Deeper Learning: Focus on Dispositions

What does it look like to deeply learn something? What is it that I have deeply learned? When I was in school, both high school and college, I have to say, I don’t think I was a deep learner. I couldn’t really figure out what I was supposed to do at times and other times I simply memorized whatever I needed for the test. I didn’t like school as much as I liked running, a sport that I constantly strived to be the best at and to improve my times from the last meet. I was a long distance runner. I trained when I didn’t have to – in the rain, snow, sleet and up hills. I timed myself, made plans with friends to workout when there wasn’t any practice. And my team was my family. My coach knew me better than most – he knew when to push me and when to lay off and let me figure it out on my own. I was incredibly competitive and dreamed about running, racing, and winning. I was a far better runner than I was a “student of learning,” and I thought I was just made to be that way. I didn’t understand that I could transfer the determination, constant reflection, risk-taking and strategizing that I used in running to everything else in my life until much later. It probably wasn’t until grad school, when I was doing my student teaching, that I truly knew what it was like to even want to deeply learn something besides running. So what changed? I was lucky to enroll in a graduate program that believed theory and classroom reading/lectures/discussions would not create the best teachers – so we were placed in classrooms with rosters of students early on and were encouraged to learn by doing. Suddenly, I had a reason to learn certain skills – if I didn’t learn them, how would I teach the students? That is where my learning journey began…when I was 22.

Most of what I believe about education is not because of what I learned in graduate school, though, it’s because of what I have learned afterwards that has shaped the belief I have about what school is and should be. In Chapter 2 of Deeper Learning, Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick discuss the 16 dispositions that students will need for a lifetime of learning. These dispositions or habits and patterns of intellectual behavior are critical for all learners. For reference, they are:

  1. Persisting
  2. Managing impulsivity
  3. Listening with understanding and empathy
  4. Thinking flexibly
  5. Thinking about thinking
  6. Striving for accuracy and precision
  7. Questioning and problem posing
  8. Applying past knowledge to novel situations
  9. Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision
  10. Gathering data through all senses
  11. Creating, imagining and innovating
  12. Responding with wonderment and awe
  13. Taking responsible risks
  14. Finding humor
  15. Thinking interdependently
  16. Remaining open to continuous learning

I think if these sixteen dispositions were instilled in me as a student learner early on, I can’t imagine what I would be doing now or what I would be capable of doing. If someone had helped me understand that the dates of the Civil War or the quadratic equation weren’t as important as the fact that tensions will always exist in our society, so we should use historical events to help us find patterns and that the quadratic equation helps us discern the velocities of cars that were involved in an accident, for example, maybe I would have had a different mindset about what I was learning. What if my teachers helped me realize that I had room to grow and improve like my coach did? Imagine if I had the same determination to self improve in my learning as I did in my running? To me, these 16 dispositions are a possible way to make that a reality.

So where do we start? We start by talking publicly in our classrooms, in our PLCs and in our coaching sessions with faculty and students about our own thinking. Fostering a culture where reflective practice is the norm for all learners will help us not only assess whether we are making progress in creating a deeper learning environment, but it will empower all stakeholders in a learning community to share ideas and learn from others regardless of age. To create an environment where deep learning thrives, we need to start with creating and nurturing a culture (not curriculum, content or trainings) of thinking.

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