Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Habits of Mind – October 25th gathering

Our first gathering of Conversations in Education began with a delicious meal of lasagna, homemade bread, and salad. We ate together, then began our discussion. There were twelve members of the Sidwell community present.

We opened by reviewing Arthur Costa’s 16 Habits of Mind. His concept is to understand the habits of mind that lead to “having a disposition toward behaving intelligently when confronted with problems, the answers to which are not immediately known: dichotomies, dilemmas, enigmas and uncertainties.” They are:


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

We talked about encouraging our students to pose ideas, take risks, to not be afraid of being wrong. The challenge to create a climate in which a child can be his authentic self, and not be concerned about being just like those around him.

Risk Taking

How do we demonstrate the value of risk-taking in an environment where everything is measured? How do our assessments deter students from taking risks, knowing that they will be graded on the outcomes that they perceive their teacher is looking for. Assessments are often as much a measure of how well we are teaching as they are a measure of how well a student is learning.

How do we find the time to develop these habits?

All the “habits” on the list require a long time to develop. An example is listening with understanding and empathy. This isn’t done quickly, but over a long period of time. If one is to truly listen with understanding one must be patient, attentive, and willing to explore the subject in depth. Several people shared places in our school where this habit is cultivated and developed:

  • In the Middle School Quakerism in the Arts course, a student is assigned the role of “conductor”. This person listens to another’s story, then repeats the story back to show that they truly understood it.
  • Quaker Meeting is a place in which our students and teachers listen to one another and learn the value of being open to the thoughts of others.
  • The third grade partner readers are trained to listen to their partner’s response to the reading with comments that extend what they hear their partner saying, rather than chiming in with their own thoughts.
  • The second grades have started a tradition of half hour class meetings once a week in which students know it is safe to bring up thoughts and concerns they want the whole class to know about. This tradition has paved the way for third grade classes to hold the same kind of meeting, building on the listening skills and respectful responses they learned the year before. This weekly lesson in empathy has changed the equation in the classroom – students are more aware of each other’s feelings and teachers can take on the role of healers.
  • Drama classes, plays, role-playing activities, and classroom skits are exercises in empathy. Students must try to imagine the thoughts of another person, try on their skin, so to speak.
  • Our Founder’s Day pairing of older and younger students has the potential to develop empathy and create bonds between students. There would be more to be gained by having the Upper School students pair with the youngest, as they would be stretched more and probably learn more about themselves and their younger partners.

Habits of Mind in the 21st Century

Daniel Pink, in A Whole New Mind talked about the six qualities of mind that will be the most important in the future: design, story, sympathy, empathy, play and meaning. (Note: he will be the keynote speaker at the AIMS conference on November 5). He argues that the traditional skills taught in schools are not the skills that will be required of our children in their future jobs. Ironically, the policy makers who have created the testing environment in schools are creating a climate of fear that has educators focus on the short-term results, and ignore the long-term future of our students.

Building Community by Listening and Responding

Developing habits of mind is about the whole community. We are fortunate to be working in a community that wants to take part. We are not just educating children, we are educating the parents as well. We should continue to build our whole community. Listening with understanding means listening and understanding everyone in the community. How can you listen to every constituency? How do we make time to hear what parents think the school should be providing? Parents hunger for community, too. We reflected on the meeting held recently at Lower School to talk about the Quaker values of the school. At the meeting, queries were discussed about being in a Quaker school and fostering Quaker values at home and at school.

The discussion of community brought us to the broader issue of where our community begins and ends. We wonder about how much we can influence the behaviors and choices of families and students in their off- campus time, from choices at parties (drinking for instance) to their behavior at non-school sports events. Although our handbook states that behavior off-campus still reflects the school, it is difficult to consistently enforce. Parents are likely to defend their child’s behavior no matter what they’ve done. There is a tendency to “circle the wagons” when your child’s behavior is questioned, even if you wouldn’t tolerate the same behavior from another child.

If we hope our students will become risk-takers, then they must be allowed to take some risks! We wondered if we are too concerned with sheltering our kids from bad or unwise behavior. We should show that we trust them – everyone has to learn from their mistakes. They are good kids who may make some bad decisions, but they deserve our support and respect. As adults we must show that we believe in them and let them learn in the process.

On the other hand, there is information and guidance we could be providing our younger middle school students about their changing bodies that will might help protect them from risk-taking behavior at too young an age. The 5-6 curriculum could include more direct instruction related to sex education to help them understand the changes they are experiencing.

The group is interested in reading Good to Great for the Social Sectors by Jim Collins. We will order copies to be distributed to the current list of interested group members and a few extra for those who might like to join us next month.