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My daughter recently started 6th grade in a new school, and last week I attended their “Back to School” night.  Oddly, we weren’t allowed to actually bring my daughter back to the school that night.  Instead, we parents were the ones going “back to school” — not for classes or embarrassing playground teasing, but just to be introduced to our children’s teachers and their plans for the year.

After a twenty-minute recorded video introduction to the county’s new grading standards — clearly designed to allow tardy parents like me a few minutes’ grace before the real presentations began — my daughter’s teacher began to speak to us about her classroom and the kinds of work the students would be doing this year.  I liked this teacher immediately — she was shorter than my daughter, not much younger than my mother, and full of energy without coming across as capricious.  She clearly took her work, her students, and this presentation seriously.

I perked up when we got to the part of her printed handouts that talked about the “16 Habits of Mind“.  These were attributes identified by Professors Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick which they described as “what human beings do when they behave intelligently”.  My daughter’s teacher explained that these professors examined the behaviors of hundreds of well-known and obscure successful people, and were able to determine that these 16 traits — each of which could be developed by anybody as a new, healthy habit — are the ones most strongly correlated with success.  Some are obviously school-friendly habits like “thinking and communicating with clarity and precision” and “striving for accuracy,” but others were broader, like “finding humor,” “responding with wonderment and awe,” and “persistence.”   For the past few years, my daughter’s teacher explained, she had been encouraging her students to develop these habits themselves, and she felt it had really helped them.

I thought this was great, in large part because I had recently completed a project at work designed to help my law students cultivate a different set of attributes — this set specifically derived for success in legal practice — and I was happy to see a more general version of this train of thought being applied here.  I eagerly turned to the page listing these 16 Habits of Mind to see what I could get out of it.

But, first, before I examined the substance of the list, I had to count it.  I mean, wouldn’t you?  This is not some kind of compulsion or anything; it’s just what I do when someone says, “Here are 16 things.”  I make sure there are 16 things.  It’s like if someone asked me to bring these 10 pens to someone else’s office or put these 34 M&Ms into that candy dish.  If they mention the number specifically, they’re practically begging you to count them, right?  So, I counted the 16 Habits of Mind.

Except they weren’t.  There were only 15.

I triple checked.  It was true.  The habits “striving for accuracy” and “communicating with clarity and precision” were there, but one was missing.  (Eventually I figured out it was “thinking flexibly.”)

What could I do?  I wasn’t trying to cause trouble, but I couldn’t let this pass.  I didn’t want my daughter to grow up thinking that there were 15 ounces in a pound.

So after the teacher finished her presentation, I very tactfully sidled up to her and introduced myself.  Then, when none of the other parents were looking, I told her: I’m sorry, but you’ve only got 15 Habits of Mind listed here.

She laughed, which was absolutely the right response.  “Really?  You know, I’ve used these same materials the past couple of years, and no one has ever pointed this out!  Thank you so much!”

So now all ends well, and future generations of students will celebrate their Sweet Sixteenth birthday in the right year, and I am glad I spotted and mentioned the error.  But I am still not sure if was exercising a healthy Habit of Mind or an OCD Habit of Mine.  Maybe sometimes there isn’t much difference.