Sabbatical – Part 3

What are these things called dispositions?

Dispositions are a bit of a edubuzz word currently and one that has increasingly been cropping up in our discussions, greatly due in part to the school’s involvement in the Maths Specialist Teacher (MST) programme where a set of mathematical dispositions are integral in developing effective mathematical habits and mindsets in our learners. Our MST teachers have a very good understanding of these dispositions but the rest of the staff are catching-up. So what are dispositions and do they fit in with a learner driven approach to learning and assessment? 

But dispositions are nothing new. Reading the text Dispositions: Reframing Teaching and Learning (Costa & Kallick, 2014), provided a wealth of information and answered many questions. It clearly outlines what dispositions are, why they are important, provides examples of different disposition sets and provides guidance for deciding on what dispositions are important for your school and learners. It also, and importantly for the context of this inquiry, devotes a chapter to Observing and Assessing Growth in Dispositional Learning which provides insights into how you might gather evidence in relation to learner progress in dispositions.

So what was learnt from this book?

  1. In essence dispositions should be thought of as thinking dispositions, “…a tendency to think in a certain way under certain circumstances” (Costa & Kallick, 2014).
  2. Literacy and numeracy (and all other traditional areas of the curriculum) continue to be important for our learners however at least equal time should be spent planning for and actively teaching dispositions.
  3. Time spent teaching dispositions (or capabilities, attitudes, tendencies, competencies… whatever you want to call them) will in turn enable learners to more effectively access the curriculum content.
  4. Prioritising dispositions within learning and curriculum design is about realigning our focus. This includes 3 reframes:
    • From knowing the right answers to knowing how to behave when answers are not readily apparent
    • From transmitting meaning to constructing meaning
    • From external evaluation to ongoing, formative self-assessment
  5. Dispositions will be different in every context and what one school may focus on will be quite different from the next and even this will change due to the changing learner profile. Just like a school vision is personal to each school, so too are dispositions. 
  6. Simply adopting an off the shelf dispositions set e.g. Habits of Mind, short cuts the process of establishing what is really important for your school’s learners. What you notice about your learners’ learning habits are a crucial to establishing what your focus is.
  7. The role of the teacher is crucial to take dispositions from words on a page to being internalised in a school’s culture, learners and learning talk. There are some key strategies that can underpin this process outlined in the book.
  8. Learner growth in dispositions cannot be assessed using traditional content based approaches. It should be continuous and ongoing, formative, rich in self-assessment. There is a great Spirals of Continuous Learning graphic that illustrates this perfectly (reminds me of my thinking back in my e-fellowship days with the ePortfolio Learning Cycle – if only I had known about this!).
Spirals of Continuous Learning, Costa & Kallick, 2004
ePortfolio Learning Cycle, Nick Rate, 2008

Finally, focused on how we might assess growth in dispositional thinking, here is a rich summary of what is required.

There are plenty of other good reads regarding dispositions including the following with an NZC or Te Whariki context:

But to be honest, I think that if you just read these or any other disposition focused text you are only getting half the picture. You need to also to read or re-read anything that outlines the essence of formative practice. Remember the good old AtoL days? Remember Shirley Clarke? Inside the Black Box? Identifying what your core set of dispositions is and embedding these in your school will fall over unless these pedagogies are deeply embedded in practice.

So beyond the list of learnings above, 2 big picture takeaways in order for us to move forward in this area…

  • Teachers need to facilitate learning rich in the underpinnings of assessment for learning where:
    • learners are involved
    • learners self-assess and receive specific descriptive feedback about learning during learning
    • learners collect, organise and communicate learning with others
    • teaching is adjusted in response to ongoing assessments
    • a safe learning environment for risk taking and focused goal setting supports learning. (Davies, 2000)

and…

  • Teachers need to provide the opportunities for learners to engage in deep thinking. They need to be sufficiently challenged to have to draw on the thinking dispositions. This may involve (Costa & Kallick, 2014);
    • making decisions
    • strategic thinking
    • long-term planning
    • creating something new
    • testing theories etc

I think I will add much more to this last list when it is compared and contrasted with a number of other texts in my reading list.

Lastly… soft skills – you have heard of that term right? People may refer to things like communication, empathy, team work etc as soft skills. Aaaaaarrrggghhh! This goes against everything I believe (and the authors of the book). Soft [dictionary definitions: easy to mould, weak and lacking courage, subtle effect…] implies that dispositions are not important where we know they are crucially important! Please join with me in banning the term sift skills!