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Using Thinking Dispositions in the Classroom

Posted by Kate Seat on Feb 23, 2016 8:00:00 AM
Topics: K-12, teaching strategies, Marketing to Students

How often do you take stock of how you think?

While it’s likely that many of us rarely take much time to examine our thought process — after all, it’s instinctive for a reason — by becoming aware of your own tendencies, you can become a more effective thinker.

This also translates to the classroom. Because your students have their own predispositions, identifying these traits will not only help them learn, but may also result in a more productive learning experience.


The most common thought patterns, or “thinking dispositions,” are based on characteristics like motivation, attitude and emotion, according to "Teaching Thinking Dispositions: From Transmission to Encultration." 

What characterizes a good thinker? To be sure, a good thinker possesses certain abilities:
cognitive capabilities, as well as thinking strategies and skills. Yet what sets good thinkers apart
is not simply superior cognitive ability or particular skills; rather, it is their abiding tendencies to
explore, to inquiry, to seek clarity, to take intellectual risks, to think critically and imaginatively.

These tendencies can be called "thinking dispositions."

(Tishman, et al.;Teaching Thinking Dispositions: From Transmission to Enculturation, 1992.)

Researchers have established seven primary dispositions, which include the following:

  1. Open-mindedness: The tendency to explore alternative views and the ability to generate multiple options
  2. Intellectual curiosity: The tendency to observe closely, to ask questions and find problems
  3. Truth-seeking: A desire to understand clearly, to seek connections and explanations and an awareness of a lack of clarity
  4. Being strategically-minded: a goal-setter with the tendency to make and execute plans and an alertness to lack of direction
  5. Intellectual precision: The urge for organization and thoroughness, with an alertness to possible error or inaccuracy and the ability to process information well
  6. Asking questions: The tendency to demand justification and evidence, with the ability to weigh and assess reasons
  7. Being metacognitive: The tendency to be aware of and monitor the flow of one's own thinking; alertness to complex thinking situations; the ability to exercise control of mental processes and to be reflective

Classroom application

While the list above may seem overwhelming, identifying each student's individual disposition right from the start isn't actually necessary. Instead, you can start with one — for example, open-mindedness — and explore the traits associated with that method as an entire class. The following video explains how to get started:

Key factors

The three factors that are essential to developing any of the thinking dispositions are ability, inclination and sensitivity.

Ability is the capacity or knowledge necessary to carry out a behavior. While this is frequently taught in the classroom, without the inclination (or motivation) to put it into practice, and the sensitivity to recognize situations where it would be appropriate, merely having ability isn't particularly beneficial.

In the classroom

Historically, there has often been an emphasis on teaching ability and inclination, but sensitivity may have been omitted. To enhance learning, it is essential to teach all three factors.

Below is a hypothetical scenario explaining how thinking dispositions can be put into practice:

During a nature hike, Mrs. Jones' class comes to a clearing on the trail where they see two sets of animal tracks heading toward one another. When the footprints meet, a chaotic pattern emerges, and only one set leaves the clearing. Mrs. Jones asks her students to imagine what could have happened.

At first, many of the students speculated that there was a brawl between the two animals and one was left to die. This certainly explains what could have happened, but Julie is not satisfied with this answer. She suggests that the two sets of tracks were made at entirely different times, the earlier track was made by an injured animal that died in the clearing, and later the second animal walks by and eats the remains. Later, she follows the footprints showing that the first track is an awkward stride, which is a result of limping. This shows that she can test her theories and provide an explanation for her classmates.

Further application

The classroom needs to be an open place where students can feel comfortable sharing and exploring problems. Lessons should provide opportunities for students to explore problems, like the trails in the woods, where they can come to their own conclusions.

One way to identify how their individual students reason most effectively is to have them keep a journal of their feelings. This helps teachers recognize times of curiosity, which can signal further opportunities to question and probe.Similarly, doubt provides opportunities to test and critique. Lastly, feelings of empathy signal opportunities to explore alternative perspectives. This not only helps the teacher see what perspective the students are most aligned with, it also helps students develop their sensitivity by analyzing situations in their daily lives.

When students are able to recognize and use their dispositions, it helps them foster confidence in their abilities and can result in a greater acceptance of others for the rest of their lives.


About Kate Seat

Kate Seat is a former copywriter at MBS. When away from work, she’s either creating one-of-a-kind art dolls, reading or watching way too much tv with her husband, daughter and an irritable chinchilla named Klaus.

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