February 22, 2013

Habits of Mind

by Janessa Smith, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, The Johns Hopkins Hospital

How do we learn? What allows us to retain new information and have it available in the future? Is learning driven by external stimuli in the environment or is it dependent on internal processes within the learner? These are the questions that drive theorists to explore the mysterious world of educational psychology.  Some of the fundamental theories of learning include social learning, constructivism, and behaviorism attempt to answer some of these questions.  And new understandings are emerging all the time.  A relatively new concept called “habits of mind” has been described and it’s taking the world of education by storm.

First described by Arthur L. Costa, Ed.D and Bena Kallick, PhD, habits of mind (HOM) are specific behaviors that intelligent humans employ when confronted with problems in which the resolution is not immediately known.1 These 16 habits (defined in Table 1) attempt to explain how behavior and learning are intertwined and dependent on one another. Costa and Kallick suggests that each time these behaviors are employed, “the effects of their use are reflected upon, evaluated, modified and carried forth to future applications.” This ability is what they define as intelligence in humans, which is a distinct concept from cognitive ability. The pair believes that intelligence is not just about having information but knowing how to use the information to act in specific situations based on previous experience. This concept applies to both academic and non-academic situations.

         Table 1
Habit of Mind
Managing Impulsivity
Taking the time to deliberate before acting.
Listening with Understanding and Empathy
Making the effort to perceive another person’s perspective.
Thinking Flexibly
Considering Options and Changing Perspectives.
Striving for Accuracy
Setting high standards and finding ways to improve.
Persevering in a task to completion and not giving up.
Thinking about one’s thinking. Being aware of how thoughts, feelings and actions affect others.
Questioning and Problem Posing
Findings problems to solve, seeking data and answers.
Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations
Accessing prior knowledge and applying that knowledge to new contexts.
Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision
Striving for accuracy in oral and written communications.
Gathering Data Through all Senses
Paying attention to the world around through taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight.
Creating, Imagining and Innovating
Generating new and novel ideas.
Responding with Wonderment and Awe
Being intrigued by the mystery in the world.
Taking Responsible Risks
Living on the edge of one’s competence.
Finding Humor
Enjoying the incongruous and unexpected. Being able to laugh at oneself.
Thinking Interdependently
Being able to work and learn as a team.
Remaining Open to Continuous Learning
Resisting complacency in learning and admitting when one does not know.
  Adapted from Campbell4

I find this to be a very intriguing concept of how intelligent people utilize their knowledge. Prior to reading about HOM, I believed, as most people do, that intelligence was driven by how much knowledge one has and the ability of that person to retrieve that knowledge. This new concept suggests that deeper processes are important.  It’s not simply a matter of storage and retrieval. While Costa and Kallick introduced me to the HOM concept, it wasn’t until reading an excerpt from How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough that I began to fully understand that this concept transcends the classroom.2 In his book, Tough describes how one’s character is a stronger predictor of life success than cognitive ability. He provides a number of examples to illustrate this point, the most striking being “The Perry Preschool Project”, a sociology experiment that began in the mid-1960s in an industrial town west of Detroit. This study randomly assigned three- and four-year old children into either an intervention or a control group. The intervention group was enrolled in Perry Preschool, a two-year, high-quality preschool program. The control group was not. The initial intent of the project was to evaluate the effect of Perry Preschool on the children’s IQ – a measure of intelligence. The initial results of this experiment showed that those that attended Perry Preschool performed better on cognitive tests but the difference between the groups diminished by the time they reached the third grade. Interestingly, when evaluating the long terms results, those children that attended Perry Preschool were more likely to be “successful” in life. They were more likely to graduate from high school, to be employed at age twenty-seven, and to be earning a higher salary at age forty when compared to the control group.

At its heart, this experiment was an evaluation of two different teaching models.3 Investigators compared the Direct Instruction Model — a traditional teaching model where teachers directly teach students and reward them for correct answers — to the High/Scope model where teachers set up the daily routine but allow children to plan, do, and review their own activities.  Thus students engaged in active learning — individually, in small groups, and as whole-class groups. This model of instruction ties in directly with the HOM. It allows learners to use each of the 16 HOM in their daily learning and demonstrates that this teaching model can improve educational performance at a young age and has long-term impact in terms of success in the learner’s personal life.

Additionally, Tough attributed the difference between the two groups to the development of “noncognitive skills” in the Perry Preschool group. These skills were a sum of behaviors that were observed and recorded over the decades among the two groups. The schools tracked “personal behavior” which included how often the students swore, lied, stole, or were absent or late to school. They also recorded behaviors of “social development” which tracked characteristics such as curiosity and peer relationships.  Students in the intervention group performed much better.  Thus the High/Scope teaching model likely facilitated the development of many of the HOM such as Managing Impulsivity, Responding with Wonderment and Awe and Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations.

The HOM complement the traditional and widely accepted educational theories that explain how people learn. They rely on the same fundamental concepts of these more traditional theories, but provide an explanation of how intelligent people use knowledge and add an element of accountability and responsibility.  John Campbell, faculty at Central Queensland University in Australia, describes the parallels between HOM and other learning theories, including constructivism and social learning theory.4 He explains that in order to construct knowledge, learners must reflect, plan and evaluate (i.e. Metacognition) as well as use senses to gather data from their surroundings (i.e. Gathering Data through all Senses). Additionally, he explains that constructivism emphasizes the use of group interaction (i.e. Thinking Interdependently) and active rather than passive learning (i.e. Questioning and Posing Problems, Managing Impulsivity).  Campbell compares the three aspects of social learning (observation, language and self-talk) with HOM, explaining that “self-talk” corresponds with Managing Impulsivity and Metacognition, “language” relates to Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision andobservation” is demonstrated by Gathering Data through all Senses.

While still a relatively new concept, I believe the HOM have the potential to significantly influence the way we educate children and adults. By incorporating the HOM into learning exercises, educators can enhance what is learned and improve its application to other situations in life. After all, the purpose of education is to provide a structured environment where learners develop in all domains of their lives:  academically, personally, and professionally.

1.  Costa AL, Kallick B. Describing 16 Habits of Mind. [Internet]. [cited 2013 Feb 3].
2.  Tough P. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2012.
3.  Schweinhar LL, Montie J, Xiang Z, et al. The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study ThroughAge 40: Summary, Conclusions and Frequently Asked Questions. Ypsilanti, MI. High/Scope Press. 2005 by High/Scope® Educational Research Foundation. [cited 2013 Feb 20].
4.  Campbell J. Theorising Habits of Mind as a Framework for Learning. Proceedings of the Australian Association from Research in Education Conference, Adelaide, South Australia. [Internet].  [cited 2013 Feb 3].

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