effect: Is there a pattern? Have we seen something like this before? What are the possible consequences?

Conjecture: Could it have been otherwise? Supposing that? What if ? This habit requires use of imagination as well as knowledge of alternative possibilities. It includes the habits described above.

Relevance: Does it matter? Who cares?

(On the web site of the Coalition for Essential Schools, Meier makes it explicit that this is not a formulaic list, but a cluster of interwoven and somewhat fluid ideas: "They are at the heart of each curriculum as well as being the basis for judging student performance. We never quite write them out the exact same way, and over the years we've realized they are constantly evolving in their meaning.")

Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick, over at, offer yet another listing, this time of 16 thinking behaviors:

Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision
Managing impulsivity
Gathering data through all senses
Listening with understanding and empathy
Creating, imagining, innovating
Thinking flexibly
Responding with wonderment and awe
Thinking about thinking (metacognition)
Taking responsible risks
Striving for accuracy
Finding humor
Questioning and posing problems
Thinking interdependently
Applying past knowledge to new situations
Remaining open to continuous learning

Finally, Richard Paul and Linda Elder have their own listing of what they are choosing to call "Valuable Intellectual Traits":

Intellectual Humility: Having a consciousness of the limits of one's knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one's native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; sensitivity to bias, prejudice and limitations of one's viewpoint. Intellectual humility depends on recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows. It does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness. It implies the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations, of one's beliefs.

Intellectual Courage: Having a consciousness of the need to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs or viewpoints toward which we have strong negative emotions and to which we have not given a serious hearing. This courage is connected with the recognition that ideas considered dangerous or absurd are sometimes rationally justified (in whole or in part) and that conclusions and beliefs inculcated in us are sometimes false or misleading. To determine for ourselves which is which, we must not passively and uncritically "accept" what we have "learned." Intellectual courage comes into play here, because inevitably we will come to see some truth in some ideas considered dangerous and absurd, and distortion or falsity in some ideas strongly held in our social group. We need courage to be true to our own thinking in such circumstances. The penalties for non-conformity can be severe.

Intellectual Empathy: Having a consciousness of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, which requires the consciousness of our egocentric tendency to identify truth with our immediate perceptions of long-standing thought or belief. This trait correlates with the ability to reconstruct accurately the viewpoints and reasoning of others and to reason from premises, assumptions, and ideas other than our own. This trait also correlates with the willingness to remember occasions when we were wrong in the past despite an intense conviction that we were right, and with the ability to imagine our being similarly deceived in a case-at-hand.

Intellectual Integrity: Recognition of the need to be true to one's own thinking; to be consistent in the intellectual standards one applies; to hold one's self to the same rigorous standards of evidence and proof to which one holds one's antagonists; to practice what one advocates for others; and to honestly admit discrepancies and inconsistencies in one’’s own thought and action.

Intellectual Perseverance: Having a consciousness of the need to use intellectual insights and truths in spite of difficulties, obstacles, and frustrations; firm adherence to rational principles despite the irrational opposition of others; a sense of the need to struggle with confusion and unsettled questions over an extended period of time to achieve deeper understanding or insight.

Faith In Reason: Confidence that, in the long run, one's own higher interests and those of humankind at large will be best served by giving the freest play to reason, by encouraging people to come to their own conclusions by developing their own rational faculties; faith that, with proper encouragement and cultivation, people can learn to think for themselves, to form rational viewpoints, draw reasonable conclusions, think coherently and logically, persuade each other by reason and become reasonable persons, despite the deep-seated obstacles in the native character of the human mind and in society as we know it.

Fair-mindedness: Having a consciousness of the need to treat all viewpoints alike, without reference to one's own feelings or vested interests, or the feelings or vested interests of one’’s friends, community or nation; implies adherence to intellectual standards without reference to one’’s own advantage or the advantage of one's group.

Looking at these formidable listings, I am simultaneously inspired, in that I do believe that these things are worth striving for, and intimidated, in that the territory looks so large and there are so many ways of trying even to say where we are and where we're heading. So I look to simplify. For me, in the end, I think all of these listings might be boiled down to a few gentle imperatives: Pay attention. Be patient. Keep an open mind. Do good work.

(Thinker image via


Anonymous said...

This is a good list, and you've referenced some worthwhile sources. The intuition that we are nurturing students "to become a certain kind of person" is an accurate description of what we do as teachers, whether we realize it or not. I began thinking about this when I read Maxine Greene's, Teacher as Stranger, a good philosophy book for any teacher. It seems to me that the questions, "What kind of person are we talking about?" and "How can we help our students to become that kind of person?" are the big issues behind all education policy debates.

Bruce Schauble said...

Thanks for the reference: I don't know that book. I'll check it out.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excellent list. There is a lot of similarity between these ideas and those of the International Baccalaureate Learner Profile ( ). Certainly a challenge for us to examine ourselves to see how well we model such ideals.

Sarah said...

Sometimes great things I should read slip by me.I just figured out how to read things in a Google reader so maybe that will help me.
I'm a 1st grade teacher working on understanding the blog "medium", a mom of with teens who laugh at my "issues" on every fumbling aspect. But to me, all of what I find is so breath-taking, much like your beautiful photography. That this expanded/developed in my life-time is really a gift to me. This post, as I said, stuck me.

I am thinking very hard about what I read here. Frankly I wish it had the link-fest I've managed to generate...not important.... much better to read here with more potential to generate meaningful writing.
I am printing this to look at as I work this week. It will be a kind of reference as I think long and hard about my own writing.

When I "got cancer" and had "syringomyelia" diagnosed , or at least when it was found a number of years ago and recurs, I felt as I did as a young art student in the late 70's desiring to act in the now, seek truth, love well, work harder, and lower the amount of fooling myself or others. It was a drive to expand past my limitations which are so patently clear. Even now it is a damn struggle every time I'm waiting for an understanding to surface from the dark overcast little fishy pond of my mind. Not to carry that too far but it's muddy waters. I am here, life is never to be taken for granted, we work for truth on individual levels making service to others and self a part of an active lexicon. And try to be happy and love well.

I just wanted to say reading your blog tonight was very helpful. I miss days interacting with practicing artists. Clearly you have made this a place for calm reflection.For your art.
Thank you,
Sarah Puglisi

Zoemonster said...

What about Core Knowledge? (ED Hirsch, for ex)

Where does that component lie?

Enjoyed reading. Thx