Teaching the Habits of Mind

December 2012 • Sue Jackson

Last month's teaching tip explored the Habits of Mind that thinkers use in problem situations. This month's tip examines: How do I teach the habits of mind?

"Much like the healthy habit of brushing teeth, which develops through prompting to become nearly automatic, building positive and productive thinking behaviours needs guidance to become something one usually does. As with other habits, establishing these [habits of mind] takes time, practice, and constant reminders to become reliable tools for thinking and doing." (Nine Thousand Straws: Teaching Thinking Through Open-Inquiry Learning, Knodt, 2008, p. 26)

Step 1 — Valuing the Habits of Mind Yourself

In schools where the Habits of Mind help promote a whole-school learning culture, teachers work collaboratively to explore and unpack the sixteen habits with colleagues, prior to introducing them to students. To begin this process, take each Habit of Mind and think about personal and professional experiences where you use this habit and what it looks like when you are engaged in this type of thinking. For example, a focussed conversation about the habit of 'Persisting' might include:

From here, develop a working definition for the habit, using personal examples. Also consider situations where it is appropriate to use a specific Habit of Mind and others where it isn't useful. For example, 'persisting' is useful if students are asked to try something new whereas it is not useful in a brainstorming activity. Next, think about how you might introduce the habit to students. In the case of 'persisting', could you provide a personal experience with persistence or read a text about a character who demonstrates the habit or provide students with a group task where they use this habit? Developing this deeper understanding and appreciation for these intellectual dispositions ensures you are better prepared to foster, model, and recognize them in students.
*adapted from www.habitsofmind.co.uk/teaching-habits.html

Step 2 — Teaching the Habits of Mind

Part A — Building Awareness

When introducing the Habits of Mind to students, you might want to provide an overview activity and then present the habits one at a time

Understanding the language and definitions of the Habits of Mind is an important first step in exploring them and seeing their value. Begin by working as a class to 'operationalize' each Habit of Mind by translating it into observable behaviours. Encourage students to provide examples from their own experiences to help define the habit. Ask students to consider what a habit looks like, sounds like, and feels like in real situations. For example, provide a classroom context and then prompt descriptions of the behaviour using:

Looks like:
Sounds like:
Feels like:
  • What facial expressions would you see?
  • What body language would you see?
  • How would the person relate in relation to others?
  • What would this look like outside of the classroom?
  • What words do you hear?
  • What other noises?
  • How might I talk to myself?
  • What advice might you give to a friend who needs to _____?
  • How does this change if you are outdoors?
  • Is there one feeling or emotion or several?
  • Do the feelings change?
  • Does everyone have the same feelings?

Remember to keep statements positive in nature as it is impossible to see or collect evidence of the absence of performance (e.g., Not happy). Use a Y chart to record the students' observations and suggestions. From this experience, help students create operational definitions and record their ideas on anchor charts with descriptors and logos for each of the Habits of Mind.


You can encourage students to use the terminology as they reflect on their thinking. Simply being aware of, and having the language of, the Habits of Mind, "seems to act as a cognitive anchor or trigger, allowing students to monitor and describe their own thinking" (Developing Habits of Mind in Elementary School, Boyes and Watts, 2009).

Part B — Developing Personal Understanding

Once you have introduced the Habits of Mind to students, there are many activities that help students develop a personal understanding of each habit and then allow them to begin to identify the habit in themselves and others.

  1. Personal Expression Activity
    - Ask students to draw and write about what a habit means to them. Remind students to think about what a person employing the habit might say, what they might look like (e.g., facial expression and body language), and the affect they might have on others. Ask about what other situations might be appropriate to use this habit.
  2. Read Aloud
    • Read aloud a story where the characters exemplify a habit (or do not model the habit). Hold a discussion focusing on what the character looked like, sounded like, and felt like and the effect of using this habit on both the character and others around the person. Ask students to describe how the outcome of the text might have been different if the person had not demonstrated the Habit of Mind.
    • For a bibliography of read aloud texts at various grade levels that demonstrate each habit of mind, visit the website: www.instituteforhabitsofmind.com.
    • If you are working with primary students, you may want to check out this poetry book that reinforces each Habit of Mind: The Mindful Garden of Verses by Marie Ciota.
  3. Habits of Mind Games — Habit Matching and Concentration
    - Have students play various games to promote a broader understanding of each of the Habits of Mind and to develop the language skills in relation to the habits. The cards and instructions for these two games can be found at: www.habitsofmind.org/FreeResources.

For further information on teaching the Habits of Mind, please refer to the following professional resources: