A+ Advice for Parents

'Habits of Mind' Are More Than Just Good Study Habits

Q: At our son's middle-school orientation, the principal asked parents to help teens develop the "habits of mind" of good students. It sounded great, but when I got home I wondered what she meant. Does she mean study skills?

A: Not exclusively. To be sure, study skills, such as the ability to focus on a task, manage one's time and take responsibility for assignments, help students succeed. But I'm betting that she means more than just turning in homework on time or getting the right answers on a math test.

This principal wants students to develop skills that will help them when they don't know the answers, suggests Dr. Arthur L. Costa, emeritus professor of education at California State University, Sacramento.

"It means having a disposition toward behaving intelligently when confronted with problems, the answers to which are not immediately known: dichotomies, dilemmas, enigmas and uncertainties," he says.

Costa and his colleague, Bena Kallick, identified 16 "habits of mind" (www.habitsofmindinstitute.org) that help students become effective, curious lifelong learners. They include:

-- persistence

-- thinking and communicating with clarity and precision

-- managing impulsivity

-- gathering data through all senses

-- listening with understanding and empathy

-- creating, imagining, innovating

-- thinking flexibly

-- responding with wonderment and awe

-- thinking about thinking (metacognition)

-- taking responsible risks

-- striving for accuracy

-- finding humor

-- questioning and posing problems

-- thinking interdependently

-- applying past knowledge to new situations

-- remaining open to continuous learning

Many school district leaders find that teaching these "habits of mind provide a well-researched approach for college and career readiness," says Margo Ulmer, a school board president in Naples, New York. "We know that mastering content is only one aspect of academic success."

Educators like Carol Dweck of Stanford University and Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania are applying the findings of other researchers. They've shown in separate studies how attitudes and character traits such as grit, self-control, goal-orientation and a growth mindset (a belief that one's abilities can be developed through effort and hard work) can trump IQ in learning. Paul Tough describes their research in "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character" (Mariner Books, 2013).

When students develop these habits of mind in middle school, says Ulmer, "they increase their ability to persevere, reason, research and solve problems. They become stronger students in high school and have an easier transition to college work. They also have a foundation for the collaborative, problem-solving work required in many of today's careers."

These habits are especially important in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, says researcher Ryan Stowe of Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Florida, which conducts biomedical research. Stowe works with STEM teachers in Palm Beach County.

"Content knowledge, like knowing the definition of a molecule, is important, but equally important is acquiring a scientific disposition," he says. "The real world is a messy, inexact place where one is often confronted with nebulous situations for which no easy solutions exist. When we teach students to tackle these scenarios in a thoughtful manner, they learn to think like a scientist. Such a disposition predisposes one to seek uncertainty, learn from failure and be comfortable with ambiguity."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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