The Significance of Habits of the Heart and Mind for Student Well-being and Engagement in Learning

Dr. Fitzroy Willis, Author and Landmark Physical Science Teacher
How do you develop habits of the mind without first addressing the heart? A survey of faculty, students and parents indicated that the root of this issue included factors such as social and parental pressures, social development, school-life balance, academic assessments, a lack of sleep, and time management. Clearly, these factors are a mix of both habits of the heart and habits of the mind. 
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Fitzroy John Willis, MS, MA, PhD is a Physical Science faculty member at Landmark Christian School and a former Bible teacher. He was an Adjunct Professor of Worldviews, Theology, Bible and Biblical interpretation at Ohio Christian University. He has a Ph.D. in Christian Theology from Regent University where he also earned an M.A. in Biblical Interpretation. Additionally, he has earned a M.S. and B.S. in Biochemistry from SUNY Health Science Center at Brooklyn and SUNY Stony Brook respectively. He is the author of Now Concerning Spiritual Things: Authentic Spirituality in Pluralistic Contexts
 (Eugene, Wipf & Stock, 2019)

How do you develop habits of the mind without first addressing the heart? Recently I attended an education conference dealing with the issue of student well-being and engagement in learning. While the ideas discussed were valuable in that they dealt with helping students reason, create, and avoid being burnt out mentally—all related to habits of the mind, there was no explicit consideration of habits of the heart like faith, service, and perseverance. Considering that we are spirit, soul (including our mind), and body, shouldn’t the best way of addressing well-being and engagement in learning explicitly deal with spiritual, academic, and physical needs? To be sure, I am concerned with addressing this issue for my Christian school context, but I am also seeking answers that are transferable to any context. Unfortunately, post-Enlightenment, academia has put up a false dichotomy between habits of the heart and habits of the mind, seemingly devaluing the former, reductionistically dismissing non-quantifiable knowledge as if knowing does not involve the whole person. Still, based on observations from the conference, the notion of core values, established and ongoing research, I maintain that there must be a balance of habits of the mind as well as habits of the heart in order to optimally provide for any student well-being and engagement in learning.

At the conference, we completed an exercise to identify the root cause and symptoms of much of the stress and disengagement among students. Then, it became very clear to me that habits of the heart were root causes of the issue of student well-being and engagement in learning. A survey of faculty, students and parents indicated that the root of this issue included factors such as social and parental pressures, social development, school-life balance, academic assessments, a lack of sleep, and time management. Clearly, these factors are a mix of both habits of the heart and habits of the mind. So, is it not reductionist to either neglect habits of the heart or overemphasize habits of the mind when addressing student well-being and engagement in learning? Immediate and explicit focus must be placed on habits of the heart even as it is for habits of the mind. This is also true when school culture is considered.

At the heart of any school’s culture are its core values. They define affiliations and influence the decisions that are being made—both on the part of the school as well as the student. So, for example, if the school’s values are not a fit for the student, they can choose another school. Likewise, if the values of the student do not fit with that of a school, the school is not obligated—if it is private—to admit them. This is important, for whenever there is not alignment in terms of values, it leads to stress and disengagement for all stakeholders and could result in a parting of the ways. So, core values are essential to all constituents. But core values never simply focus on habits of the mind, rather they are a balance of habits of the mind and heart. For example, when a Christian School values the application of God’s truth, they imply not only knowing the truths of God but also obeying them. A passion for excellence involves more than just intellectual excellence. It also includes spiritual as well as physical (body) excellence. Likewise, serving, valuing others, and embodying a community of love and grace clearly has heart and mind components. So, if core values shape a school’s culture, are important to the well-being of students, and are inextricably linked to habits of the heart, shouldn’t habits of the heart be explicitly emphasized in considering well-being and engagement?

Current research has also confirmed the importance of balancing habits of the mind and heart for a student’s well-being and engagement in learning. It has been indicated that school schedules may need revising to provide enough play, transition, and downtime for students. Project-based learning is becoming increasingly popular as a means of diversifying teaching strategies toward increased motivation. This form of assessment should afford students more choice/voice in their learning and lead to them being more engaged as they are involved in more relevant and meaningful work. Such projects address content worth being familiar with and important to know, but more importantly, they address enduring understandings—which are a balance of the heart and mind. Having a culture that communicates to students that they are cared for is also vital for student’s well-being and engagement in learning. In such a culture, every student should sense that they are valued by their school, but students should also understand the importance of honoring and respecting one another. Excellence should also be redefined comprehensively to include factors like character, the process, enduring values, high-quality relationships, collaborating, critical thinking, communicating, as well as end results. Moreover, all stakeholders—whether parents, students, faculty and coaches—should be aware of the significance of balancing habits of the heart and mind for a student’s well-being and engagement as they partner towards that end. 

Even middle school students affirm the importance of balancing habits of the heart and mind for their engagement in learning. Based on an ongoing study involving over 200 students—all who said they were Christians—66% think there is a relationship between spirituality and academic performance. These students shared that increased spirituality helps their academic performance. Also, 64% of those students think there is a relationship between a teacher’s spirituality and their academic performance. They believe that spiritual teachers want them to succeed and may tend to be more gracious towards them. Furthermore, these students advise that when habits of the heart, like praying before a test or praying for students, are exercised, they feel loved, more secure, less stressed and more motivated to learn. The question is, does this apply for non-Christian students? Shouldn’t habits of the heart be encouraged in all schools for the well-being and engagement of all students?

Conclusively, core values and research makes clear that it is vitally important that all stakeholders balance habits of the heart and mind to ensure students’ well-being and engagement in learning. There are far-reaching implications of this truth. For example, teachers should be careful to educate in a way that is sensitive to the spirit, soul, and body of their students. Parents should redefine success to appreciate every aspect of their student’s personality and giftedness. They should also be sensitive to the stress that can be caused by an overemphasis on academics. Coaches should remember that habits of the heart and mind are important for their athlete’s well-being. Schools should work to ensure a culture of love, grace, as well as responsibility and accountability, where habits of the heart and mind are balanced. Certainly, in all our spheres of influences and activities, we need to ensure a balance of habits of the heart and mind for the well-being and engagement in learning for all.
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