Mind over Matter: Overcoming Learning Obstacles by Building Habits of Mind


By Jacquelyn Whiting

Educators and students all bring particular habits of mind with them when they enter their schools and classrooms. And under the pressure of data crunching and competition for high scores, some of those habits — developed over an educational lifetime — become self-sabotaging. As a public high school Social Studies teacher, I had long recognized patterns in student behavior that were concerning: self-put downs, approval seeking, and excuse making, to name a few. It was not until I read the work of Art Costa and Bena Kallick about Habits of Mind*, that I began to understand those expressions and behaviors as being the manifestation of patterns of thinking. What I was observing was the consequence of counterproductive (even destructive) habits of mind. So I let go of content and set out to improve the ways my students thought about and understood learning, each other, and themselves.

Now, I realized that I was facing institutional and cultural and even legislative obstacles. And it was clear that my students were invested in extrinsic measures of achievement, satisfaction, and even happiness. So I adopted a two-prong approach:

  1. Remove, as much as was possible, the extrinsic measurements; and
  2. Provide daily practice and reinforcement of new ways of thinking about learning, each other, and ourselves until those ways of thinking became new habits of mind.

Then, I predicted, the external metrics could be returned with minimized deleterious impact because students would have a new paradigm for understanding achievement, and this focus on continued growth would translate into improved scores when compared to those external metrics.

Step one: I stopped giving grades (for as long as was institutionally possible).

We just stopped using the word. When students stop using that word and learn to substitute so many more specific and meaningful terms and phrases, conversations about teaching and learning become so much more honest and effective. Instead of: “Why did I get this grade?” students began asking, “How can I write better quotation blends?” Even better, was when they started turning to each other and asking for feedback on what they were trying to do and understand!

Step two: We focused on habits of mind, not patterns of behavior.

To do this, we needed new vocabulary and ways of connecting that vocabulary to our work and our interactions. As a framework for learning and applying this new vocabulary, I built this rubric based on the sixteen habits of mind. Note that the headings of each column have song titles, not points or edu-speak like “Exceeds Standard.” Anywhere an external or summative metric could be removed or replaced it was. Student focus was continually directed to an examination of their habits of mind. When the rubric was introduced at the start of the school year, students were assigned to groups and each group was given a chapter from Denise Clark Pope’s Doing School. Working together, the groups examined the habits of mind of the student they were assigned and decided where the student about whom they read would be starting on the rubric. They had to use specific evidence from the students words, actions, and interactions to justify their assessment. My high achieving students from relatively privileged backgrounds were reading about other high-achieving students and identifying with their stresses and learned behaviors for surviving the school experiences.

Now that they had practice with the new vocabulary and had applied it in a safe way to other students, it was time for my students to self-examine and decide where they were starting. For this step they journaled about their past school experiences and talked with other members of the class they thought knew them well. Once they had identified their origin on the rubric, each student wrote a goal and a specific action plan for the first marking period. Together, we reviewed their goals and plans and I offered feedback. The action plan was very hard for most of the students to write. They struggled to get past statements like: I will try harder, I will get my work done on time, etc. A huge point of growth was when they could see that one vague goal statement is not the action plan for achieving another goal. Eventually they learned to write action plans that included steps like: I will visit the humanities help center each Monday to review my primary source annotations, I will reserve 8- 8:30PM as reading time every weeknight, I will complete essay drafts one day before the due date in order to have a partner give me feedback before I submit it, I will not speak in a group conversation until the quietest member of the group has contributed, etc.

Just as they did with the student they examined in Pope’s book, the students had to curate evidence of their own growth and achievement. At the mid-quarter we met to review progress and the accumulated evidence and revise their goals and strategies as necessary. And this was key, I didn’t want students setting goals they knew they could achieve. That’s not a goal, it’s a given. It was also important to acknowledge when a strategy wasn’t working or a goal was not going to be obtainable… yet. At the end of the quarter, students wrote self evaluations and had to present three pieces of evidence to justify each claim they made about their habits of mind development. All of this thinking about thinking and learning and the evidence was accumulated in a web portfolio.

We repeated this process each quarter and then met one-on-one at the end of the year when it was time to restore the external metrics of grades. To prepare for this conversation, each student converted their web portfolio into an exploration of their growth that we reviewed together in our meeting.

What did we find?

Because students continued to:

  1. set goals;
  2. reflect and evaluate their work and habits;
  3. set new goals and modify their work, habits and effort accordingly;

they all realized increasing success and achievement throughout the year. Thus, when it came to determining grades, rather than penalizing a student who began the year as “a believer” on the rubric and ended the year with “nothing compared to him/her” by averaging a lower earlier grade with a later higher one, the students were evaluated according to mastery and achievement and their grade was an authentic reflection of their progress made and growth consistently demonstrated. Best of all, they carried these new, positive, practiced and ingrained habits of into all of their other work and relationships. Constructive habits of mind are essential to overcoming obstacles, making progress, and being fulfilled by the process regardless of the product.

* Costa, Arthur L and Bena Kallick. Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2008.


After 23 years as a high school social studies teacher, Jacquelyn Whiting is now a high school library media specialist as well as a member of the SWE17 Google Certified Innovator cohort and a local activator for Future Design School. She is the co-author of News Literacy: The Keys to Combating Fake News (May 2018). and has presented at several national conferences including: the SLJ Summit, ISTE, and AASL. Her pedagogy is motivated by a desire to empower student voice and to facilitate the personalizing of the learning experience for all students whether through design thinking, problem and project-based learning, or storytelling. On her blog, Jacquelyn writes about bringing these principles into the library and the classrooms of the teachers with whom she collaborates. You can follow her on Twitter @MsJWhiting.

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