Posted by: Dan | June 15, 2006

Habits of Mind and science literacy

Regarding the dismal level of the public’s understanding of important concepts of science and the easy confusion of the public on science issues, I’ve previously alluded to the promotion of critical thinking and “Habits of Mind.” Here, I’ll try to explain what I mean by Habits of Mind, and describe the vital tools of critical thinking that are desperately needed to be emphasized in many discussions of science and education in the public sphere.

Habits of Mind are the characteristics of what intelligent people do when they are confronted with problems, the resolutions of which are not immediately apparent.(Costa, referenced below)

More specifically, Costa and Kallick describe this critical attribute of intelligent human beings:

By definition, a problem is any stimulus, question, task, phenomenon, or discrepancy, the explanation for which is not immediately known. Thus, we are interested in focusing on student performance under those challenging conditions that demand strategic reasoning, insightfulness, perserverence, creativity, and craftsmanship to resolve a complex problem. Not only are we interested in how many answers students know, but also in knowning how to behave when they DON’T know. Habits of Mind are performed in response to those questions and problems the answers to which are NOT immediately known. We are interested in observing how students produce knowledge rather than how they merely reproduce knowledge. The critical attribute of intelligent human beings is not only having information, but also knowing how to act on it.

Costa and Kallick continue to describe 16 Habits of Mind(PDF) reflecting:

  1. Value: Choosing to employ a pattern of intelectual behaviors rather than other, less productive patterns
  2. Inclination: Feeling the tendency toward employing a pattern of intellectual behaviors
  3. Sensitivity: Perceiving opportunities for, and appropriateness of employing the pattern of behavior
  4. Capability: Possessing the basic skills and capacities to carry through with the behaviors
  5. Committment: Constantly striving to reflect on and improve performance of the pattern of intellectual behavior

Among the specific 16 items listed by Costa and Kallick, I was most struck by the following: Thinking Flexibility, Thinking About our Thinking (Metacognition), Questioning and Posing Problems, and Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision.

The AAAS has a similar book out titled “Science for All Americans,” which discusses Habits of Mind in Chapter 12. That accounting of Habits of Mind describes 5 aspects:

  1. Values and Attributes, including knowledge of the social values inherent in science, mathematics and technology, and attitudes towards learning in these and other disciplines. In particular, science education is in a particularly strong position to foster three general societal values: curiousity, openness to new ideas, and informed skepticism.
  2. Computation and Estimation: thinking skills that enable knowledge to be understood and applied effectively in solving problems.
  3. Manipulation and Observation: “Everyone should acquire the ability to handle common materials and tools for dealing with household and other everyday technologies, for making careful observations, and for handling information.”
  4. Communcation Skills: “Discourse in science, mathematics, and technology calls for the ability to communicate ideas and share information with fidelity and clarity, and to read and listen with understanding. Some of the skills involved are specific to science, mathematics, and technology, and others are general—although even those are not independent of content.”
  5. Critical-response Skills: “In various forms, the mass media, teachers, and peers inundate students with assertions and arguments, some of them in the realm of science, mathematics, and technology. Education should prepare people to read or listen to such assertions critically, deciding what evidence to pay attention to and what to dismiss, and distinguishing careful arguments from shoddy ones. Furthermore, people should be able to apply those same critical skills to their own observations, arguments, and conclusions, thereby becoming less bound by their own prejudices and rationalizations. Although most people cannot be expected to become experts in technical fields, everyone can learn to detect the symptoms of doubtful assertions and arguments.”

It seems that the vast majority of the public fail dismally with regards to these skills. This is evident in the ease with which various groups confuse, distort and obfuscate the public’s understanding of any politicized area of science – intelligent design, climate change denial, etc. And it is with these skills that the public stands a chance at seeing through the veiled agendas of such groups and effecting meaningful changes in areas of science of societal interest.

Science for All Americans is a great step towards promoting the public’s Habits of Mind, and science literacy in general. And while I mention the utility of such skills in politicized areas of science, these skills are of great import to just about every human endeavor. For a species which relies on ingenuity and innovation above all else, our indefinite success as a branch of the tree of life may depend upon such skills (think geologic timescales here).

Why do we not explicitly hear more about these Habits of Mind in all levels of education?


  1. Craig commentsat my other blog, A Concerned Scientist:

    The article interests me because the subject is important. In general, I somewhat liked the essay and I thought for a while about excerpting two or three paragraphs for my own blog. But the article was very abstract for a general audience.

    I think it would help to work back and forth between the perfectly fine statements about science literacy and a concrete example or two. The high price of gasoline might be a good place to start. What\’s the problem? The high price of gas. What else can we say or ask? Then it might be useful to bring in concrete questions that can be framed from the viewpoint of who, what, where, when, why and how.

    There are even aspects of the high price of oil that can be illustrated by actual or thought experiments to develop critical skills (for example, pumping out oil at a faster rate creates the illusion that there is more oil; two quarts of milk can test the idea).

    Indeed I am referencing rather abstract issues that might be answered much better by a professional educator who could design useful strategies for exercising critical thinking skills. And there are a long list of topics that would be well-served by bulking up on such skills – figuring out whether we as individuals are being deceived by oil companies far from the only one – in additon to peak oil, there\’s the debates on climate change, evolution, stem cells and abortion, missile defense, toxic release inventory, fuel efficiency standards and the auto industry, wind/solar/nuclear/etc. energy alternatives, invasive species, and so on.

  2. Interesting stuff…thanks!

    I wish I had time to comment with more depth and coherency. I just stumbled upon this essay by Daniel Yankelvich, and it struck me as complementary to Habits of Mind:

    I suspect we could synthesize some useful ideas from both sources.

    Thanks again for your contribution to thoughtful public dialog.



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