16 Habits of Mind…In Kindergarten? You know it!

One of the 16 Habits reminders at my school

A recent edition of Education Week (Nov, 7, 2018 V 38, Issue 12) is dedicated to examining four big questions as related to personalized learning. In order of how they are presented in the issue they are:

  1. What is (and isn’t) personalized learning? 
  2. Why do some personalized learning efforts make school feel less personal?
  3. Is it a good idea to give students greater choice over what they learning?
  4. Are tech and education companies overselling personalized learning?

While these are great questions to explore and discuss, I think it is the third question that is important for any school to examine. Whether the school is exploring personalized learning or not.

Whether or not a school is pursuing personalized learning is almost immaterial to the question, “Is it a good idea to give students greater choice over what they are learning?”  If we look objectively at the 21st century learners, or the Generation Z students, in our classrooms we come to realize that the effect of the constant connectivity and digital choice has created a culture of immediate gratification within our students. You can see it when kindergarten and first grade students are playing Roblox or when high school students are playing Fortnight.  The ability to have choice is central to how students interact with the world. In fact, they expect it! 

Instead of lamenting the limited attention spans of students, I believe we are tasked with meeting students where they are.  That is, we have to give them choice in their learning. Sometimes, this choice needs to be authentic and self-directed. At other times, it is OK if it is manufactured by the teacher to help the student or students master a standard or skill.

 If students have never been given the tools or opportunity to practice making decisions about their learning, how can we expect them to make good choices when finally allowed to do so?

However, we cannot teach students using a direct instruction methodology in the primary grades, then, expect students to become advocates for their own learning in middle school, high school and beyond.  If students have never been given the tools or opportunity to practice making decisions about their learning, how can we expect them to make good choices when finally allowed to do so?  Without developing skills and reflective practices, it is likely students may choose the path of least resistance rather than choosing an option that will provide a strong learning experience.

This is where the 16 Habits of Mind come into play.  

Costa & Kallick’s seminal work, Habits of Mind, explores sixteen problem solving and life skills needed to successfully navigate life, promote reflection and develop grit and resilience.

We have found, over the past six years, that having intentional, grade appropriate, conversations with students about the Habits of Mind starting in kindergarten and continuing through eighth grade allow our students to make smart choices and develop a sense of ownership in their own learning.

Our faculty will scaffold learning activities to ensure that students are pushed with challenging learning activities but provide a safety net to help students stumble when they make a mistake or fall below expectations.

The question should not be,  “Is it a good idea to give students greater choice over what they learning?” because students are already expecting choice.  Instead, the question should be, “How can we prepare students to take agency of their own learning to prepare them for the choices they will face in the future?”

By doing this, we can help students develop the grit to stay focused on a task or project for a long period of time.  Furthermore, they will develop the resilience to continue when they experience failure and a project gets tough. And isn’t that what we want? Students leaving school with the ability to communicate, think critically, collaborate and be creative problem solvers.

The Power of Intention

At the beginning of the school year I spoke with my faculty and staff about the importance of presuming a positive intention when working with one another, working with students and communicating with parents.

At the most basic level, when we presume each person we interact with throughout the day has a positive intention, we free ourselves from any past perceptions of that individual and any baggage those perceptions may carry. Instead, we free ourselves to make each interaction we have with others about seeking what is possible. Rather than becoming defensive or trying to prove a particular point, we can become open to new and creative problem solving strategies which allow ourselves the freedom to actively listen to one another.

I won’t say it has been easy for me, my administrative team or my faculty and staff to adopt this philosophy.  But I can share it has made each one of use more mindful in our interactions with one another and our community. This mindfulness has had the residual impact of taking some personal responsibility for the manner in which we communicate with those we work with everyday.

Personal responsibility may be one of the most important characteristics of “owning” ones intention. 

As a school leader, often teachers darken my door to ask permission to try a new instructional strategy, test a new technology tool, or have a courageous conversation with a parent about their son or daughter. By seeking approval from the Principal, teachers are seeking validation in their decision making process and seeking cover if something goes wrong. However, this can have the unwanted consequences of removing responsibility from ones actions.

Consider the following scene. You are a Principal and a teacher knocks on your door and asks the following. “Is it okay if I try out the @SeeSaw app in my classroom?”  In most cases I would guess you would be inclined to say, “Yes!” You may even be excited that a teacher is trying a new strategy in their classroom, especially if that teacher has been resistant to change in the past. Basically,  the teacher is asking for permission to try something new in the classroom. On the surface, that is good thing, right?  But at the end of the day if the new tech tool does not work, it’s no big deal for that teacher.  He or she may say, “Just another app that didn’t work in the classroom.” Since there is no real investment from the teacher he or she could blame the technology for not meeting the classroom needs, the students for not meeting expectations, or even the Principal for pushing the teacher to try something outside their comfort zone.

But what if the conversation went differently?  What if that teacher came to your office and said, “I intend to curate student work in order to build their academic portfolios. I think it may help them be reflective in their learning process. I think I am going to try using @SeeSaw to start the process.”

In this case, the teacher is stating the ultimate goal of the instructional strategy and taking ownership of how they see it unfolding. And if the new app does not work for that particular classroom, the possibility remains open to try other resources and technologies. In both cases, the ultimate goal was the same. To compile student work in order to give the students an opportunity to be reflective. However, the teacher that shared their intention to curate student work is focused on the process and not the outcome.  By focusing on the process that teacher is “owning”  their action to create student portfolio’s.

What might happen if we stop expecting teachers to ask for permission and start asking them share their intentions? I think teachers would feel more appreciated for their professionalism and expertise. I bet more teachers would be willing to try new strategies in the classroom and take ownership of the results.  Good or Bad. And if a new strategy doesn’t work in the classroom…so, what? It is merely one step in the teachers learning journey, he or she has had one more opportunity to refine their instructional practice, and all the while, the students have seen an adult modeling a growth mindset.