Boston Review
table of contents
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
rave reviews
writers’ guidelines
bookstore locator
literary links


Search this site or the web Powered by FreeFind

Site Web


Habits of Mind

A response to Educating a Democracy, by Deborah Meier.

Linda Nathan

The Boston Arts Academy faculty has just finished a long discussion about the "habits of mind" of our graduates. It has taken us eighteen months to come to a consensus about these habits, as well as about the content and skill standards in our academic and arts disciplines. These conversations have been invigorating, intense, and often very difficult. But ultimately they have helped us pinpoint what we think it is important for our graduates to know and be able to do when they leave our school.

First, we grouped together by subject area (humanities, science, math, world languages, student support, arts) to discuss the essential skills (what students should be able to do) and the essential content (what students should know) a high school graduate ought to attain. After reaching agreement in each of these areas, we tried to define the habits or orientations we wanted all our students to possess. What kinds of questions did we want all our students to be able to ask? What kinds of behaviors or attitudes towards academic and artistic disciplines did we want for our students? And, perhaps most importantly, what kind of civic behavior or responsibility did we want all our students to demonstrate? After deciding on our skill standards, we worked backwards and asked each other about the habits of mind that we wanted to instill in our students.

At different points in the process, we asked parents for their input. First off, we asked parents to describe the skills and content that they most wanted their children to master their children to master. We initially wondered whether parents would have enough background or information to even engage in this discussion, so we were pleased that their goals for their children closely matched our teachers’ goals for their students. And although many of our students are only fourteen, and don’t have a particularly "long" view of education, they, too, have been helpful in setting standards for their own learning.

For now we have agreed on the following habits: invention, connection, refinement, and ownership. These are not proposed in a linear order, but rather as large concepts for us to imbed in our teaching. For each large concept or habit we ask a series of questions to help define that habit.

For invention we ask: What is my passion and how do I use it in my work? Do I take risks and push myself? What makes this work special? How do I nourish my creativity? How can I extend or play with what is given to me? What further questions could I pursue? What further possibilities could I see? How inventive am I when challenged by something difficult?

For connection we ask: Who is my audience and how do I connect my work to the audience? What am I trying to say? What can I draw from in my own personal experience? What else does this work connect to? How could I interpret or analyze this work? Why does this work matter? When is work "good"? Is this approach the only one possible? What are the implications of this approach? What is the work’s purpose or importance?

Considering the habit of refinement, we ask: What tools do I need? Have I demonstrated good craftsmanship? What are my strengths and weaknesses? When is the work finished? What further skills do I need? Have I demonstrated understanding? Have I conveyed my message?

And for ownership: How does this work affect others? What or whom is this work for? How do I find the drive to go on? What do I need to be successful? How do I approach a project and follow through? How do I advocate my work and the work of others? What am I working for? How do I cope with frustration? How do I know when to ask for help and what is the most effective way to ask? Am I proud to stand behind my work? Am I committed to my work?

We are a relatively small faculty of 35. Nevertheless, it was not easy to achieve consensus about these habits. In fact, it was not easy to achieve consensus about the very term "habits of mind." To some of us, the word "habits" had negative connotations and sounded too rigid. Others wanted stronger links to John Dewey and the idea of Progressive education. All of us wanted habits that would apply to both the academic and artistic realms, since our students spend at least ten hours a week in an art discipline. Formulating the questions that surround and define each habit helped us to focus on the kind of graduates we want.

Now, it is our job is to make these habits and our standards come alive in all our classrooms. Otherwise, our work will merely be laundry lists of "things to master" that will not have real meaning to anyone. After all, the point of having agreed-upon standards is so that they can play a vigorous role in the school community. It is fairly meaningless to have a list of science standards, if neither teachers nor students nor parents have made any serious connection to "owning" those standards. For us, habits of mind have become the framework with which to approach the learning of standards. If you possess the habits of a good learner, then the learning of content makes more sense. Otherwise, you run the risk of just accumulating facts that you will forget after the next test. At the Boston Arts Academy we want graduates who possess the habit of invention, the habit of refining work, the habit of making connections and last, but certainly not least, the habit of ownership. The work must matter to the maker, and the maker must take responsibility for the making of the work.

How will this approach help our students on the MCAS, the state-wide tests in Massachusetts that determine who graduates from high school? The MCAS, as Meier eloquently explains, are essentially an anti-democratic tool. Rather than provide a suggestive and lean set of descriptors for what Massachusetts youngsters should know and be able to do, the state has set up a system of mandated curricula that follows the laundry list approach of learning a myriad of isolated facts. In fact, the state has prevented schools from adopting an integrated science curriculum combining biology, chemistry, and physics with increasing complexity each year–an idea put forward by the National Academy of Sciences, and other pre-eminent science educators. For students to master the MCAS in tenth grade, there can be only one prescribed way to teach science. Is this really the approach we want for our children?

I think that we, as parents and educators, have allowed the politicians and policy makers to go too far. Rather than demanding that the state take responsibility for establishing minimum standards in literacy and mathematics, we have allowed the state to declare war on all schools and all teachers (and all students). I am not interested in schools that take the most important decisions about learning out of the hands of those closest to the learners–the teachers. When the state gets in the business of giving schools endless laundry lists that must be taught, we lose our ability to teach well.

I applaud Deborah Meier’s six alternative assumptions for what make good schools. Her last assumption is one that I believe is a truth: "Improved learning is best achieved by improving teaching and learning relationships." This is ultimately how students, and teachers, learn best. We must be engaged in order to learn well and for that learning to have the kind of long-lasting effect that we hope will sustain our democratic society. Otherwise, why have schools at all?

None of this is to say that the state should not be in the business of assessing some aspects of student learning. I think it is worthwhile for the state to demonstrate inequities in learning and then to provide helpful strategies for improvement. It is important for us, in this Commonwealth, to note that students in Wellesley do better on standardized tests than do students in Boston. However, the solution to this inequity is not to mandate 25 more hours of testing (as the state currently does). This will only increase the inequity. The solution is more costly, more labor intensive, and has more to do with social change than education reform. If Boston is to compete with Wellesley, we must have smaller class sizes, a longer school day, and high quality academic, arts, and physical education. We must have a well-educated teaching force with opportunities for professional development and a limit of eighty students per teacher (at least at the secondary level). If Boston is to compete with Wellesley, we must have the same quality school libraries as found in the suburbs, so that all of our students can read wonderful books. We must have clean classrooms, bathrooms and playgrounds. We must have enlightened leadership in our schools. We must have summer programs that enforce academic skills while providing enrichment opportunities. But a twenty-hour test? How does this help our students?

As for Meier’s alternative model, I object only to the word "alternative." I don’t see her model, the model I have experienced and found such success with, as alternative. I see this model as the only way our schools will continue our traditions of democracy and public schools for all young people. I invite our education policy makers and legislators to visit schools like Boston Arts Academy, Fenway High School, Central Park East, Mission Hill, or any number of Boston pilot schools. Then they will understand the kind of education that is possible for all young people.

Originally published in the February/March 2000 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |