Habits of Mind
In my heart of hearts, I’m kind of an old-school romantic, and so to me education tends to involve the character side: How people use their brains and what they learn matters more to me than how much they have of either. I’ve been drawn for years toward the notion of habits of mind and dispositional intelligence. Lately, I’ve become even more fascinated by the question of what gives young people the sense of commitment and the passion that seems to be such a huge factor in adult success. And by success, I mean development as a happy, engaged person.
A few weeks ago someone recommended to me Good Influence: Teaching the Wisdom of Adulthood by Daniel R. Heischman (Morehouse Publishing, 2010), which I have started and I like very much so far. As a really thoughtful, occasionally moving, musing on the challenges of helping children cross the frontier between their world and ours, it matches up well with Wise Up! by Guy Claxton (Bloomsbury, 1999), The Path to Purpose by William Damon (Free Press, 2008), and some of Howard Gardner’s recent writing related to his “GoodWork” concept.
I’m not quite ready to found a school based on the principles set forth in any one of these titles, but their themes, aggregated, remind us that the tech-driven, student-centered, 21st-century learning we are rushing to implement is in the end about much more than preparing children for admission cycles and careers. We’re supposed to be helping kids become the best versions of themselves, able to look in the mirror and see themselves as satisfied beings with lives that they feel have real meaning.
For similar reasons Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators (Scribner, 2012) is eminently commendable; to me it seems more about character and habits of mind than about innovating, per se, although the publishers were probably happy to have a book with everyone’s favorite “I” word in its title. Reading it last year, the parent in me was more piqued than the educator—most of the examples seemed to focus on families with their own disposition to feed their kids’ expressed interests. Some years back at our school, we even experimented briefly with a “summer activities list” to supplement the de rigueur reading list, offering a menu of ideas that, we hoped, might spark kids’ interests in all kinds of areas; I’m still a fan of this kind of thinking.
Also worthy of a plug here is Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence (Heinemann, 2003), which is a bit of a how-to embedded in a compelling treatise on what it is that inspires kids to do especially fine work. It’s fine work in itself—deep and resonant. To complement Berger one can do no better than to revisit—as I try to do each summer— Nancy Faust Sizer and Theodore Sizer’s hallowed The Students Are Watching (Beacon Press, 2000). Both books are supreme reminders that great educators have an unshakable faith in kids.
As a final kind of relevant note, lately I have found myself quite taken by a couple of Wes Anderson films that explore the character issue in astonishing ways. I hadn’t seen Rushmore (1998) until recently, but I’ve now watched it a couple of times, and last summer our whole household—two teachers and two college students (possibly headed for a life in education)—was transfixed by Moonrise Kingdom (2012), which also rewards multiple viewings. Watched a few times through my educator’s glasses (thick, probably smudged), these films jolted me, at least, into pondering the passage between childhood and adulthood—is it a quantum leap or a just a clumsy but inevitable misstep we are doomed to take? Are we supposed to be moving away from something or toward something? And, of course, the films are just weirdly fun.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.