Habits of Mind

I recently made an awesome discovery: “Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind” edited by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick.

The most amazing thing about this book is the way that it takes something so important and makes you feel like you should have seen it all along… like it was right in front of your face and you just didn’t see it.

I am an extremely firm believer in the concept that intelligence is not fixed.  In other words, students can get “smarter.”  Intelligence is not an innate trait that we either do or do not have.  In fact, I tell my students all the time that as they learn something new, they are actually getting smarter because their brain is changing to adapt to this new information.

Costa and Callick make this argument very eloquently right off the bat in Chapter 1:

When people view their intelligence as a fixed and unchangeable entity, they strive to obtain positive evaluations of their ability and to avoid displaying evidence of inadequate ability. They believe their intelligence is demonstrated in task performance: they either have or lack ability. This negative self-concept influences effort. Effort and ability are negatively related in determining achievement, and having to expend great effort with a task is taken as a sign of low ability.

We have all seen this exact phenomenon in our classrooms with students at all developmental levels and all levels of achievement.  The point is that we need to convince our students that their intelligence can change, both positively and negatively.  As teachers, school personnel, coaches, parents, etc., we must view ourselves as intelligence mentors.

We need to develop learning goals that reflect the belief that ability is a continuously expandable repertoire of skills, and that through a person’s efforts, intelligence grows incrementally.

What happens when we help students and children to make this shift?

When people think of their intelligence as something that grows incrementally, they are more likely to invest the energy to learn something new or to increase their understanding and mastery of tasks.

How do we do it?

Children develop cognitive strategies and effort based beliefs about their intelligence – the habits of mind associated with higher-order learning – when they continually are pressed to raise questions, accept challenges, find solutions that are not immediately apparent, explain concepts, justify their reasonings, and seek information. When we hold children accountable for this kind of intelligent behavior, they take it as a signal that we think they are smart, and they come to accept this judgment.

The beauty of the Habits of Mind is that they work across all curricular areas and at all grade levels.  This is not content specific, nor is it specific to one type of instruction.  I personally see a very strong fit between the Habits and Project Based Learning but that is partly due to my own personal bias.  All teachers in all schools in all contexts can help their students to become more intelligent by explicitly teaching them how intelligent people think.

How can you integrate the Habits of Mind into your school, classroom, home, or curriculum?


I love teaching but I hate grading

How many teachers out there feel exactly the same way?

In my previous post, I describe the need for a better way.  I’m not going to spend a lot of time and energy trying to convince you of that need.  If you need convincing (or need a toolbox to use to convince someone else), go read everything about abolishing grading on Joe Bower’s blog, For the Love of Learning, then come back.  To me it all comes down to tons of research on the negative impact of grades on learning and motivation.

Okay, so I’m with you.  Now what?

Assessment really must be about mentoring students through growth and learning while helping them to be metacognitive and reflective.  What I’m talking about here is not grading.  I’m talking about being the expert learner in the room and facilitating students through the process of becoming expert learners.  I’m talking about mentoring students, not measuring them.

Self assessment is definitely a learned skill – and a critical one.  If a student can’t assess their own knowledge and the quality of their own work, then they are not ready for success beyond the walls of a classroom.  We have to use assessment methods that help students to learn how to do this for themselves.

Umm… you’re still not giving me any answers – just more questions.  How do we do it?

Honestly, I’m not sure what the answer is.  I really think portfolios are part of the answer.  Nothing earth shattering there, I know.  However, the real key is dropping the grading of those portfolios – at least by the teacher.

What happens when students grade themselves?  Here’s one great example: No Grading, More Learning.  The Duke professor who did this has more details on her blog, HASTAC.

What if I had my students gathering evidence of their learning throughout a grading period, and then asked them to grade themselves at the end?

What would the teacher do  in this model?

  • Give the students frequent and ample feedback and mentoring on their learning
  • Provide models of quality work and help students learn how to compare their work to these models
  • Serve as the model inquirer and teach students how to ask questions and answer them with clarity and quality
  • Deliver targeted workshops of knowledge and skills that the students need, when they need them

If you think this would be easy, you’re wrong.

If you don’t think the extra work would be worthwhile, I’m never going to be able to convince you.

We need a better way

I stumbled across @joe_bower ‘s blog yesterday – the aptly named For the Love of Learning – and had a field day reading all of his work.  It reminded me of a feeling I began to have very strongly three years ago.  However, due to pressures of the system, I wandered away from it.

The feeling?

I really want to do away with grades.  Students need mentoring and formative feedback, not judgement!

I’ve spent the last three years wandering through the woods of assessment.  I’ve read Stiggins, Marzano, Kohn and others.  In a lot of ways, this all just left me unsure as to what was the “right” grading method.

I thought standards based grading ala Marzano was the answer.  It was better in some ways and worse in others.  I felt like I was doing a lot more work, and yet students were even more confused about why they got the grade they did then they had been before.  No matter how many times I explained it, I still had students ask me “how many points is this worth?”  Standards based grading was better in the sense that it wasn’t about points, but rather measurements of skills and knowledge.

No matter what I do, though, grading remains the least fulfilling part of my job.  I love teaching and I fully understand that, for now, grades are a significant part of my job.  The crucial question is this:

If I love teaching, why do I abhor grading, which is one of the traditional keystones of teaching ?

I’ll tell you why.  It’s because grading gets in the way of learning.  If my job is not about the facilitation of learning then I need to get another job!