Where to begin with Habits of Mind

I began my work with the Habits of Mind more than 20 years ago. It was a time when the education system was undergoing major curriculum changes.

We had three “new” curriculums in five years. The “crowded curriculum” was a constant source of frustration for teachers, who felt there was too much to cover and too little time to focus on a depth of learning. Furthermore, politicians were calling for improvements in student outcomes, a return to basics and a focus on literacy and numeracy. Not so different from today.

It was in this context I first came across the Habits of Mind. I was immediately struck by their value and importance. But when I mentioned the Habits to other teachers, I’d be challenged. They’d tell me they had enough on their plate without adding the Habits of Mind – they weren’t in the curriculum and they didn’t have time for extra work.

Fortunately, we discovered the Habits of Mind were already in the curriculum. They weren’t “extra” – in fact, they helped us reach our broader educational goals. But it took a while for us to work this out.

One of the first activities I did to introduce teachers to the Habits of Mind  was to  ask them to design a model student. I asked them to imagine they were writing a reference for this model student as they exited their final year of school. What qualities and abilities should this student have? What keywords should be included in their reference?

The next activity was to look at what the curriculum was asking us to do. We separated into our faculty teams to examine our teaching and learning documents, carefully pulling out all the keywords and cognitive verbs included in these official texts.

What we ended up with was several hundred yellow Post-it® Notes. Each had a keyword that represented one of the most important schooling outcomes.

The next step was to bring out the Habits of Mind posters. I displayed them around the room and explained that Art Costa and Bena Kallick had identified the dispositions of the most effective thinkers and highest achievers from a broad range of areas. I wanted to find out if there was an alignment between what we had identified as important for our students, the demands of the curriculum and the Habits of Mind.

So, I asked the teachers to see if they could place their Post-it® Notes on the Habits of Mind posters. What happened next was remarkable. Hundreds of Post-it® Notes from two different curriculum documents and our teachers’ own priorities were matched with the 17 posters. These posters represented the 16 Habits of Mind, with an additional poster capturing a set of values.

The curriculum documents talked about collaboration and group work. Our own goal was for 21st-century learners to become “team players”. The Habits of Mind talked about “Thinking Interdependently”.

The curriculum documents spoke about inquiry. We said we wanted our students to be curious about the world and ask questions. The Habits of Mind emphasised “Questioning and Posing Problems”.

Everywhere we looked, the Habits helped us distil and capture some of the most important aspects of our curriculum. The fact these words had been drawn from two sets of curriculum documents, plus our own vision for our students, gave us the confidence that next time there was a change of curriculum, we’d be able to interpret it through the lens of the Habits of Mind.

In fact, the Habits of Mind simplified our curriculum. They gave us a common language and shared focus on what was important to us as a college. Suddenly, the primary teachers and secondary teachers, the maths teachers and history teachers, the language department and science department all agreed on the most important outcomes for our students.

These simple activities quickly gave us clarity on our chief educational goals. We discovered that the Habits of Mind helped us de-clutter the curriculum. It felt less “crowded”. And we realised the Habits weren’t an extra at all – they were central and implicit to our curriculum outcomes. Far from being an “extra thing to do”, the Habits of Mind became a common thread across all subjects and all years of schooling.



James Anderson is a speaker, author and educator who is passionate about helping fellow educators develop students as better learners. James’ work combines Growth Mindset with Habits of Mind and Practice to create Learning Agility. He puts the growth back into Growth Mindset. And through creating and describing the Mindset Continuum, he provides the cornerstone for effective Growth Mindset interventions.

James is a Certified Speaking Professional and speaks regularly at conferences around the world. He has published several books including Succeeding with Habits of Mind, The Agile Learner, The Mindset Continuum and The Learning Landscape.

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