Intellectual Dispositions

It’s a phrase from John Dewey, and it’s both intriguing (after all, don’t we want to affect students’ openness to the unknown, revitalizing and restoring the human curiosity that kids have in buckets and institutionalized schooling does so much to tamp down? and don’t we want students disposed to respond to novelty with certain kinds of attitudes and mindsets? I think we do) and a little horrifying–bringing to mind phrases like creepy “re-education” phrases like “installation of habits,” and monitoring of attitudes, and thought police.

I attended a horrifying session at a Philosophy of Education conference last fall with a couple of department colleagues that featured a pair of education professors from Northern Illinois talking about the means (and the associated problems) for assessing the intellectual dispositions that the national education standards require their program to “instill” and “measure.” They have something called “The Office of Dispositions” there. Also creepy sounding, and the effect on students was rather disturbing (they speak of getting a disposition as if it were a demerit).

I bring all of this up because of this article on new work developing Standards for Post Secondary Writing:

The task of assessing what college students learn has grown increasingly urgent in conversations about the future of higher education. For many, determining what happens in class can only be accomplished by measuring consistently applicable outcomes. It is notable, then, that the chief associations of faculty members who teach composition and writing have released guidelines for incoming students that advocate for more general approaches to writing rather than prescribing specific methods or ways to measure success…[The list] seeks to define the concepts that are associated with “deep and permanent learning.”

These concepts foster what its authors call “habits of mind” in writing, reading and critical analysis, which can be cultivated by middle and high school teachers and serve students well once they enter college or the workplace. The authors of the framework identified and defined eight such habits:

  • Curiosity, the desire to know more about the world.
  • Openness, the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking.
  • Engagement, a sense of being invested and involved in learning.
  • Creativity, the ability to use new approaches to come up with, explore and express ideas.
  • Persistence, the ability to sustain interest in a project.
  • Responsibility, the ability to understand the consequences of one’s actions.
  • Flexibility, the ability to adapt to situations and demands.
  • Metacognition, the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking and the ways knowledge is structured.

Innocuous enough of a list, it seems, but I can’t help wondering how, once it gets tied to the “outcomes” processes and methods, the whole thing won’t turn into an “Office of Dispositions” and some sort of new-progressive nightmare of Good-think.

Perhaps, I’m not disposed correctly…

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