• What does "Habit" mean?

A few weeks ago I took a close look at the definition of the Habits of Mind. I teased it apart with an educational audience in mind. That got me wondering about how we define the Habits of Mind for children and the general public. When we talk about "Habits of Mind", what ideas do most people bring to mind? 

For example, in the video below, one of my students, Billy, talks about the Habits of Mind being "what famous and successful people do" and goes on to say "so if I do this, I can be successful too". 

I've always believed Billy showed a great deal of insight  and understanding about the Habits of Mind and felt that he had "got" the Habits of Mind. Now I'm not so sure.

Now I wonder if Billy sees the Habits of Mind as something static, or something you develop and get better at? Does Billy see the Habits as something that successful people "do", and therefor he has to start doing? Or does he see them as something that successful people do well, and therefor as something he does but has to get better at?

This distinction isn't a trivial one. The first reflects a fixed mindset and creates a greatness gap. The second captures a growth mindset and gives Billy a chance to take control of his success and to grow and improve to become increasingly able to succeed. 

All this wondering lead me to think about the word Habit. Does this word adequately capture what we want people to understand about the Habits of Mind? If the Habits of Mind are continually in development, constantly able to be improved upon, something that successful people do well, then does this match with what most people mean when they talk about Habits?

A quick search showed the definition of "Habit" to be a pattern of behavior regularly followed. Even the term "disposition" is defined as "the predominant or prevailing tendency of one's spirt". The common usage of these words seems to be "a repeated act".  

And it's true, successful people do regularly follow these patterns of behaviours, they are the predominant or prevailing tendency of ones spirt. But it is so much more than that. Successful people don't just repeatedly "do" the Habits, they use them "skillfully and mindfully". They are good at them. They don't just Manage their impulsivity, they manage it well and appropriately. They don't just Strive for Accuracy, they are capable and skillful at doing this. 

In this blog entry I give an overview of the ways a person can get better at the Habits of Mind. 

When we use words like "skill", "ability", "competence" and the like, I believe people automatically see "degrees". Even with words like intelligence and talent the common understanding is one of degrees - even if a fixed view of these degrees predominates. I'm not so sure that most people see a "habit" as something you have in degrees - something you can develop.

So, where have these rambling thoughts taken me? Perhaps to an critical question. If we are to take the Habits of Mind to a wider audience, if the imperative to improve, develop, extend, grow or mature your Habits of Mind is to be communicated effectively, might we need to come up with a term different to "Habits" to describe them? What word or words might better communicate the journey of continuous growth that Costa, Kallick and myself describe in chapter 4 of Leading and Learning with Habits of Mind (2008)?

I'd value the thoughts of everyone who reads this blog in helping me clarify and develop this idea. Having read my thoughts above, what are some of the reflections and comments you might suggest that may help bring clarity to this conundrum?






My Approach

James the approach below is my way of bringing about a THINKING FRAMEWORK using the Habits of MInd.

  1. Principals are the greatest change agents in schools.
  2. The passion and knowledge of a good leader is the single most important ingredient to commence a shift towards more THOUGHT LEARNING where every child is valued.
  3. A Principal needs to be strategic about HOW they bring about THOUGHTFUL LEARNING that moves towards Student Centred Learning.
  4. Use support people (EXPERTS) to reinforce and build on your own passion for learning.
  5. Make your passsion the passion of your staff by carefully and sensitively engaging all staff in the conversation about the REQUIREMENTS of the world. Know your facts and know where you are heading with the purpose clearly in mind.
  6. Spend time involved in this fact finding mission or AUDIT. Go on field trips with staff to other schools.
  7. Develop your leadership team and others as CHAMPIONS for the ideas you are proposing.
  8. Engage PARENTS in the conversation about THOUGHTFUL LEARNING.
  9. Explain any proposal about the type of THINKING FRAMEWORK you wish to embark on and use an expert to assist if necessary.
  10. ARTICULATE your goal to parents and WHY.
  11. Engage STUDENTS in dialogue about a THINKING FRAMEWORK.
Terry Westblade
31 years teaching experience and 14 years as a Principal. I have found that implementing whole school change requires a sensitive commitment to a bigger picture and once staff feel empowered to own the change they then become the main drivers.

Care and feeding of habits

Habits are generally regarded as established routines that streamline actions. Training a habit is regarded sort of like tooling up for manufacturing; if you set up your workshop with the "right" amount and kind of habits in place, it makes everything go smoothly without fuss. You "know how" to do things more expediently, because habits are what trains a series of actions in a behavior chain that make up a skill.

So you're right to question whether people are approaching habits as if they are a "trick of the trade" or a new means to establish a set of skills that will continue to improve with use. You're asking a very good question about how the way that people generally define a word tends to limit their ability to do something with it.

I'm coming from the experience of teaching people how to revise their habits using Alexander Technique, which teaches how to free up muscle memory after it's been buried into a postural habit. Alexander Technique is designed to address the limitations of what has been trained into action so completely that it is getting in the way of learning new things. Most people use it to free up progress in an art, sport or skill or to help the remedial recovery of former movement ability. In Alexander Technique we offer a way to "pattern intterupt" a habit. Instead of replacing an outdated habit with a better one, A.T. teachers advocate deliberately refusing the habit and seeing what happens.

Our field often deals with similar misconceptions about the nature of habits. But I think that's true for almost every field. Many students come to study with only a very sketchy idea of why they're attracted to do so. Some of these reasons are bound to a mistaken misconception - but that's OK. It's our job to teach otherwise and show the benefits of what learning our solutions will do for someone who will dedicate themselves and invest in learning from our point of view.  It's your job as the teacher to help people revise their definition of their misconceptions so they become an opportunity that is alive and ongoing.

Of course, the other definition of "habit" is more like: 'a preferred  way of going about doing something."
- Franis Engel