Increasingly we aim to teach dispositions but some care in the use of the term is required as it is easily oversimplified. While teaching for dispositions is encouraged it will have little effect if it means doing little other than engaging with the terminology. If we are to encourage the expansion of the desired dispositions, we must be sure to adequately unpack them and understand the implications in store for our culture of learning.
Put simply a disposition is a pattern of behaviours which are utilised to serve our needs in a specified situation. Dispositions may be more accurately defined as "Acquired patterns of behavior that are under one’s control and will as opposed to being automatically activated. Dispositions are overarching sets of behaviors, not just single specific behaviors. They are dynamic and idiosyncratic in their contextualized deployment rather than prescribed actions to be rigidly carried out. More than desire and will, dispositions must be coupled with the requisite ability. Dispositions motivate, activate, and direct our abilities". (Ron Ritchhart - 2002)
This definition is expertly unpacked by Art Costa and Bena Kallick in their book “Dispositions”. Some key points from this are that dispositions are not patterns of behaviours we are born with; they are malleable and changeable and as such we can alter our dispositions. Dispositions are a complex interplay of behaviours, not a singular attribute or response. Learning as a highly complex act will comprise a combination of dispositions and each disposition such as creativity will demand multiple individual skills harnessed for a common goal. Perhaps most importantly a disposition is to be understood in sufficiently broad terms defined by no single list of attributes or actions.
What is commonly missed when we teach for dispositions is that knowing the actions or skills associated with the disposition alone is not enough. To borrow from Costa and Kallick consider the disposition of skillful listening. It can be agreed that this disposition requires a certain set of skills such as attention to the speaker, reflective thinking, paraphrasing, turn taking, appropriate body-language etc. A skillful listener will have knowledge of these skills and each can be taught and thusly mastered but this alone does not make a disposition for skillful listening. The capacities required for a disposition alone are not sufficient.
This is where the triadic model of dispositional theory become important. For an individual to fully benefit from a disposition they require the capacities which it demands but also the desire to employ them and an understanding of when the disposition is required. We have all encountered the individual who has no awareness of when they should be employing their skills as a listener and the person with no desire to listen.
This model has implications for us as teachers. Not only must we teach the skills but we must also provide the required sensitivities of when a disposition should be activated and the desire to do so. While the skills may be very concrete and easily mastered the translation of skills to dispositions requires a more nuanced approach. Our students will require extensive modelling of the disposition along with opportunities which demand its application. In learning the what, the when and the significance of dispositions our students will undoubtedly make many missteps but only through repeated exposure to the ideas and with opportunities to reflect on their efforts will the desired dispositions be acquired.
There are multiple sets of dispositions we might wish to utilise or identify for our students. One set is that described by Costa and Kallick as the Habits of Mind. This set of sixteen dispositions has become popular in schools as they cover the dispositions most needed for successful learning. With the triadic model in mind the website RediQuest was developed to provide teachers and students with information about each of the sixteen habits. It uses three questions to focus attention on each element of applying a disposition. What does it mean? draws attention to the actions, beliefs and understandings which make up the disposition. Why does it matter? develops an awareness of the dispositions significance and may encourage a desire to apply the disposition. When should you use it? points to the important aspect of sensitivity to opportunities which require the disposition.
By Nigel Coutts