Working on Project Based Learning and the Habits of mind

Louise Emma Potter

Studies have shown that Project-based learning stretches a student’s ability to understand concepts that would otherwise mean nothing to them. The main point during a PBL approach is not to memorize facts or only gather information. It is to give students the sense of a real-world learning experience. When students go through this kind of learning experience, the final product, which is one of the elements in Project-Based Learning (PBL), is only a small chunk of what they were able to experience during the process. The process, the inquiry, the collaboration is much more important than the product itself. PBL takes students to learn on a different level. Thomas (2000, p.2) defines PBL as a teaching approach that involves complex tasks, based on challenging questions or problems.

PBL is not something that has suddenly appeared and is a new teaching methodology. Many philosophers and educators have talked about it before. Socrates (470-399 BC), Dewey (1859- 1957), Carl Rogers (1902 – 1987), Vygostsky (1896 -1934) and many others. They have all stressed the importance of placing students at the center of their learning while providing them with opportunities to investigate and propose solutions to real-life problems.

It all comes down to what we today call the 21st-century skills: the main objective of learning is to be able to make connections between what is happening inside the schools and real life. Unfortunately, our classes today have little link to life outside the school wall, making it harder for students to engaged in real learning.

However, our main objective is to help our students become efficient problem solvers, capable of applying what they learn through these projects to real-world issues around their communities and in the future, whatever their choices may be.

In order to do this, apart from developing projects, we know that one needs to develop skills and be conscious of certain habits in order to develop these skills. A “Habit of Mind” means having the agency to behave suitably to tackle a problem when confronted. To act adequately and intelligibly for a successful outcome. Skills alone are not enough. One needs to have certain attitudes and dispositions to act accordingly.

The Habits of Mind are an identified set of 16 problem-solving, life-related skills, necessary to effectively operate in society and promote strategic reasoning, insightfulness, perseverance, creativity and craftsmanship (Costa & Kallick, 2020). Although there are 16 of them, they are never performed isolated. One is always related to another. For example, when you listen to others—With understanding and empathy, you are also managing impulsivity and thinking flexibly. When these habits are understood by the students and referred to as behaviours that should be expected to be seen in the different stages of a project, the outcomes of our student’s learning skills are definitely enhanced.

Below are the 16 habits and ideas of how to apply them in the classroom:

1. Persisting: Sometimes we know how difficult it is to stay focused and not get frustrated when things do not work out. Many students give up at their first shot at an activity and say "I give up. It is too difficult". Have students think about famous people such as Steve Jobs and how he persisted to make something work out. If it does not work out the first time, try, try again. In classes based on the PBL approach, students are challenged to go beyond.

2. Managing Impulsivity: Haven`t they always said: Patience is a virtue. When working in small groups, have students realise if they are impulsive and interrupt or want to be the center of attention. Have them notice if they listen to others or if they take time to think things over. Encourage them to think before speaking or acting.

3. Listening with Understanding and Empathy: Respecting classmates` thoughts and listening to ideas is the best way to manage impulsivity. As stated above, many habits work together. Relating to other ideas and expressing sympathy while listening to people make people feel acknowledged and understood. Many mistakes and judgments are done for not listening attentively. Unfortunately, listening is not a skill taught in schools.

4. Thinking Flexibly: Our brain’s plasticity is a blessing. Edward deBono said“If you never change your mind, why have one?”. Been flexible allows you to have options and alternatives. In debates, have students put themselves in other people`s shoes and encourage them to look through different lenses, different perspectives. Encourage students to take the place of a writer or a songwriter and imagine what he/she was going through at the time they wrote the piece.

5. Thinking about Thinking (Metacognition): Mapping out how you think is not an easy task. Working with thinking routines helps teachers help students be aware of their own thoughts, feelings, intentions and actions. Building strategies and putting them into action, working with design thinking, building mind maps are all important elements when working with PBL.

6. Striving for Accuracy: Checking for errors, especially when we have written something or finished an activity is not an easy task as our mind is set on what we wrote. Encourage students to share their work with each other before handing them in. Peer correction is an act of respect as well. As well as respect, it teaches students to give feedback. Being anxious to hand in work to get rid of it instead of working on its accuracy is a terrible mistake many of us are guilty of.

7. Questioning and Posing Problems: Asking questions is far more challenging than answering them. Use the Question Formulation Technique to encourage students to become constant inquirers. Have students realise that questions vary in complexity, structure and purpose. Have a word wall of questions where students can post questions of any sort during the week. Look at them periodically and have students research for answers.

8. Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations: We all learn from experience. Making connections with previous knowledge makes learning more meaningful. Ask students: Where have a heard this? Where have I seen it? Use text to text, text to self and text to world connections to encourage students to activate Schema.

9. Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision: Being clear and accurate avoids misunderstandings. Invite students to process their thoughts before speaking and writing in order to be accurate instead of vague. In writing assignments and presentations, make sure students get their acts and thoughts on track. Have them be precise of their opinions by supporting them with explanations, comparisons, quantification, and evidence.

10. Gathering Data through All Senses: Our sensory pathway is one of the main routes to the brain. How many times have you passed by a store and a scent reminded you a friend of yours? The impact of our five senses is much greater than we imagine. Have students understand the importance of each one of them. Ask them: How does it make you feel? Does this taste right? What can you observe? Can you touch it with your heart? Does it smell right?

11. Creating, Imagining, Innovating: Everything about Project Based Learning is thinking outside the box. Encourage students to think creatively before critically. Divergent before convergent. We are not born creative; we can learn it. Creative people listen, change, imagine, communicate.

12. Responding with Wonderment and Awe: Learning is about passion. Learning is about being curious. If we are not passionate or curious about something, there is no point in studying it. Have students use all the senses to be inspired by what the world can offer and what they can offer the world.

13. Taking Responsible Risks: If we don’t risk it, we will never know. Making mistakes is usually seen as a failure, however, it is definitely part of learning and risk-taking. Allow students to allow themselves to fail. Allow students to understand when the risk is worth taking. Experience, time and flexibility teach us a lot about risk-taking. The student should begin in the classroom, where they can feel supported.

14. Finding Humour: We all know the positive outcomes of good humour. Laughter helps us become creative, helps our relationships. Laugh at each other, laugh at yourself. Don’t take everything too seriously but take things responsibly. Laughter makes things lighter.

15. Thinking Interdependently: We are social beings. We don’t and can’t live isolated. We learn better in groups. What we do and how we do things is interconnected with all the people around us. Decisions taken will have consequences. Group work and pair work allows students to understand their commitment to living interdependently.

16. Remaining Open to Continuous Learning: No one knows everything. Learning is dynamic, the world is fluid, it is a never-ending story. Teach students to revisit old ideas in order to find a new one. Everyone can teach us something. Have an open mind to the world. We should all be in a continuous learning mode.

Having read and understood the habits of mind, choose to work on three or four of them during different stages of the project. They can work as mental disciplines. Point out the different habits students should pay attention to while working on the project. It is an excellent challenge and students will definitely be able to notice which habit they might need working on. When they are stuck in thoughts and creativity, have them ask: What habit of mind should I work on now?

Costa, A and Kallick, B (2009) Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Characteristics for Success. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Costa, A. (1991) The Search For Intelligent Life. In A. Costa, (Ed.) Developing Minds: A Resource Book for Teaching Thinking: pp. 100-106 Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

DeBono, E. (1991) The Cort Thinking Program in A. Costa (Ed) Developing Minds: Programs for Teaching Thinking. Alexandria, VA pp. 27-32: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.