Clear thinking leads students to the top of the form

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 February, 2013, 3:53pm

The bell rings, and while my final-year International Baccalaureate students gather their belongings, I count the lab reports they have submitted.

As I identify students who have not handed in their write-ups, I see Oliver Topping approaching my desk. Oliver has consistently met deadlines, and has always been the first to submit his assignments. I decide he is coming to request an extension on behalf of the students who have not met the deadline, and explain the difficulties they have encountered.

Oliver has listened to his classmates with empathy, and has acted as their champion during the six years I have taught him. He is an extremely intelligent young man - he completed his IGCSEs with 11 A*s. But it is the intelligent behaviour that he, and students like him, demonstrate that is the foundation of his academic and social success.

Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick call these forms of behaviour "habits of mind". The four books they wrote about discovering, engaging, assessing and sustaining 16 essential characteristics for success are used by parents and educators. The authors say the habits themselves aren't new, but there may be a new context for them in the classroom.

Simply not giving up is not enough. You must persist in looking for new ways to reach your goal when you are stuck. It's necessary to remain calm and thoughtful to manage impulsivity, and you should avoid over-generalisations and distortions, so that you can think and communicate with clarity, writes Costa.

He advises students and adults to pay attention to the world by "gathering data through all senses", and maintaining the ability to respond with wonderment and awe.

I always make an effort to regard difficulties as challenges rather than obstacles
Oliver Topping, student

Finding the world mysterious, and being intrigued with phenomena and beauty, is intrinsic to being passionate. Being able to change perspective, generate alternatives and consider options is inherent to flexible thinking.

These, along with precision and listening with empathy, are some of the characteristics intelligent people display when they are confronted with problems that they cannot immediately solve, says Costa. All 16 habits are verbs - action words - and need to be developed.

I ask Oliver's parents how they helped him develop these habits. They reply, in jest, that all they did was interfere as little as possible.

"Oliver has always been self-motivated in completing work to the best of his ability, and he has always striven for a deep understanding of what he has learned in school.

"He had learned the entire hieroglyphic alphabet by the age of seven, after he studied ancient Egypt in school, and he left notes in hieroglyphics around the house," his parents say.

"In reality," Oliver says, "by buying books and encyclopedias, my parents have always encouraged me to develop new perspectives on topics I was interested in. Every day, they would encourage me to talk about what I had learned at school, providing a forum for me to organise and consolidate it. That reinforced what I had learned, and also encouraged me to challenge it."

So I am again made aware of the importance of being interested in the topics my students want to discuss. "It made me enthusiastic, and gave me the opportunity to develop clarity and precision in communicating with different audiences. It was also a chance to critically assess what I know, and consider the implications that it may have in different disciplines, or other areas of my life," Oliver explains.

He adds: "I always make an effort to maintain a positive outlook on problems, to regard difficulties as challenges rather than obstacles, and to find humour and enjoyment in learning wherever possible."

I tell Oliver that the behaviour he has demonstrated in my classes is that which Costa and Kallick advise teachers to inculcate in their students. Does he think students find these habits of mind beneficial?

"Developing positive habits of the mind will prove valuable for the rest of one's life. Principles such as intellectual integrity, perseverance and maintaining perspective on what I know are important. I can only hope to continue to develop and apply them in my academic work and personal development," says Oliver, with a clarity and precision that would make Costa and Kallick proud.

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International School