Do your students ever complain that “it’s just too hard”?

Many students believe that what they find easy and what they find difficult are permanent categories. We hear students say things like, “I’ll never be good at …” For them, tasks that are hard today will always be hard. But this isn’t only short-sighted; it’s plain wrong.

Wouldn’t it be great if teachers could tell students there’s a way to make hard things easy? That the tasks they struggle with now don’t always have to be difficult? Fortunately, there is a way. And it’s not about students taking an easier option. It’s about learning to be smarter and getting better at their Habits of Mind.

Let me explain by clearing up some common misunderstandings about what behaving intelligently and what ’difficult‘ mean.

What does it mean to behave intelligently? From the Fixed Mindset perspective, you’re either intelligent or you’re not. You must ’be‘ intelligent. But from the Growth Mindset perspective, intelligence is something you can develop. It’s what you do, not who you are. Intelligence is about how you learn to behave – and it’s those ’intelligent behaviours‘ that were recognised by Professor Art Costa and Dr Bena Kallick.

Costa and Kallick identified the common patterns of behaviours of peak performers. They defined these Habits of Mind as the dispositions that are skilfully and mindfully employed by characteristically successful people when confronted with problems, the solutions to which are not immediately apparent. In short, the Habits of Mind are how successful people behave. See the following table.

It’s important to take note of the words skilfully and mindfully in this definition. The Habits aren’t static behaviours that some people engage with, and others do not. And they certainly aren’t a list of behaviours students need to start ’using‘. Rather, they are behaviours that must be developed, extended, built upon, and matured.

Costa and Kallick found that when characteristically successful people were confronted with challenging situations, they shifted their focus from what they were learning to how they were learning. They learnt to behave in new, more sophisticated – and more intelligent – ways. As a result, they were eventually able to succeed at those challenges. And this is precisely how we make hard things easy.

We experience difficulty, or struggle, when our Habits of Mind are not sufficiently developed for the task we’re attempting. The task itself isn’t inherently difficult. The difficulty is relative to the development of our Habits of Mind. Fortunately, we can develop these behaviours, and as we do, things we find hard become easy!

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. When you were in Year 5, you found the topics you were learning difficult. We all did. They were challenging because you hadn’t developed the necessary behaviours. But in the following years, you learnt how to behave more intelligently. You developed your Habits of Mind. And today, anything at a Year 5 standard is easy for you. Back then, you weren’t smart enough to do those tasks. But over time, you developed your Habits of Mind, became smarter, and now Year 5 tasks are a breeze.

However, although it’s easy in hindsight to recognise that you have developed your Habits of Mind, were you aware of their development at the time? For many of us, maturing our Habits was something that just ’happened’. Our teachers led us to cultivate our Habits of Mind, but we probably weren’t aware of it. And that’s a big problem.

When the development of students’ Habits of Mind is an incidental part of learning, they may be unaware of what’s happening. They are left with no insight into why hard things have become easy. They also lack the language to describe how they learn, let alone understand how to develop their Habits. The consequence of this? Students can’t take control of the process for themselves.

Skilful learners embrace the language of the Habits of Mind to describe and understand their learning. This language acts as a cognitive anchor, enabling students to reflect on their own thinking. With that language at their disposal, they are more aware of how their behaviours are developing. Ultimately, they can take charge of that development – not only recognising it, but also actively cultivating it.

The Habits of Mind are more than a learning tool. They are a way to help students shift their focus from what they are learning to how they are learning. They give students the power to take charge of their development as learners and the confidence that although a task might be challenging today, it doesn’t have to remain that way. By developing their Habits of Mind, learners can make hard things easy.