Subject Based Habits of Mind

By Daniel Vollrath within a special education teaching and learning environment. Daniel Vollrath (@HabitsofMindInc) is a special education teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey, and a United States Professional Development Trainer for the Habits of Mind Institute, with a strong passion for developing curriculum, classroom culture, and mindfulness based on the Habits of Mind. Over the past five years, Daniel has gathered student and teacher reflections with the Habits of Mind which has led to a better understanding in reference to a blend of learning and dispositional thinking.

Daniel will be presenting selected reflections within a monthly series. This blog is part 5 within the series.

Here is a question to ponder, “Is there anything more spectacular than cheese?” Think about it. Cheese can make almost any food more exciting. It is a comfort food that makes you feel warm and bubbly inside while producing your tastebuds to ignite. You can eat cheese hot, cold, in a fondue pot, sprinkled, on a cracker, or even by itself. Plus, cheese comes in a million different varieties and flavors from all around the world. However, the most intriguing aspect of cheese is how it can pair. Let’s face it, certain cheeses when matched together with the right food can create an epicurean experience like no other.

So why are we talking about cheese in this blog? Well, the cheese analogy brings forth the idea and importance of “best fit”, in relation to the Habits of Mind and particular subject areas. For example, the pairing of smoked gouda with pears can pleasure almost any palate, as thinking flexibly within an algebra class can increase brain power and ability to solve problems in a variety of ways. Infusing the Habits of Mind into any subject area can be impactful, as they are meant to build productive behaviors and learning. And, as teachers we bring many unique components to the classroom, for example, the ability to be creative and singular in our methods of teaching. The way we run our classroom most likely differs from other teachers just as the Habits of Mind may be more valuable in particular subject areas over others.

In this blog you will read about teachers and students perspectives in relation to specific Habits of Mind that were most beneficial within their subject areas.

Mathematics Habits of Mind

Mathematics is not always an exciting subject for kids. I am sure we all have heard this typical statement from a student, “Why do I need to take math. I am never going to use math when I grow up.” If I had a dime for every time I heard that statement, I’d be a millionaire. Fortunately, there are students who find a passion for math, enjoy the process, and display particular habits that connect to their understanding.

Thinking Flexibly & Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations:

Within a math class the three habits that were most presented by the students were: thinking flexibly, persisting, and applying past knowledge to new situations. Each of the three habits were discussed in a different manner. In a focus group one math student responded:

Researcher: What habit of mind do you feel you use most within math class?

Student: Applying past knowledge to new situations and thinking flexibly we use a lot. Our teacher is good at showing us how to use this habit while solving math problems. It makes more sense when I hear her say the habit out loud and model it. I see how using past information from other math classes helps out and thinking about how to solve a problem in a different way can make the process easier.

The statement above conveys the impact that hearing and modeling of the habits applying past knowledge to new situations and thinking flexibly has on students understanding.


In a journal, one student explained the use of persisting in math class:

In class we did a brain teaser. The habit of mind that I used while trying to solve the brain teaser was persisting. I kept focused on trying to figure out the answer and eventually answered the problem correctly after many tries. I was really proud of myself that I did not give up.

This journal spoke for many of the students’ thoughts and ideas in connection to persisting with math problems. Most students explained that they worked hard and never gave up on problems or classwork. It is believed that this habit was most used in class due to the struggles math poses for students. Clearly, the habit of persisting served as a motivating factor for students in math. The ability to persist with math problems is believed to be an important piece to solving and completing problems.

English Habits of Mind

English class found the three most utilized habits were: listening with understanding and empathy, thinking interdependently, and humor. In the journals most students identified with the habits of mind in reference to their readings. It seemed that many students explained the habits best when making a connection to characters or scenes within their novel.

Listening with Understanding and Empathy:

One student journaled:

I think that August fits listening with understanding and empathy the best. Because in the book August would listen to May, one of the characters in the book, when she was having trouble with Zach being in jail. She also listened to Lily when she was having trouble and seemed to really understand her issues. I think that August fits listening with understanding and empathy best.

From this journal it seemed as if the teacher was having the students reflect on the habits of the characters. In this reflection the student describes how the character August utilizes listening with understanding and empathy. It is asserted that the student recognized this habit being used by the character although there seemed to be not much clarification as to how the character displayed the habit.

Finding Humor & Thinking Interdependently

The English teacher found her students using the Habits of Mind within their reading comprehension and understanding of characters. In this journal the teacher details this experience:

I decided to have students select a habit of mind that connected to one of the characters within the novel. It was shocking to see how the students gained a different understanding and perspective on the characters. They were not thinking about the basic characteristics, like kind, nice, smart, etc. The habits made them think about what made a character stand out. Many students selected thinking interdependently and finding humor. I loved this approach to character development.

It is implied that the teacher found an interesting way to communicate details and descriptions of characters with her students. Both habits, thinking interdependently & finding humor, allow students to describe characters in reference to productive behaviors (Habits of Mind). This can elicit an opportunity for more in-depth dialogue and emphasis on characteristics and illustrative thinking of the characters in the novel. What an interesting way to bring out character description and development!

History Habits of Mind

Within history class students reflected on a variety of habits and how they connected to the assignments. The described habits used within the classroom illustrated the thinking and learning process. It was asserted that students could make a connection between the habits, but most importantly, why the habits were important for their learning. The three habits most discussed and utilized were: thinking interdependently, striving for accuracy, and applying past knowledge.

Thinking Interdependently

One student reflected:

During this past week, I used the thinking interdependently for the Civil War project. My partner and I worked by ourselves on our own project, but when we got stuck we would ask a classmate for help. Even though a classmate was not in our group, they still helped us because that is what we do, help one another in the class. Thinking interdependently is a rule we follow.

The opportunity for this student to think interdependently with a classmate brought forth the understanding and importance of this habit with the project. Although working in pairs was the goal for these students, having the option to think independently when they got stuck seemed to have been effective for them. In addition, the students recognize that thinking interdependently is part of their class culture and an expectation they follow.

Striving for Accuracy & Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations

A few students mentioned the importance of striving for accuracy and applying past knowledge to new situations within their learning. One student in particular provides a clear depiction of these two habits in relation to a particular event in history. The student journaled:

The other day Mr. B. was talking about the Great Depression. He asked us questions about what we know about the Great Depression. A lot of us told him things we knew and he wrote them on the board. This helped us to remember certain information we may have forgot. He kept saying the this applying past knowledge will help us remember. He also said that we need to strive for accuracy in reading two pages from our history book to make sure we understand. It was helpful for us to hear him say those two habits because it made us realize we need to use these habits to understand the material better than we did last year.

It is implied that this student connected the habits applying past knowledge to new situations and striving for accuracy to their learning on the Great Depression. When the teacher mentioned these two habits to the class it seemed as if this student realized these behaviors and how they were able to help in their understanding.

Science Habits of Mind

Throughout multiple conversations with the science teacher it was apparent that the Habits of Mind became significant part of the curriculum. The teacher created multiple lessons that gave opportunities for students to utilize and practice the habits of mind within the classroom. Through the journals it was clear that the teacher was cognizant of what habits were being presented and why.

Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision & Thinking Flexibly

Within a presentation activity on locating biodiversity hotspots around the world, the teacher expressed two habits to be aware of. Here is the science teacher’s journal response:

I tried to express to them the importance of using the habit of mind- thinking and communicating with clarity and precision as they prepare for their presentations. I told students it was important to be clear with the information they were talking about. All students know what I am talking about because it was clear in their presentations that they took their time and pronounced information slowly. That was really interesting to see. I also told them to work on thinking flexibly as they discover the possible threats to hotspots in an area but also consider what can be done to help them remain on the earth in their current state. They were able to come up with some interesting information. They are thinking flexibly!

Clearly, the teacher made sure that those two habits were important to successfully complete the presentation activity. It was implied that if students were using communicating with clarity and precision in their presentations, and thought flexibly on the topic, the learning would show. And, it seems as if it did.

Tips for Pairing

Just as we pair selected cheeses with different foods, it is obvious that particular Habits of Mind are better suited for certain subject areas. For many teachers and students, the Habits of Mind play an integral role in the culture and learning within their classroom. In reality though, it may not be feasible to include all of the habits into your classroom, and that is fine. Instead, focus more on pairing habits that are important to a specific unit, topic, or that contribute to your classroom culture; remember, your classroom is unique and should represent “your” goals for the productive behaviors you want students to display.

Here are some tips to consider when infusing Habits of Mind into your subject area class.

  1. Model the process of using the habit​. For example, show the process of what persisting looks like in solving a math problem. Display the process of getting a problem wrong, going back to try it again, getting it wrong, and going back to try it again. Ask yourself, “Is this a habit that I can model within this subject area?”
  2. Incorporate the Habits of Mind language​ when describing attributes of characters within a novel, historical figures, famous inventors, mathematicians, or even about yourself. Make the habits your descriptors!
  3. Use the Habits of Mind terminology within the classroom​ and the students will be more inclined to recognize and apply them within their work. These productive behaviors can create an identity of the who and what your students represent. Ask yourself, “What habits can I apply and have students identify with on a consistent basis?”
  4. Always have a conversation on ​why​ ​and​ how​ the Habits of Mind are important​ within specific areas of learning, activities, and projects connected to their success within the course, and ultimately, in life.

In the end, your students will hopefully develop enough fluency with the habits and discover the best pairings for their learning. And always remember, as humans we all think differently, just as every palate is distinct.


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