Planting the ‘habits of experts’

A teacher from Vermont wrote in about discovering our “Habits of Experts” list last June, and using them to prompt reflective writing exercises that wrapped up his students’ year. That worked so well that now he wants to start the year with such work. Here are John’s thoughts–what would you add to them?

Ever since I encountered a discussion of the importance of metacognition in Arthur Costa’s Teaching for Intelligent Behavior, I have tried to encourage students to think about how they learn and how they can get better at it. Each year I tried different approaches that both encouraged metacognition and introduced the students to new ideas: Plato’s idea of the Form of the student, Pirsig’s idea of quality, Crawford’s idea of practical progress in excellence. These met with mixed results; I would say usually the students were tolerant but not enthusiastic!

This last school year I decided to try something new. I was struck by the list of “habits of experts” presented in Fires in the Mind. Near the end of the year I explained to the students what the book was about and asked them to think about how they had become more expert as learners in this course (a senior-level honors course). I presented them with the following prompt:

Think about your work in this class over this last year. Look at this list of habits of experts. Pick one of the habits and one incident or action by you in this class this year that shows that you have begun to develop the habits of an expert learner. Describe that incident or action. Make the description as detailed as possible so that the reader will fully understand why you chose this episode to illustrate your growing expertise.

The results were exactly what I hoped for: insightful, honest, real, and demonstrative of a mature self-awareness. Sara, for instance, wrote about how she had volunteered to be the mediator when the students had role-played a negotiation between the humans and animals in Animal Farm as part of a unit on negotiations. She had consciously sought out new challenges. Ian discussed how had decided to welcome critiques of his papers, even though up until then he had resisted the process. Nick had considered other perspectives in our studies of various theories of human nature and had found himself much more open to alternative views of political, economic, and other realities.

I think this would be much more effective if I were to give the list of habits of experts to the students at the start of the year, explain to them the sort of topics and activities I envisioned in the course throughout the year, and then ask them to write about their goals for personal growth as learners. With periodic check-ins, this should result in even more development of metacognitive abilities and conscious practice of intellectual skills.


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