I am firm believer in independent thinking, and I was appalled by an article brought to my attention that appeared in a The New York Times, highlighting a system known as Habits of Mind. This learning system has been instituted in over 300 schools globally, according to the article. Its methodology has troubled me, due to the fact that it appears to emphasize a uniform way of thinking. I feel extremely adamant that education should not only be used as a way to learn but as a path to self- discovery. What I have valued most in my education is the liberty to compare and contrast different ideas and opinions with others who may not be like minded. I believe that to get to the point of an idea is to have productive conflicts in a learning environment. Is there need for a dictatorial system, such as Habits of Mind, to exist in a classroom?
In my New York City middle school, we held a mock Congressional hearing where we aired our separate viewpoints on the Indian Removal Act. This was a perfect lesson on collaboration and independence, as we were encouraged to express ourselves, while respecting the ideas of others. I feel that to manipulate an individual’s thoughts is morally wrong. However, the Habits of Mind system can be exploited to alter students’ thinking process, and be viewed as a form of brain-washing. For example,I was shocked to learn that the system “exhorted students to live by the 16 traits” that it revolves around. Equally offensive, the article also states that these very habits “are posted on signs around the school and serve as a constant reminder of how students are expected to behave.” Reading this, I felt that the schools that choose to institute this system are going beyond educating into tampering with the students’ minds.
Serving as “a constant reminder of how students are expected to behave,” Habits of Mind can be viewed as a way to manipulate students and create a one dimensional way of thinking throughout the student body. Schools placed signs with pointed slogans around the campus. Some of these slogans include, “Listening with Understanding and Empathy: Understand and respect others!,” “Take Responsible Risks: Venture out! Try something new!;” and finally, “Responding with Wonderment and Awe: Have fun figuring it out!” Ironically, all these slogans are cutting out the need to think independently. These slogans are not only telling the students what to do, they are also directing them how to do it. This comes across most clearly in the sub-slogans with their attempt to make the most basic actions that any student could figure out for herself or himself seem beyond the student’s reach. In addition, in a fascistic way, the sub-slogans all end in an exclamation point. Clearly, this kind of punctuation is meant to make the students think that what the slogans are doing is actually very important, further warping the students’ thinking process.
Even more ominously than the mind controlling slogans, is the attitude of the administration, specifically the assistant principal of one highlighted school. She herself said that she “viewed herself as a life coach for the students.” Plainly stated, she believes that her job extends beyond setting academic standards to showing the students the way they should act inside and outside of school. Isn’t the entire point of adolescence to make mistakes that you can learn from, and to let go of the adult supervision that you lived by in childhood? When it comes to discipline, “she said that when students are sent to her office … she asked them to reflect on how they failed to follow one or more of the Habits of Mind.” Can you actually punish a student for not “Responding with Wonderment and Awe” or not “Finding Humor?” The reader is also told that the assistant principal frequently visits classes to grill students on how they are thinking. Being metacognitive is a very important part of the sixteen steps of Habits of Mind. However, when the students branch out into the real world, they will have no one to guide and grill them on their thinking process–essentially they will be stranded in a world that demands them to be able to think on their own, without guidance. On contrast, the mock Congressional hearing I participated in at my school reflects values such things as questioning existing standpoints and even challenging one’s own views.
Clearly independent thinking is not the goal at any school that implements the Habits of Mind approach. The best example of this is when a student did not speak out in class. He wanted to say that he disliked a certain politician who lives in a near- by town, stating, I realized that there might be people in the room who might be offended by that, and I didn’t say it,” he said. The reason this student did not speak his opinion was because of the Habits of Mind step that states, “Managing Impulsivity” which stresses self-control, but easily can turn into self-censorship, as is the case with the above student.
It seems that there is a fine line between following Habits of Mind and losing your free will. However, isn’t the point of school, and democracy itself, to speak your mind and state your opinion without fear that someone may disagree with it? Wherever one goes, someone else will be there to disagree with you. In the end, Habits of Mind is setting up students to fear conflict, and be followers rather than leaders.
Yasmin Andrews, Age 12, Grade 7, PS126/MAT, Silver Key