The recently completed Patterns of Thinking project was a multi-year project. The project's focus is the understanding, teaching, and assessment of thinking dispositions.

Traditionally, good thinking has been defined as a matter of cognitive ability or skill. Hence the term, "thinking skills." Certainly, good thinkers have skills. But they also have more. Passions, attitudes, values, and habits of mind all play key roles in thinking, and, in large part, it is these elements that determine whether learners use their thinking skills when it counts. In short, good thinkers have the right "thinking dispositions."

The Patterns of Thinking project has investigated several key thinking dispositions that support high-level thinking in and across subject matters. A thinking disposition is a tendency toward a particular pattern of intellectual behavior. For example, good thinkers have the tendency to identify and investigate problems, to probe assumptions, to seek reasons, and to be reflective. However, research has revealed that often learners possess thinking abilities in these areas, but aren't disposed to use them.

The project has identified three logically distinct components that are necessary for dispositional behavior: ability, inclination, and sensitivity. Ability concerns the basic capacity to carry out a behavior. Inclination concerns the motivation or impulse to engage in the behavior. Sensitivity concerns likelihood of noticing occasions to engage in the behavior. As an example, consider open-mindedness. In order to engage in an episode of open-mindedness, one has to (a) have the basic capacity to see a situation from more than one perspective, (b) feel inclined to invest the energy in doing so, and (c) recognize an appropriate occasion to be open to alternative perspectives.

Research has shown that inclination and sensitivity make unique contributions to intellectual behavior that are empirically separable from the contribution of ability. Interestingly, findings revealed that the contribution of sensitivity is larger than would have been predicted, and that it is sensitivity, rather than inclination, that appears to be the chief bottleneck in effective intellectual performance. This is a provocative finding both instructionally and from the standpoint of intelligence theory. It is instructionally provocative because the cultivation of cognitive sensitivity almost certainly presents a different sort of instructional challenge than that of directly teaching for cognitive ability. It is provocative from the standpoint of intelligence theory because sensitivity does not receive much attention in current theories of intelligence, although the research undertaken in this project suggests that it ought to.

Project Info

Project Dates: 1989 - 1998
Funder: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation


Past Staff