20 years with Habits of Mind: 3 Important Lessons

As Art Costa, Bena Kallick and the Institute for Habits of Mind celebrate their 25th year, I celebrate my 20th year working with the Habits of Mind.

I can’t begin to adequately describe the phenomenal impact the Habits of Mind have had on my life, both professionally and personally.

From my work as a classroom teacher working with middle-school students, to my position as a school leader, to the past 15 years working as a consultant to schools and businesses, I’ve seen first-hand the profound impact the Habits of Mind have had on thousands of learners around the world.

I’ve been fortunate enough to contribute to two of Costa and Kallick’s key books: Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind and Habits of Mind Across the Curriculum. I’ve also published my own book, Succeeding with Habits of Mind, and created the www.habitsofmind.org website, which supports tens of thousands of educators every year.

I believe that the Habits of Mind are one of the three key ideas that will stand the test of time as a powerful and enduring contribution to learning. The other two include Carol Dweck’s work on Mindsets, and Anders Ericsson’s work around the Aquistion of Excellence. They can be applied with great effect not only in schools, but in businesses and the day-to-day lives of every person on the planet.

So, what have I learnt over the past 20 years working with Habits of Mind?

In the early days, as I worked with hundreds of schools around Australia, it became clear that although schools could easily see the potential of the Habits of Mind, not all of them could translate and implement their potential into effective school change.

Many schools jumped on board the Habits of Mind bandwagon, only to leave it behind a few years later. The only evidence of the Habits ever being part of the school were a few posters on the walls, and perhaps a few advocates bravely waving the Habits of Mind flag as the school moved on to its next initiative.

However, a few schools did see profound changes in their culture. Academic results improved. The lives of students, teachers and, in many cases, the whole school community were profoundly and positively impacted by the Habits of Mind.

In these schools, there was never a sense of the Habits of Mind becoming “last year’s initiative.” The Habits were woven into the very fabric of the school’s culture and identity. In fact, the commitment to the Habits of Mind increased with time. This commitment endured and grew through changes in principals, government and educational priorities.

The Institute for Habits of Mind recognised many of these schools as Learning Communities of Excellence. Waikiki Elementary, which has flown the Habits of Mind flag for almost 20 years, is one such school. Schools I have worked with, including Kirwan State High School, Nudgee College, Mathew Flinders Anglican College and Westbourne Park Primary School, have also sustained their work in powerful ways for more than 10 years.

So, why is it that so many schools fail with Habits of Mind while others achieve such great success?

As I reflect on my own Habits of Mind journey, I attribute the difference to three key lessons:

  1. A Growth Mindset
    Schools will only achieve long-term success with the Habits of Mind if they build on a foundation of the Growth Mindset. This is a critical element that, unfortunately, was missing in many schools in the early days of the Habits of Mind work.
  1. A whole-school approach
    The power of the Habits of Mind is magnified exponentially when the whole school adopts them. While individual teachers can and do make a difference in their own classrooms, the most profound and sustainable changes are achieved when the Habits pervade all aspects of the school, not just a classroom or two.
  1. Development of the Habits of Mind
    To succeed with the Habits of Mind, you can’t simply “teach” them. They’re not a topic to be covered and ticked off. The focus must be on developing, extending, building upon and improving the way the students engage with them. Much more than a vocabulary, the Habits of Mind require changes in pedagogy.

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Institute for Habits of Mind, for the next three weeks I’ll send you a short blog that delves more deeply into these three lessons. My hope is that by sharing this wisdom, even more schools and organisations can make profound and enduring impacts on their communities with the Habits of Mind.

As Art Costa would say, the world can become a more thought-filled place.


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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