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Habits of Mind Across the Curriculum

Edited by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Habit Is a Cable

by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick

Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it each day, and at last we cannot break it.
—Horace Mann

While visiting a school that had implemented the Habits of Mind for several years, a 4th grade student approached and announced, "I think you need to have another Habit of Mind!"

"Wonderful," was the reply. "And what might that be?"

"Be nice to each other," he wisely suggested and ran off to class.

Although 16 Habits of Mind have been identified and described, that does not mean the list is complete. It is a work in progress that is richly informed by the work of students and teachers in classrooms all over the world.

Since the first volumes describing the Habits of Mind were published, numerous schools in countries around the world have adopted them and infused them into their curriculum, instruction, assessments, and school culture. As many teachers claim, "They just make sense!"

Whenever we ask teachers to describe what they see students doing and hear them saying that indicates the students do not seem to be inclined to think skillfully, they generate a long list of their frustrations. When we ask them to describe how they would like their students to be, however, they usually generate a list that looks like this:

  • Be independent thinkers; think before they act.
  • Be more self-motivated.
  • Be more inquisitive.
  • Pay attention to detail; take pride in work.
  • Be more diligent and persistent.
  • Enjoy working through the work.
  • Think for themselves; not always follow another's lead.
  • Generate their own thoughts.
  • Be self-directed; use strategies of problem solving.
  • Transfer knowledge and apply to new situations.
  • Have confidence; be able to take risks.
  • Support answers so that they can show evidence of their thinking.
  • Communicate with each other; work it out together.

When we introduce teachers to the Habits of Mind and ask them to compare their list of desirable attributes with the attributes described in the Habits of Mind, the insight occurs. It is no wonder that the habits make so much sense. They represent what we have all been looking for in our students, and they provide a common language and vision for what we would like our students to become as they go through our educational process. Furthermore, teachers discover that the habits not only are good for the students but also serve the adults in the school culture. Soon staff members start to ask the critical questions: How can we effectively bring these habits into our school? How can I incorporate the Habits of Mind into my teaching and lesson design?

The Stories Within the Curriculum

Habits of Mind Across the Curriculum: Practical and Creative Strategies for Teachers focuses on the innovative practices that teachers have uncovered as they answer these questions. The lessons learned from these teachers' experiences reveal several stories. One is the story of the transdisciplinary nature of the Habits of Mind. By transdisciplinary, we mean that there is no "subject matter" to the Habits of Mind; rather, they are applicable in every subject matter. Whether you are teaching reading, science, math, foreign language, or physical education, the Habits of Mind can be applied. To be successful, athletes, for example, must persist, manage their impulsivity, metacogitate, and strive for accuracy. The same is true for musicians, scientists, artists, and mathematicians.

Another story is of shared vision. Schools do not expect that all teachers will teach the same content in the same way or at the same time. A shared vision, however, means that all the staff members share a vision of the desired dispositions of their students, and they use their content as a vehicle to help students achieve those dispositions. To ensure this outcome as students travel from class to class in secondary school or from grade to grade in elementary school, the Habits of Mind must be encountered and reinforced repeatedly. Students will more likely habituate and internalize these dispositions if the benefits are promoted throughout the school, in every subject area, as well as at home and in the community.

Yet another story is of a curriculum map that shows the use of the Habits of Mind in an articulated and coherent way. If these dispositions are valued, then upon completion of their school experiences, students should have encountered and internalized all of them according to an organized plan.

The final story is one of increasing complexity over time. As students progress through the grades, they not only will become aware of the powerful meanings of the Habits of Mind, they also will become more skillful in their use of the habits; they will recognize the habits' merits and values, use them more spontaneously in an increasingly wider set of situations, and become more self-evaluative in their use of the habits. The ultimate but never fully achieved goal is for students to internalize the Habits of Mind, to use them as an internal compass to guide their thoughts, decisions, and actions in their school learning as well as their daily lives. Realizing this, school staffs need to plan lessons accordingly, so that as students mature in their inclination, skill, spontaneous use, and wider application of the Habits of Mind, instruction will mature in a corresponding fashion.

Habits of Mind in the Curriculum

The Habits of Mind serve as the warp for the curriculum, and the courses of study serve as the weft. Habits of Mind Across the Curriculum: Practical and Creative Strategies for Teachers provides many examples of how the tapestry develops in various contexts.

While planning lessons, teachers make decisions about curriculum, instructional methodologies, and assessment strategies, and they hold in their minds at least four nested levels of outcomes. Each one is broader and more encompassing than the level within, and each represents greater authenticity. Figure 1.1 summarizes these outcomes, which we discuss in more detail in the sections that follow. Skillful teachers learn to maintain the vision of the whole as they work in each level simultaneously.

Figure 1.1. Four Levels of Educational Outcomes

Source:Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind


The work of instructional design starts by answering questions such as this: What concepts and principles do we want students to learn? State, provincial, and school district standards of learning often help with this decision. Day-to-day learning activities are now used as vehicles to learn content. Teachers ask questions such as these:

  • What concepts or understandings do I want my students to know as a result of this activity?
  • What will I do to help them understand?
  • How will I know they understand the concepts?

Thinking Skills

Content, however, is not the end of the process. Standards also apply to thinking skills and abilities that students are expected to display. Types of thinking are often embedded in subject matter standards that use specific thinking verbs to describe what students are to do in meeting the content standard (for example, "analyze the differences" between two kinds of government, or "draw conclusions" from a certain kind of experiment). Thus the content becomes a vehicle for experiencing, practicing, and applying the processes needed to think creatively and critically: observing and collecting data, formulating and testing hypotheses, drawing conclusions, and posing questions.

Such standards suggest that successful instruction in skillful thinking should be done while teaching subject matter instead of in addition to teaching subject matter. Thinking and subject matter content are neither separate from nor in opposition to each other. The implication is that a student cannot demonstrate mastery of any of these required standards without performing one or more important thinking skills. At this level, teachers address questions such as these:

  • What processes do I want my students to practice and develop?
  • What thinking skills will be required to activate the mind about the big ideas I am presenting?
  • How can I directly teach those thinking skills and processes?

Cognitive Tasks That Demand Skillful Thinking

The Habits of Mind are drawn forth in response to problems, the answers to which are not immediately known. Teachers, therefore, design rich tasks requiring strategic thinking, long-range planning, creating something new, making a decision, resolving discrepancies, clarifying ambiguities, constructing the meaning of a phenomenon, conducting research to test theories, or ameliorating polarities. If the task is not sufficiently authentic, engaging, and challenging, then students will revert to merely reproducing knowledge. When students are sufficiently challenged, they give meaning to the work, produce new knowledge, and draw upon the Habits of Mind.

Habits of Mind

From the broadest perspective, students not only must use the Habits of Mind to succeed in the cognitive task that is assigned; they also must learn that success is ensured by mindfully applying these habits. Teachers might alert students to the need for employing and monitoring certain Habits of Mind as they engage in the task. Through reflection and self-evaluation, they begin to see how the application of the habits transfers to all subject areas. As they work through a cognitively demanding task, they experience the need for interdependent thinking, persisting, drawing upon past knowledge, and other habits. Finally, upon completion of the task, students think about their thinking. They might be asked reflective questions such as these:

  • What metacognitive strategies did you employ to manage and monitor your listening skills during your work in teams?
  • What effect did striving for accuracy and precision have on your product?
  • How did thinking interdependently contribute to your task accomplishment?

Questions might also be asked to invite transfer to situations beyond this learning:

  • In what other classes would it be important to strive for accuracy and precision?
  • In what other situations beyond school would thinking interdependently contribute to your success?

This attention leads to a process of internalization. Continuous explicit reference to the habits, practice in applying the habits in their work, identifying and analyzing the skills underlying each of the habits, and appreciating the value that the habits bring to their lives lead to students finally making the habits part of all that they do.

The Ultimate Goals

Knowledge, as traditionally taught and tested in school subjects, often consists of a mass of content that is not understood deeply enough to enable a student to think critically in the subject and to seek and find relationships with other subjects. Immersion in a discipline will not necessarily produce learners who have the ability to transfer the concepts and principles of the discipline into everyday life situations. Students acquire the idea that they learn something for the purpose of passing the test rather than accumulating wisdom and personal meaning from the content. It is our desire that the Habits of Mind will serve as a link among the various disciplines so that students will find the connections, bridges, and unifying themes of learning across content areas.

Probably the most influential way in which students learn the Habits of Mind, however, is through their teachers' modeling. Students learn best through imitation of the significant adults around them. Furthermore, the Habits of Mind are as good for the adults in the school as they are for the students. We all can get better at them. We all can apply them in making not only our schools and classrooms but also our homes, communities, and nations more "thought-full" places.


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