I don’t remember the first time I heard the phrase, “habits of mind,” or the first time I used it, but I am sure it came up in the context of a conversation about what we as an English department wanted our students to demonstrate at the end of their four years in high school English classes with us. More than the ability to use correct grammar or cite impeccably, we wanted our students to be resilient, curious, and invested in their work. It was more important to us then, as it is now, that our students behave in particular ways as learners than that they learn particular things. The things they learned were subsidiary to the people they were in a process of becoming. Today, while reading for a graduate school class on literature and leadership, I learned where the phrase, “habits of mind,” came from, and also, not incidentally, what they are — or were when Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick introduced these “intelligent behaviors” in the 1980s.
Did you know there are/ were 16? Why 16, I don’t know, but if I had to reduce that number, it would be hard. They are all important, and they are all listed in gerund form – the verb form that conjures a notion of infinite process rather than finite completion. In other words, they are not things that we can do once and be done with them. They are habits – things we do again and again as we live and learn:
- Managing impulsivity
- Listening with understanding and empathy
- Thinking flexibly
- Thinking about thinking
- Striving for accuracy
- Applying past knowledge to new situations
- Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision
- Gathering data through all senses
- Creating, imagining, innovating
- Responding with wonderment and awe
- Taking responsible risks
- Finding humor
- Thinking interdependently
- Remaining open to continuous learning
When I think about this list of habits with my 2019 mind, I am struck by, and I like, the lack of hierarchy and the emphasis on humanistic pursuits. Persistence is not actually the most important habit of mind; nor is remaining open to continuous learning the 16th.
In a 2008 collection of articles related to the 16 habits of mind listed above, the authors share another list – a list of priorities for 21st century learners. This list does suggest a hierarchy and, notably, presents skills and outcomes rather than states of being:
- Creativity and innovation
- Critical thinking and problem solving
- Communication and collaboration
- Flexibility and adaptation
- Initiative and self-direction
- Social and cross-cultural skills
- Productivity and accountability
- Leadership and responsibility
Costa and Kallick’s 2008 list, taken along with their list of 16 habits of mind from an earlier time, helps me to understand what has changed in education since the years of my own elementary and secondary school experience, the 80’s and 90’s — and also, what hasn’t.
If you parse their second list, you will find many of the same elements that show up in the list of 16 habits of mind, albeit expressed somewhat differently. You won’t, however, find a glimmer of that bit about humor or wonderment, which is a shame. You will, importantly, see a set of habits concerned with multicultural literacy and social identity clearly articulated, which is good. But the biggest difference, to me anyway, is in that shift from -ing verbs to topics both bulkily concrete and maddeningly esoteric — things like productivity on the one hand and creativity on the other.
These lists make me want to propose a third list, one that weaves the beautiful idea of ever-evolving thinking habits with the satisfaction and necessity, in this world anyway, of task completion. The first item might read: ever seeking to express our thoughts, ideas and plans in creative and innovative ways; the second, habitually questioning what we encounter through our senses and always striving to empathically, collaboratively, and creatively solve problems… Granted, this third list is wordy and challenges us to figure out how to measure our success along its lines — but having the curiosity, resilience, and energy to think about challenging things is an essential habit of mind for all time.