Habits of Mind

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In the 1990s, Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick wrote a series of books on fostering habits of mind that assist the learning process. I, and many teachers that I worked with, greatly benefitted from their approach. The books argued that if students learned these habits, then they would be able to successfully put in the type of effort that leads to deep learning. The habits included persisting, striving for accuracy, thinking flexibly, managing impulsivity, listening with understanding and empathy, thinking about thinking, responding with wonderment and awe, etc. This approach is being revived today and I think it is a tremendous step, hopefully indicating an increased understanding of the necessity to teach the social and emotional aspects of learning. I would make minor adjustments, such as adding patience to persisting, and gratitude to responding with wonderment and awe. And I’d ask: Is it accurate and beneficial to call these mental processes or qualities of mind “habits”? Are the habits separate and discrete? Or are they merely different ways to view one quality of mind or experience? And what is the most efficacious way to teach what the habits teach us?

 

Costa and Kallick describe many excellent methods for teaching these habits. For example, you can use “word splashes” or brainstorms on the meanings of the habit. You can use questioning strategies that help students elucidate and analyze a problem, and you can incorporate the habits into rubrics students can use to reflect on their thinking process.

 

We teach through modeling. To help teach reflection, for example, we model awareness, honesty and humanity in the class.  We need to admit what and when we don’t really know something or if we get something wrong. If we want to teach flexibility or hearing with empathy, for example, then we teach with those qualities. When there is any doubt about what a student means in his or her analysis of a passage in a text, for example, we don’t just assume we understand what a student means; we paraphrase and then ask for confirmation.

 

Other ways to teach these qualities that I use include linking class content and student concerns. By asking students to work on questions that are meaningful and important to them, we can stimulate the student’s own striving for accuracy, curiosity, and ability to think flexibly and critically.

 

Costa and Kallick state that the habits work together. Thinking critically, for example, is a complex and multifaceted mental process and is best taught as a whole process. I think it begins with clarifying the problem or question and careful observation. Then gathering and immersing yourself in the material, presenting and questioning evidence and theories, mindful awareness and reflection on your process, incubation or stepping back to gain some perspective. And, finally, stating and testing a synthesis or conclusion. It involves not one but possibly all of the beneficial habits Costa and Kallick describe.

 

And I recommend teaching the habits experientially, with mindful meditation. Take a moment to sit back and relax. Just settle into the chair. Close your eyes now, or in a moment or two, as you feel comfortable. Just let your body settle, relax. Pick a place to put your attention, like maybe the area around your eyes. Just feel the muscles around your eyes. Can you feel how your body, very subtly, expands as you breathe in? Just notice it. And as you breathe out, can you feel your eyes relax, settle down, let go of any tension?  Just feel that for a minute.

 

Give the following directions or ask the following questions one at a time, with patience.

 

Now, think of a time that you were very patient, or you witnessed someone else being patient. Just observe yourself or the person. What did you or this person do? What actions did she or he take? What qualities did you or this other person show? How do you think the person felt while being patient? How do you feel when you’re patient? How does it feel when someone is patient with you?

 

Now just sit for a minute with the feeling of patience.

 

When you practice this meditation, notice what you feel at the end. Patience does not stand by itself. It comes along with other qualities of mind, more than I could sum up, qualities like calmness and clarity of thought. You manage impulsivity, for example, by first monitoring it, or by allowing awareness of how the impulsivity is specifically arising moment-by-moment in your body and mind. If you get absorbed in your internal comments or become judgmental of yourself for “having” the impulsivity, or if you don’t allow the awareness of what is going on to fully arise, you become lost. You manage nothing.

 

And this is true with all the “habits.” They are different aspects of awareness of what and how we “pay” attention. To start learning habits of mind, allow into awareness, “How am I thinking, now? What habits am I using now?” One of the habits, for example, is “thinking about thinking” or metacognition. We could also call it “attending to thinking” to avoid using the word ‘thinking’ too ambiguously. What is the goal of attending to our thinking? Is it an intellectual analysis of how our thinking could be improved? Or is it actually thinking consciously and clearly? The two are not necessarily the same, any more than eating a meal and the description of the tastes are the same.  Analysis is based on memory and is an after-the-fact commenting on conscious experience. The other is direct experience. The former depends on the latter. Mindfulness meditation teaches us how to be aware of direct experience, or our moment-by-moment quality of attention. This includes, as we pointed out with “impulsivity,” being aware and open to whatever arises, even confusion, anxiety, or fear. Without developing this clear awareness of direct experience, metacognition is handicapped.

 

The habits of mind bring attention to important mental processes or qualities of mind. However, these “habits” are not discrete and separate. They arise and work together. And to fully utilize a complex mental process, you need clear awareness of your own mental state. Mindfulness meditation provides a wonderful method to develop this clear and direct awareness.

 

Endings

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What are helpful ways to bring the school year, or anything, to an end? How do you pull everything together so the year concludes on a high note and you don’t try to cram in too much and stress yourself and everyone else? One complaint I hear from students (about other classes, of course, not my own) is that by the second week of May they suddenly have too much to do and they claim no one prepared them for this.

 

And teachers, when preparing students for the standardized tests at the end of the year, can wonder if they did enough. They can be angry at the state for imposing new requirements; angry at the principal, a student or themselves when they feel they didn’t teach well or an issue remained unresolved. Stress arises whenever something lingers and you feel you can’t control or handle it.

 

While it might seem difficult, a teacher should begin the year by planning the end. Ask yourself, what do you want students to be able to do at the end of the year? What skills, knowledge, deep understandings do you think they should have? What standards must they meet? This is the backwards design process. Once you know where you’re going, you can develop a process for getting there—and let students know the plan. I encourage you to take a further step and have students help in the course design. Find out, once you have answered the above questions for yourself, what students want to know and think they need to know. By incorporating students into the course design, they will be better prepared. And engaged. Maybe part of the crisis mentality at the end of the year comes from students having distanced themselves from the class at the beginning.

 

In a good year, the end energizes me. I wake up to the fact that I have so little time left with the students. I want to give them whatever I can. Even if I am tired of all the effort teaching takes, I don’t mind so much. I pay closer attention. I feel the value of each moment. During the year, I sometimes resist the work; now I can’t.

 

Not being prepared for the ending can occur not only in school, but anywhere–when a relationship breaks up, or there’s a death, or you’re preparing for an event. It can seem a total surprise. It can feel like something was going on of which you were totally unaware. You feel that you weren’t paying attention. So one strategy is to pay attention, moment by moment. You don’t want to mourn for your own life.

 

Why don’t we pay attention? There are all sorts of reasons. Certainly, frequent use of multitasking with social and other media doesn’t help. Another reason might be that we never learned how to do it well. Attention training is not usually part of education. ‘Attention’ comes from the root ‘attendere’ which literally means to reach or stretch towards and can also mean mental focus, interest, and caring. Attention is not automatic; it requires energy. It is an active reaching out. We show we care with our attention. Students might not pay attention because they don’t care or they consciously or unconsciously resist the experience. And then, at the end, they might realize what they have lost and they panic. Or they get so used to panic and stress that they think they need it to get anything done.

 

So, it’s helpful to teach students about attention. Mindfulness can do this. With mindful focus, there is more clarity about what needs to be done and less stress about the year ending.

 

Also, people might stop paying attention to the end because it reminds them of the very fluid nature of the world. Change can be upsetting. Change means endings but is so much more than that. Taking a breath means change. Talking means moving lips, breath, thought. To know and learn is change. Fear arises when you cling to an end as if it continues and does not change. But even endings end. Change is just another way to say living, feeling, understanding. So, trust in the ability to know and feel the living world.

 

Take a moment. Let your eyes close, your body relax and your mind turn inwards. Have you ever just sat by a stream and watched the water pass by? Picture that stream, the water, the scene around it. Maybe there were trees nearby. Maybe there were rocks in the streambed around which the water streamed. Eddies were formed by these rocks. Some were small, some very large. Yet, the water continued on, adjusting. Maybe you could see the sunlight reflecting off the water, sparkling, like a jewel. Maybe you could feel a sense of comfort in looking at the stream as a whole and the scene around it. Just feel it. Isn’t there a sense of beauty in the whole? Notice that you can focus either on the constantly changing water, or the whole– the trees, the rocks, the streambed, the sky. The two perceptions, of the flowing water and the whole, support each other and you could go from one to the other fluidly. Now, just take in the scene and rest in it. If any thought comes, or feeling, let it be carried away in the stream and then return your mind to noticing the whole scene.

 

So, ending the year isn’t the problem. It is how we think about it. We all draw conclusions, about others, about the state of the world and, of course, about how our day, month, moment, or year went. We need to realize the nature of thought. Why do we have thoughts? What are they? When we think about how the year went, are we trying not only  to sum up a year but create an image of who we are? “The year went well; I am a good teacher. The year sucked. Do I suck?” We try to create a secure image of the past that can be projected into a secured future. But is any thought or abstraction of an event as encompassing as the event itself? Can we enjoy our memories without distorting them with judgments? Can we teach the importance of critical thinking and intellectual understanding, yet recognize that the world always exceeds our ideas about it? We need to hold our ideas more lightly and the world more intimately.

 

The value of reflection at the end is not only about what lessons have been learned, but about coming back to now. It is to view being in a classroom from a larger perspective. You are a human being living a life of which this school is just a part. The purpose of an ending is to bring you back to where you began: vulnerable, not knowing what will happen, but open to what occurs. In a class, that means that at the end of the year, reflect not only on what has been learned in school, but what being in this situation feels like right now. What do you feel about this new, unknown, ending, or beginning, and about going on with your life without the structure of this class? Always return to the reality of being a human being, in relation with others, now.