How the Habits of Mind Become a Shared Language of Learning

By James Anderson

Are you talking the talk? Or walking the walk?

There’s nothing quite like walking into a school where the Habits of Mind have been adopted as a language for learning. You see the Habits of Mind displayed on the walls. You read about them in school documents. And you hear parents, teachers and students all talking the same language.

This shared language for learning is an important step in your school’s Habits of Mind journey. It brings clarity and focus to the Habits, which school communities have often found confusing and failed to integrate in a way that brings positive learning outcomes. But is it enough?

Create a shared and powerful language

When introducing schools to the Habits of Mind, I often engage teachers in a visualisation exercise where they think about the qualities they’d like their graduating students to have. Or we go through the school’s curriculum documents and identify all the “thinking” verbs that describe what teachers expect students to be able to do. This 30-minute activity can produce hundreds of words, and each word goes on a Post-it Note.

I then display Habits of Mind posters around the room and ask teachers to match each Post-it Note to the relevant Habit. Invariably, teachers quickly condense up to several hundred words by placing all their notes onto the 16 Habits of Mind posters. (There’s also a 17th poster that captures values). A common language of learning begins to take shape.

Clarifying and simplifying our shared educational goals

This activity brings two things into focus:

1. The Habits of Mind aren’t “new”. They aren’t an extra or an add on. We already value them, they already hold a place in our curriculum, and we are already trying to develop them in our schools, homes and classrooms.

2. Adopting a shared language for the Habits of Mind makes simplifies and clarifies our educational goals.

The language we use for learning becomes simplified. Suddenly, instead of the music teacher telling students to stick at their practice, the maths teacher telling students not to give up, and parents telling their children to keep trying with their homework, students are encouraged to persist. And instead of the PE teacher talking about the importance of teamwork, the science teacher talking about collaboration, the English teacher talking about working in groups, and parents talking about getting along with others, these ideas are brought together as thinking interdependently.

Weathering a constantly changing curriculum

Moreover, the common language of the Habits of Mind helps us weather our constantly changing curriculum. Each new curriculum might introduce new content, but the Habits are always embedded – just in different words. Recognising this and adopting the Habits of Mind as a common language of learning helps schools to transition smoothly from one curriculum to the next.

Parents also love that they can share a common language for thinking with the school. Parents in Habits of Mind school communities often display the Habits and use the language at home.

On its own, talking the talk isn’t enough

It’s an exciting and important time when a school adopts the Habits of Mind as a common language of learning. However, simply adopting a common language has a modest to low impact on student learning outcomes.

If this common language merely re-labels what we are already doing, there may be little improvement in student learning. We may now say that a student who checks their work carefully to get good grades is striving for accuracy. And that the student who calls out all the time has difficulty managing their impulsivity. But the behaviours themselves haven’t changed!

Simply changing our language isn’t enough. We also need to change behaviours!

We need to go beyond merely talking the talk. A common language brings into focus something we are already trying to do, and it can feel wonderful. The sense of having a shared purpose unites a school community. But we also need to know how to walk the walk of the Habits of Mind.

In next week’s blog post, we’ll talk about the critical next step in your Habits of Mind journey. We’ll begin our discussion of what it means to walk the walk of the Habits of Mind and go beyond naming and “using” the Habits to developing the Habits of Mind where we finally begin to make significant impacts on student learning outcomes.

This post is part two of a series.

Part One: Teaching Habits of Mind is Not Enough
Part Two: How the Habits of Mind become a Shared Language of Learning
Part Three: The Tipping Point for Succeeding with Habits of Mind
Part Four: Introducing the Habits of Mind Profile Tool
Part Five: Your Whole School Approach to Habits of Mind

Read more from James Anderson.

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If you are already using Habits of Mind as part of your daily practice and are committed to nurturing the growth of the dispositions in others, you can pursue becoming an individual practitioner certified by the Institute for Habits of Mind (IHOM).

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