Lesson 2: A whole-school approach

I have had the great pleasure of working with many schools that have seen the Habits of Mind flourish in their communities over many years. Not only have these schools embedded the Habits of Mind, they have sustained them.

Unfortunately, not all schools have sustained their work. For many, the Habits of Mind have become simply another of “last year’s initiatives”.

Why is it that some schools succeed with the Habits of Mind, sustaining their work and reaping the benefits for years and even decades, while others do not?

One critical ingredient is having a Growth Mindset. As I discussed last week, every successful Habits of Mind school has either implicitly or explicitly built their work upon a Growth Mindset foundation.

However, a Growth Mindset alone is not enough to succeed with the Habits of Mind.

In many schools, time moves on. Habits of Mind are unintentionally dropped. There’s never a decision to stop engaging in them, but sometimes they get left behind. At some point, the staff changes, leadership changes, the focus changes and teachers start saying, “We used to do Habits of Mind. I don’t really know what happened to them, though.”

From my observations, the schools that succeed and sustain their work with the Habits of Mind focus on the following four areas:

  1. Curriculum and assessment

The Habits of Mind are embedded in the teaching and learning process. The school goes well beyond teaching students the names and descriptions of the Habits of Mind. It teaches students how to engage in the Habits more effectively. Students aren’t simply required to use the Habits – they are expected to develop and improve them.

Teachers play an important role in this. This means the development of students’ Habits becomes an explicit learning outcome that’s built into the teaching process and student assessment.

  1. School environment

You know a Habits of Mind school when you walk into one. You can see it in the very fabric of the school. You can hear it in the language used by teachers and students. It’s not only apparent in the classroom – it’s in the assembly halls, the office and the staff room.

Most importantly, the Habits aren’t decoration or window dressing. And they’re not the result of a budget allocation (although that’s important, too). The school environment is an authentic reflection of the way the Habits of Mind are referred to and valued by school staff, students and teachers.

  1. Wider school community

Habits of Mind are not only for children. In fact, in schools where the Habits of Mind are deeply embedded, the teachers tell me how important the Habits of Mind are to them personally. They have made a personal commitment to the Habits as life-long learners.

They also tell me that the Habits of Mind are essential to the way the school’s staff works together. The Habits represent a common set of expectations about the way teachers should work together and independently.

Finally, the teachers tell me that because the Habits of Mind are so important, they must teach them to the children as well.

Not only are the Habits of Mind important within the school, their influence extends beyond the school’s walls. Parents and even local businesses embrace the Habits of Mind. They become the common language of learning throughout the wider school community, creating what Art Costa describes as a “more thought-filled world”.

  1. Policies and practices

School policies and practices are the glue that holds all this together. The Habits of Mind are woven into school policies and practices, which means they become deeply embedded in the traditions of the school. They become part of “the way things are done around here”. The Habits are intertwined with the parts of school culture that are regularly revisited, recommitted to and renewed.

Because they represent ways of behaving intelligently and achieving success, the Habits of Mind are woven authentically into the day-to-day life of the school. Each policy document contains the language of the Habits of Mind. Actions and choices in the school are guided by them.

In the face of change, the Habits of Mind endure. They endure because schools interpret change through the Habits of Mind lens. The school asks, “How do the Habits of Mind help us respond to this new challenge / need / initiative / policy, etc?” The Habits of Mind become the vehicle through which everything else is achieved.

All four areas are required for sustained success

I’ve seen many schools that approach the Habits of Mind as a classroom initiative, something that’s important for the children. They are seen in isolation from the rest of the school, a teaching tool only. These schools often find it difficult to sustain their work.

One of the key lessons I’ve learnt is that something powerful happens when schools focus on all four of the above areas. They reinforce and support each other, until the Habits of Mind become an integral part of the school itself. When this happens, the Habits of Mind flourish and are sustained for many years.

Next week, we will explore Lesson 3: Development of the Habits of Mind.