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Sustainable Habits of Mind: Focus on Learning, Not Knowing

Accept that the world around you is constantly changing.

To understand the dynamic world around you, gather evidence through observation, talking to others, learning about history, and other methods.

Photo taken by Caleb Haakenson

During my first visit to Istanbul, I was intrigued by the number of well-fed and, for the most part, very healthy-looking cats roaming the streets. This sight was particularly intriguing, given my experiences living in ten countries across four continents; I had not encountered such a phenomenon. My curiosity was awakened, and through conversation with locals and Google searches, I learned that the presence of cats in Istanbul is deeply rooted in cultural and religious traditions.

Cats hold a special place in Islam for their cleanliness and are often considered ritually clean, making them welcome in homes and even mosques. This reverence can be traced back to the Prophet Muhammad, who was known for his fondness for cats, particularly his cat Muezza. Cats are loved and valued for their practical role in protecting important documents from rodents. In Istanbul, this cultural affection extends to communal care, where locals collectively look after the stray cats, providing them with food, shelter, and water. This unique relationship between the residents and the cats showcases a blend of historical practices, religious beliefs, and communal responsibility, shaping the city’s distinctive approach to these feline inhabitants.

This deep-rooted cultural practice in Istanbul is a powerful metaphor for the transformative nature of education, reminding me of the importance of investigating our assumptions through observation and research. In an ever-evolving world, education as a journey rather than a destination has never been more relevant. As leaders and educators, our focus isn’t merely on what is known; it is also on the learning process. This paradigm shift from a fixed mindset of ‘knowing’ to a growth mindset centred on ‘learning’ and understanding is fundamental in fostering sustainable habits of the mind. It’s about accepting that change is the only constant and embracing the flux as an opportunity for personal, professional, and environmental growth. By adopting this shift, we empower learners to take control of their learning experiences and prepare them for a future we cannot entirely predict.

The Dynamic Nature of Knowledge

The world we inhabit is in perpetual motion—technologically, environmentally, socially, and politically. As inhabitants of this world, particularly as educators, we must accept this fluidity and prepare our learners and future leaders with static knowledge and the mindset to adapt and grow. The acquisition of facts is just the beginning; the real magic happens when learners can synthesise information, reflecting on its implications and applications in a world that refuses to stand still. Understanding the ‘Dynamic Nature of Knowledge’ is crucial as it emphasises the need for continuous learning and adaptation in an ever-changing world.

Implementation of sustainable habits of mind begins with a conscious effort to focus on the learning process. Below are some strategies educators (and individuals) can use to foster this environment. These strategies are not just theoretical; they have real-world applications that can inspire and guide our students in their learning journey.

Use the Ladder of Inference

Incorporating the Ladder of Inference, a tool designed to refine how students process information, can enhance critical thinking and decision-making in educational settings by guiding learners from observing data to drawing actionable conclusions. This method ensures assumptions are reality-based, improves adaptation to new information, and is essential for developing agile, insightful thinkers.

Encourage Evidence-Gathering

Teach students to observe, engage in conversations, delve into history, explore perspectives, and collect data for interpretation. This multifaceted approach enriches their understanding and prepares them to navigate complexities and ambiguities easily. 

Promote Metacognition

Understanding one’s thought process, or metacognition, is essential for effective learning. It involves being aware of how you learn, recognizing your strengths and weaknesses, and choosing effective strategies. The split-screen teaching approach, recommended by Kath Murdoch, for example, helps achieve this by allowing educators to focus on both the content and the learning process. For example, while students learn a scientific concept, they also actively explore their learning methods—be it through experimentation, research, or discussion. This dual focus deepens understanding and enhances self-awareness and adaptability in learning. Research in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)  further highlights the importance of self-awareness, empowering students to manage their learning experiences actively.

Cultivate Adaptability

Classrooms should be dynamic spaces that nurture adaptability. This can be done by encouraging students to explore different perspectives – an excellent opportunity to use the Sustainability Compass, try new approaches, and learn from their mistakes. We can achieve this through project-based learning, where students pivot their strategies and approaches in response to new information or challenges. This approach helps students develop adaptability skills and prepares them for the dynamic world outside the classroom.

Integrate Real-world Applications

Connect classroom learning to real-world scenarios. For instance, in a science class, students can learn about the water cycle by studying the local weather patterns. In a history class, they can understand the impact of World War II by interviewing local veterans. This makes learning more relevant and demonstrates the fluidity of applying knowledge across different contexts.

Reflective Journals

Encourage students to keep journals in which they reflect on their learning journey, noting strategies that worked, challenges faced, and insights gained. This practice reinforces metacognitive skills by encouraging students to think about how they learn and what they can do to improve. It also offers a personalised learning archive, allowing students to track their progress and see how their understanding of a subject has evolved.

Peer Teaching

Students often learn best from each other. Peer teaching activities allow them to articulate their understanding and refine their grasp of the subjects.

Real-time Feedback

Utilize technology for immediate feedback. This can be done through online quizzes or interactive learning platforms that provide instant feedback on students’ answers. This helps students understand where they are in their learning process and adjust their strategies accordingly. It also allows educators to identify areas where students may be struggling and provide targeted support.

Project-based Learning

Through projects that require research, collaboration, and problem-solving, students experience firsthand the iterative nature of learning.

Observing the well-cared-for cats of Istanbul enriched my understanding of a unique cultural context and highlighted the educational power of everyday observations. By encouraging students to explore the reasons behind their observations with open-ended questions, educators can develop their critical thinking skills and prepare them for complex real-world challenges. This approach emphasises the importance of the learning process, instilling a sense of responsibility in students’ roles as learners. For educators, fostering sustainable habits of mind involves preparing students for an unpredictable future by focusing on learning rather than mere knowledge acquisition. These habits teach students how to learn, think critically, and adapt, equipping them to thrive in a world where change is the only constant.


Picture of Elaine Reimann

Elaine Reimann

Elaine Reimann is an experienced International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme educator with over two decades of global teaching expertise. She specializes in curriculum coordination, sustainability, and systems thinking. Elaine's multilingual skills and experience across four continents enhance her cross-cultural understanding. She holds a Harvard Certificate of School Management and Leadership (CSML), a Graduate Diploma in Teaching and Learning, and a Master’s in TESOL. Elaine currently works for an international NGO in Thailand, focusing on educational initiatives and organizational effectiveness.

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