Learning to do better with Habits of Mind

Last week, I wrote about the two fundamental types of learning: learning to do more and learning to do better.

Learning to do more involves “below-the-bar” thinking. It occurs in your Comfort Zone and simply entails applying your current learning behaviours to the task at hand. It’s doing something you can already do or doing “an easy thing you haven’t done yet”.

The problem with below-the-bar thinking is that you never truly grow. The challenges that are out of your reach today will remain out of your reach tomorrow. You can spend your life learning to do more, but all the below-the-bar learning in the world won’t make you a better learner.

As educators, we are interested in helping students engage in above-the-bar thinking. We want to teach students how to raise the bar so they can succeed at increasingly difficult tasks.

Seeking your Learning Zone and attempting to do better is one of the Five Elements of Effort. But growth involves more than working above the bar. Working in their Learning Zone requires students to learn how to behave increasingly intelligently. If we want students to succeed above the bar, we must help them become better learners. And we do this by developing their Habits of Mind.

To succeed at increasingly difficult tasks requires increasingly mature Habits of Mind. you have to learn how to behave MORE INTELLIGENTLY.

Unfortunately, we aren’t always as good at helping students become better learners as we might hope to be. When we ask students to “use” or “apply” the Habits of Mind, we ask them to simply employ the Habits at a level of maturity they already possess. In other words, we ask them to focus their attention below the bar, which means we are not helping them become better learners.

Rather than focusing on “using”, “selecting” and “applying” the Habits of Mind, we need to help students extend, develop and build upon their application of the Habits of Mind.

In our curriculum design process, we must do more than simply state which Habits of Mind students are “required” to use in a learning activity. We must explain how those Habits should be applied at a more sophisticated level. Most importantly, we must teach students how to achieve this higher level.

A student’s attitude towards the Habits of Mind is the second of the Five Elements of Effort. To help students become more efficacious learners, we must nurture their relationship with the Habits of Mind. They must become increasingly reflective, self-assessing, self-directing and self-managing in relation to these important learning behaviours.

Students who grow and become better learners seek to extend, develop and cultivate their Habits of Mind. They recognise that although what they are learning is important, how they use that situation to become better learners is more important.

As educators, if we want students to raise the bar, and achieve more highly, we must guide and report on how students develop their Habits of Mind. We must also consciously facilitate that growth in our classroom teaching for the development of the Habits of Mind and by providing formative feedback to students on how that development is progressing.

If you’d like to know more about how to apply the Five Elements of Effort in your classroom, and if you’re prepared to trial some ideas and share your results with a small group of dedicated educators, please contact me via email.

Beginning your learning journey with Habits of Mind is easy. Knowing where the next steps are can be ellusive, and more challenging.

In my book, Succeeding with Habits of Mind, you’ll find practical guidance that takes you beyond introducing the Habits of Mind and helps you build deep understandings so you can succeed in developing, infusing, leading and sustaining the Habits of Mind in your school.

Click here to find out more and buy your copy.


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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