Habits of Mind

I know it’s summer, but I cannot turn off the thinking that keeps me excited about my chosen career.   Watching kids learn all school year, watching kids learn all the time, is so much fun for me.  The baby in the high chair at the restaurant that keeps throwing different things onto the floor and watching what they do; the youngster at the pool watching older children swim and putting her face under the water for the first time; small groups of kids throwing balls at targets;  all learning, all the time.  If that makes me sound like a total geek, well I’m learning to embrace my inner nerd.  Wherever I go I see kids;  and wherever I see kids, I see them so busily trying to make sense of the world around them.  Natural-born scientists and problem-solvers, they are always doggedly working away at building themselves into the adults they will become.   So over the years, I have met people, big and little, that are successful at learning and others who are not.  And I ask myself: What makes some people successful learners while others struggle?  Why are you, why am I, sometimes successful at learning a new skill or concept, but not always?  As a teacher, parent and all around human being, this is an important question.

The short answer that I have found is this:  people who succeed at learning something new have what in Spanish is called “ganas.”  The simplest translation of this term is…you gotta wanna.  You have to have passion.  If you want to learn something, if you are determined to figure out how to do something, you will find a way to do so.

The more complex answer involves a series of habits that successful learners have somehow managed to internalize and apply.  Dr. Bena Kallick and Dr. Art Costa, both veteran educators and researchers, have described these habits in great detail in their work known as Habits of Mind.  As a teacher, I foster these skills both directly and indirectly in my students.  As an all around human being, I try to apply them in my everyday life.  I have found them to be so valuable, which is why I’m sharing.

There are, of course, good habits and bad ones.  Successful learners have good habits; unsuccessful learners do not.  Without trying to make it sound too simplistic, this is what it really comes down to.  Habits, both bad and good, are learned; so with conscious effort, bad habits can be changed to productive ones.  The key word is “conscious.”

By taking an honest look at yourself, you can begin to see what causes the difficulty you have when learning some new skills or information.  This will help you begin to develop the good habits that will lead to successful lifelong learning.  The sixteen habits are:

  • persisting
  • managing impulsivity
  • listening with understanding and empathy
  • thinking flexibly
  • meta-cognition (thinking about thinking; self-reflection)
  • striving for accuracy and precision
  • questioning and posing problems
  • applying past knowledge to new situations
  • thinking and communicating with clarity and precision
  • gathering data through all senses
  • creating, imagining and innovating
  • responding with wonderment and awe
  • taking responsible risks
  • finding humor
  • thinking interdependently
  • learning continuously

The very first time I saw this list, my whole body went: AHA, of course!  When I unpacked them to see what each one meant, I found little “aha’s”  constantly.  I thought about friends and family members that have tried and failed over and over again.  I thought about my own struggles to learn something new.  There are many, but one of my favorite stories is about how I learned to rollerblade, just a few years ago.

My husband and I were wandering through the bandshell area of Central Park, one of my old stomping grounds.  There we sat on a bench and watched people rollerblade around a serious of small, orange cones set up in a long row.  Many of them wound back and forth around the cones, coming out at the end with a smile. Then a tall, beautiful young woman lined up at the top of the row. She eyed the cones for one second, pushed off, and went directly over the cones, her legs singing back and forth, crisscrossing over each one and never touching any of them.  It looked like her legs were made of water; it was magical. And I said to my husband: “I am going to learn to do that.”  The next day, I bought my first pair of rollerblades and that afternoon at the top of our cul-de-sac, I strapped them on.  I stood up. I fell down. I stood up. I fell down.  The kids on the block all gathered around, fascinated by this mom’s repeatedly failed attempts to do something that came pretty easily to them.  They laughed at me, they stared, a few came over to offer pointers.  It took a year for me to be able to rollerblade around the cul-de-sac with some measure of owning it.  Then I decided to leave the block for the first time.  We live at the top of a hill, which until you walk, run or rollerblade down, you don’t realize how steep it is.  You also don’t realize that there is a wide row of small rocks and dirt that runs across the next street down, and that rollerblades don’t appreciate small rocks and dirt.  I wound up wrapped around a tree, hugging tight and hanging on for dear life. That tree saved my hide.  After another few months, back on the cul-de-sac, I took out the cones. Once again the kids gathered as I tried to do the cross-over trick.  I crossed over and over, always knocking down the cones. Eventually I knocked down fewer cones, and eventually I didn’t knock down a single one. Success!  We went to the bandshell shortly after that, sat on the bench and watched the rollerbladers. I had a new-found sense of comeraderie and a secret sense of “I can do that too.” Until a tall, beautiful young man lined up at the top of the row of cones, eyed them for a second, pushed off…and did the crossover trick backwards.  Guess what I said to my husband.

If I go back to the Habits list, I check off quite a few just with this one story.  Since I learned about the Habits of Mind, which by the way were put together by Bena and Art after observing thousands of learners around the world and describing what the successful ones did, I look at the world with new eyes. Maybe you will too now.  Please feel free to share stories if you do.

For more info, go to http://www.instituteforhabitsofmind.com/ and click on the icon that says, “16 Habits of Mind, click here for complete definitions”.

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