An Overview of Art Costas Habits of Mind

Successful people are often no smarter or hard-working than anyone else, but they think and act in more productive ways. If students could be taught to copy these positive behaviors, what might they achieve?

This is the underlying principle of Art Costa’s Habits of Mind. Costa, in association with Bena Kallick, has described sixteen attributes which are displayed when people are behaving intelligently and solving problems. These attributes, or Habits, help a person to reflect on a situation critically and flexibly in response to difficult questions and situations. They are therefore a way of producing knowledge, rather than simply reproducing it.

Costa has repeatedly commented on the preference for modern education to test what is known, rather than to assess students on their ability to acquire knowledge. For instance, he once remarked that “What was educationally significant and hard to measure has been replaced by what is educationally insignificant and easy to measure. So now we measure how well we’ve taught what isn’t worth learning!” What this suggests is that schools are ranked – and funded – by their ability to teach content, rather than by their students’ ability to learn. The Habits of Mind are an attempt to turn that around and reward students for their ability to overcome intellectual difficulties, instead of grading them on recall and regurgitation.

However, as they are learning tools as well as thinking tools, the Habits of Mind are not an attempt to undermine traditional education, but to support it by giving students the necessary skills to apply their knowledge more effectively to new situations.

The sixteen Habits, with a brief description of each, are as follows:

Persisting – Not giving up, even when things seem difficult. Remaining focused and looking for new ways to solve a problem if a previous method hasn’t been successful.

Managing impulsivity – Look before you leap! Staying calm and taking a moment to consider possible courses of action. Thinking carefully instead of acting on the first idea that comes to mind.

Listening with understanding and empathy – Being open to the ideas of other people. Understanding different points of view, and being sympathetic to another’s thoughts and emotions.

Thinking flexibly – Looking at a problem from all angles. Understanding that there is always more than one way to solve a problem. Being able to generate different strategies and weigh alternatives.

Thinking about thinking (metacognition) – Being aware of one’s own thought processes, and considering the effect of all strategies, feelings and actions.

Striving for accuracy – Setting high standards. Being prepared to check for accuracy, and to make changes if necessary. Always trying to improve.

Questioning and problem posing – Asking questions that will produce useful information. Knowing what you don’t know. Self-testing by finding new problems to solve.

Applying past knowledge to new situations – Using what is already known. Being able to access information and to apply it beyond its original purpose.

Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision – Striving for accuracy when speaking or writing. Avoiding generalizations, deletions, or distortions. Making sure that you are understood as intended.

Gather data through all the senses – Paying attention to the world. Not relying only on what is seen or heard.

Creating, imagining, and innovating – Being prepared to try something brand new. Generating original ideas, and being unconcerned if they seem novel or offbeat.

Responding with wonderment and awe – Falling in love with learning. Understanding that the world is an awesome, mysterious, and beautiful place.

Taking responsible risks – Being prepared to try new things. Thinking and acting on the edge of the familiar. Having a sense of adventure.

Finding humor – Enjoying what is incongruous or unexpected. Being able to laugh at one’s own crazy ideas or mistakes.

Thinking interdependently – Working with others. Being a useful part of any team, and recognizing that there is much to be learned from other people.

Remaining open to continuous learning – Knowing that there is more to learn. Being prepared to admit that you don’t know. Avoiding complacency in learning.

Costa and others have offered plenty of advice about how the Habits of Mind should be applied in schools. To begin with, it is best to introduce them as part of normal teaching, rather than to overtly focus on them. In this way, students can immediately start practising their new ways of thinking instead of treating them as just one more thing that they need to study. Good examples of short learning activities based on each of the sixteen Habits can be found at edutopia.org, and while these are ideal for spotlighting or clarifying a particular Habit, they should be not be taught in isolation from everyday course requirements.

Downloadable posters can be pinned to classroom walls to casually remind students that they should be demonstrating positive learning behaviours. If a student needs direction or assistance, the teacher can simply point to one of the Habits posters and say, “Why don’t you try doing this, first?” Students need to be made aware that the Habits of Mind, like any skill, require regular practice.

It is also important to recognize that the Habits are interdependent. Students may need to use several of them on any given task. One example from Costa and Kallick’s book, “Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind”, suggests that when listening closely, “we use the habits of thinking flexibly, thinking about our thinking (metacognition), thinking and communicating with clarity and precision, and perhaps even questioning and posing problems.” Note that this example does not just address the listening phase, but also prepares the listener for the next step – responding to what they have just heard.

Art Costa stresses that the sixteen Habits described so far may not be the only effective learning behaviors. In 1991 he began the programme with only twelve “Intelligent Behaviors”, before expanding the list. Teachers and students are encouraged to search for additional ones.

Habits of Mind is a simple learning strategy to introduce into any school as it is suited to all subjects and to all the challenges that are faced beyond the classroom. The Habits are proactive ways of thinking that neatly fit into any pedagogy, and students find them easy to use. Once they have been introduced, all that is then required is a belief in their ongoing value, and a commitment to using intelligent behaviour at every opportunity. Although these are the patterns of behaviour demonstrated by leaders in many fields, students do not need to feel as though they, too, should be world-beaters. The Habits of Mind are merely a way of helping everyone become the best that they can be.