An Intersection of Adult Education with Habits of Mind


By Carol Hill

Adults with low academic skills struggle in a number of ways. Statistics are only part of the narrative. Most adult basic education students have stories of failure and resilience. Oftentimes failure describes academic struggles (Belzer, 2004; Crowther, Maciachlan & Tett, 2010; Davis, 2014). Furthermore, failure also characterizes the personal, financial, and professional lives of Adult Education students. The U. S. Department of Education (DOE), Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (2017) documents that workers with low academic skills tend to earn salaries that fall in the lowest quartile nationally. The US DOE also found that adults with low academic skills are more likely to be unemployed. The majority of these low skilled workers are minority parents and male, making this concern generational in nature, and a matter of equity (US DOE 2017). Some adults need English language skills in order to function in American society. According to the NCES (2016), in 2014 and 2015, over 667,500 adults participated yearly in English as a Second Language instruction nationwide.

One of the things these adult-learners do not need when they choose to enroll in adult education classes is a reminder of their failures. So how do we build a sense of efficacy? One practice that Florence County Adult Education has begun is to have students at orientation self-assess their Habits of Mind. The survey used is an adaptation of the one created by Steve Huffman, a teacher at Culver Middle School in Culver, Oregon. His survey is included in Appendix D of Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success (20098). The survey was adapted for adult education purposes to offer shorter descriptions and easier vocabulary, given that the audience, on average, has a 4.0-5.9 grade-level reading ability. Each item also contains a metaphorical visual and the name of the habit.

Using a Google Form, students respond to the following statements on Steve’s Likert scale of “Not yet, but I’m learning” to “I usually behave this way”:

  • When I start something, I keep laughing, learning and trying until I succeed.
  • I breathe deeply in and out and think before acting. I am willing to delay gratification to attain long-term goals.
  • I listen to understand others’ thoughts and feelings before trying to be understood.
  • I consider options and think about things from another person’s point of view.
  • I am aware of how I am thinking and feeling when I am trying to solve a problem.
  • I check my work for quality and try to be accurate and precise in everything I do.
  • I think of, and ask, questions to deepen my learning and contribute to others’ learning.
  • I trust what I already know and use it in new ways and circumstances to solve problems.
  • I think about what I’m saying. I speak in a way that my audience will understand my thoughts and my heart.
  • I use all my senses (sight, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting) to learn and answer questions I might have about life and learning.
  • I try new things and think about familiar things in new ways.
  • I have a sense of wonderment about the world. I enjoy finding things to celebrate. I pause to enjoy the moment.
  • I am willing to take a chance to try new things. I try to live life without regret.
  • I laugh at life, circumstances, and myself without making fun of other people.
  • I enjoy working with, and learning from, others.
  • I am a continual learner. I reflect on, and learn from, others and my experiences and easily admit what I don’t know.

Once we have introduced the Habits, we reinforce them with visuals in the building and embed them in classroom instruction and conversations with our adult learners. Teachers have workforce and academic content they teach. The Habits provide foundational “how to” for teachers, building student self-directedness around that content and their lives. Because these adults have a plethora of experiences, they lean into applying past knowledge to new situations. Teachers honor this by providing classroom space for students to share experiences, creating teachable moments for everyone. A 60-year old retired forklift driver talks with young adults in class about aptitudes and attitudes that he developed that help him in work and class. An experienced CNA shares with classmates wanting to become CNA’s the role that listening with empathy plays in her job.

Employing Habits are also the “how to” when it comes to adult learners accessing academic content. Students practice striving for accuracy in math and communicating with clarity and precision when writing. Habits support adult-students in managing important, sometimes conflicting values in their lives. Rather than go home and sleep, a student who attends morning classes after working third shift shares that the supportive classroom community motivates her to attend. That’s the power of interdependence. Creating, innovating, and imagining provides an initial, and oftentimes sustaining motivation for participation. When new students in our program are asked what they hope to gain from attending adult education, their most frequent reply is to “improve my quality of life.” As one incoming student phrased it, “When I come here, I’m walking into my future.” Ultimately, Habits empower our adult learners in growing as leaders who remain open to continuous learning.

Maybe you’re wondering which habit resonated most with our adult education students? Thus far in our survey results, Taking Responsible Risks had a median average of 5, a mean average of 4.3. These are courageous people, and we use the Habits of Mind to create a safe space for their learning.

Want to check out the survey? Go to and log in with your gmail account.



Belzer, A. (2004). “It’s not like normal school”: The role of prior learning contexts in adult learning. Adult Education Quarterly. 55:1. 41-59. Retrieved from

Crowther, J, Maclachlan, K. and Tett, L. (2010) Adult literacy, learning identities and pedagogic practice. International Journal of Lifelong Education. 29: 6, 651- 664.

Davis, A. (2014). Unraveled, Untold Stories: An Ethnodrama. Adult Education Quarterly 64(3) 240-259

Huffman, S. (2009). Rate your habits of mind. Learning and leading with habits of mind: 16 essential characteristics for success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. p. 395-399.

National Center for Educational Statistics. (2016). Digest of Educational Statistics. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education. (2017). Adult Workers with Low Measured Skills: A 2016 Update. Retrieved from


More from Carol Hill:
Exploring Adult Basic Education Student Satisfaction: Influencing Factors and Programmatic Responses


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