Friday, May 4, 2012

Habits of Mind, Body and Soul

One of the benefits of getting on in years is that one has accumulated a considerable amount of experience upon which to dwell and reflect. Now while I am no Marilu Henner there are certain things that I remember quite well. Some are images and some are events like the first time I fell off my bicycle. But many of them are facts and ideas that I learned or became aware of that have stuck with me throughout the years. Facts such as Arun, Ouse, Rother, Stour, Medway, Darnet, Mole and Wey have been of little use to me once I got through my Geography exam at the end of my third year in College. There are other ideas, however, that have stuck and gone on to serve as a foundation for what I believe teaching, or even life, is all about. These ideas are often called the 'residue' of educational experiences we have had both in and outside the classroom.

The idea of dispositions, or habits of mind, body and soul, was first presented to me and my fellow grad students in a graduate class I took at the University of Illinois. The class was team-taught by Jim Raths and Lilian Katz and was always known as the "Rats and Cats" class. I probably took the class in 1980 as part of my doctoral program.

Katz's brief article (the first in this Google list) has always been, for me, the definitive explanation of why it is so important to make the teaching of dispositions such a vital, if not difficult, part of the educational process. Katz defines a disposition as "a tendency to exhibit frequently, consciously, and voluntarily a pattern of behavior that is directed to a broad goal." The classic example is that we can teach children how to read, a skill set, but will they regularly pick up a pick to read for enjoyment, a disposition. 

Over the years, the inclusion of dispositions in the school curriculum has faded primarily because of the difficulty of both teaching them and assessing them in an education world dominated by the setting and evaluation of specific performance standards. Perhaps it's time to take up the gauntlet again and look at ways we can help students, and ultimately, adults, develop positive dispositions to guide their actions and thinking. 

The list of facts I learned for my third year Geography exam? They are the rivers that drain the southeastern part of England below London!! I never know when I might need that desperately important piece of information! On the other hand it's fun to be able to recite them whenever I feel the need.       


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